Later that night, Morgan channeled Nostradamus, phoning a friend: “You can call me crazy right now, I promise you the University of Georgia is going to have a quarterback named Stetson Bennett one day. You can see it in his eyes. He’ll start for them. And he’s on our rec football field right now.”
Building a foundation in new hometown
The boy who was putting them on the board in Brantley might help put one in the Bulldogs’ dusty trophy case Monday night in the College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama. Bennett’s underdog story was enabled by the community that reared him; from Brantley, where he moved in the first grade, to nearby Blackshear in Pierce County, where he moved in eighth grade and which he considers home.
Blackshear embodies the oft-invoked “faith, family, football” mantra. It’s a town where everyone knows everyone. “Hello” begins with warm embraces and family-centric questions. “Goodbye” is capped with “love you.” Football, as one would imagine, has a unanimous approval rating (as does Kirby Smart’s current handling of his quarterbacks).
Blackshear’s population, per the 2020 census, was just over 3,500 (perspective: The University of Georgia gained 5,800 first-year students in August 2021). It sits 10 miles northeast of Waycross, found along country roads apt for a Luke Bryan verse.
In the heart of Blackshear sits Oak Plaza Restaurant, a family-owned establishment across from Emmanuel Baptist Church, another pillar for the region’s native son quarterback. Consider Oak Plaza a hidden gem – Apple Maps even thinks the place is permanently closed – where some locals gather.
Most mornings, Bennett’s dad and rotating company congregate at the “liars’ table.” Despite the sarcastic label, heartfelt conversations about faith, family and football flow as freely as the encompassing aroma of Southern cooking.
A particular Georgia quarterback is omnipresent. Framed on the left end of the dining room wall is a fitting fragment from Oct. 5, 2002. The elder Bennett is seen holding his little boy at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated Alabama 27-25, their first victory in Tuscaloosa.
The unknowing boy in that frozen moment is now four quarters from his own win over Alabama, one that would immortalize him far beyond South Georgia.
Overcoming critics, hard times
Bