Stetson Bennett’s story, a testament to the community that nurtured him

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Later that night, Morgan channeled Nostradamus by phoning a friend, “You can call me crazy now, I promise you the University of Georgia will one day have a quarterback named Stetson Bennett. You can see it in his eyes. It will start for them. And he’s on our football field right now.

Build a foundation in the new hometown

The boy who put them on the set at Brantley could help put one in the dusty Bulldogs trophy case on Monday night during the college football playoff championship game against Alabama. Bennett’s outsider story was made possible by the community that raised him; from Brantley, where he moved in first grade, to Blackshear, Pierce County, where he moved in eighth grade and which he considers home.

Blackshear embodies the oft-cited mantra “faith, family, football”. It’s a city where everyone knows each other. “Hello” begins with warm hugs and family-centered questions. “Goodbye” is styled with “I love you”. Football, as one might imagine, has unanimous approval ratings (as does Kirby Smart’s current management of his quarterbacks).

Blackshear’s population, according to the 2020 census, was just over 3,500 (Perspective: The University of Georgia welcomed 5,800 freshmen in August 2021). It lies 60 miles northeast of Waycross, along country lanes suitable for a Luke Bryan worm.

In the heart of Blackshear is Oak Plaza Restaurant, a family-run establishment across from Emmanuel Baptist Church, another mainstay of the area’s native son quarterback. Think of Oak Plaza as a hidden gem – Apple Maps even thinks the place is permanently closed – where some locals congregate.

Most mornings Bennett’s dad and the rotating company meet at the “liar table”. Despite the sarcastic etiquette, candid conversations about faith, family, and football flow as freely as the all-encompassing aroma of Southern cuisine.

A particular Georgian quarterback is everywhere. Framed at the left end of the dining room wall is an appropriate fragment from October 5, 2002. The elder Bennett is seen holding his baby boy at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Bulldogs beat Alabama at Tuscaloosa, 27-25.

The unconscious boy in that frozen moment is now four quarters away from his own victory over Alabama, a victory that would immortalize him well beyond South Georgia.

Overcome the criticisms, the hard times

Bennett, 23, is a wellness story. He was a 5-foot-11, 175-pound walk-on in 2017. He transferred from Georgia to Jones County (Miss.) Junior College. He returned to Georgia on a scholarship a year later (“we had to fight and scratch and claw to get him back,” Smart said).

This season, of all the five-star signers playing for the Bulldogs, undecorated Bennett has established himself as the No.1 in the sport’s most important position.

“It’s surreal that your older brother does things at this level,” said Luke Bennett, one of Stetson’s four younger siblings and an all-region wide receiver for Pierce County High. “I have a twin brother (Knox), and it was always me against him (in the court), and Stet was the all-time quarterback. Seeing the same thing he did in the backyard on this level is cool.

Although Georgia are ranked No.1 for much of the season, Bennett has had his critics. They woke up on Dec. 4 when Georgia’s perfect season was spoiled by Alabama in the SEC Championship game, 41-24. Bennett threw two interceptions and became the target of a vitriolic fan, a culmination of debates that lasted all season over whether he was “the guy” despite his record high school efficiency.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can win with Stetson Bennett,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said ahead of the playoffs. Bennett, who is “not a great man to take revenge” by his own admission, dismissed the criticism by completing 20 of 30 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-11 win over Michigan at the Orange Bowl, in the CFP semi-finals.

“I don’t know if Stet needed it, but mom needed it,” said Denise Bennett, Stetson’s mother, who attends every game. “I never want him to feel the pressure, but I know he handles it really well. He was able to come through difficult times, personally and athletically, incredibly well.

Find a soccer teacher in Blackshear

Bennett has no flair for the dramatic. Those who know him say he is polite, especially in the yes-madame, yes-sir sense. He carries a flip phone, doesn’t advertise on social media, and enjoys music on vinyl. He conducts without the rah-rah style. His game itself is calculated, built more on intelligence than on physical prowess.

One of the many defining decisions on Bennett’s path to Monday: moving his family to Blackshear.

Terri DeLoach, then Superintendent of Pierce County Schools, hired Sean Pender of Brantley to oversee Pierce County football. Pender, who Bennett III calls an “offensive genius”, associated himself beautifully with Bennett.

“It was just a huge turnaround for us,” said DeLoach, who described Bennett as a “blue collar quarterback going down into the trenches.”

Bennett had more than 9,000 yards – now 11th all-time in Georgia high school history – and threw 95 touchdown passes (12th all-time). He was regional offensive player of the year as a senior. But he was a two-star recruit.

“He was getting stares from FCS (and) Division II (schools), but Power Five schools weren’t recruiting him because of the measurables,” said Pender, who now coaches at Brunswick High. “Stetson was the best quarterback I have ever had. Sometimes if you don’t fit into that category, you just aren’t going to be recruited so massively. “

The late Tommy Palmer, longtime Georgia high school football presenter, said during Bennett’s junior year: “He’s probably the best quarterback in the state that not everyone has yet. heard.” The audio can be easily found on his father’s iPhone.

Bennett wasn’t noticed by his favorite team until former Pierce County recreation director Shawn Smith’s fateful encounter with then-Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Smith was at a football camp with his son when he saw Chaney. As the coach’s golf cart passed, Smith approached him.

“I know of a kid in my hometown who can run it flat,” Smith said. “He’s 6 feet tall, runs a 4.5 40 (meters).

“Chaney said, ‘So he’s 5-10? “

“I said, ‘He’s probably 5-11 years old. But it does a 4.5. ‘”

Chaney watched Bennett’s highlights on his phone, praising his running abilities and moves. “Tell his parents to email me. We’ll take a look at him, ”Smith recalled in response to Chaney.

Three weeks later, Bennett launched in Athens, gaining a passing opportunity.

“He’s setting an example for all those kids who aren’t 6-foot-4 or don’t have all the tools to be a Division I starting quarterback,” DeLoach said. “He’s going to have an inheritance, and a testimony, that he can give to other people.”

Represent a city that embraces it

Blackshear is well stocked for Bennett (support only increased as the skeptics got stronger). Signs reading “We love our Mailman”, a nod to Bennett’s nickname and “Go No. 13” are among the mentions. The area loves his Bulldogs, but he is an individual who has comforted the life around him.

“His tangible possessions seem ordinary, but his intangibles are extraordinary,” said Ryan Herring, the current state championship-winning Pierce County coach, who has supervised Bennett’s younger brothers. “(Bennett) embodies so many things that we need in our society. His story is a lesson I will tell for the rest of my coaching life.

Herring, a big Alabama fan, will be in Indianapolis wearing a No.13 Georgia jersey.

When Bennett takes the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, he will represent the hometown he inspires. His career is a testament to the region which has provided him with the infrastructure to beat all the odds.

Bennett’s life led to this. He was the second-year student who initiated the proclamations. He was the innocent child in his father’s arms that day in Tuscaloosa. He was the overlooked prospect. The walk-on. The transfer. Baker Mayfield Boy Scout Team. The fourth string. The unlikely answer.

Monday, he can be national champion.

“If there’s one person I want the ball in their hands with a shot at the Georgia Bulldogs to win the national championship, it’s Stetson Bennett,” said the prophetic Morgan. “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. “


WE HAVE COVERED YOU

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution continues its extensive coverage of Georgia’s quest for a national college football championship. A team of 10 reporters and photographers will provide all the news, reaction, context and stunning visuals as Georgia faces Alabama in the big game Monday night in Indianapolis. Georgia beat reporter Chip Towers, columnists Mark Bradley and Michael Cunningham and reporters Steve Hummer, Ken Sugiura and Gabriel Burns are joined by photographers Curtis Compton, Hyosub Shin, Bob Andres and Greg Bluestein of Team AJC. As you have been doing all season, you can count on us for the most comprehensive before and after coverage of the highlight of the Bulldogs’ historic journey.


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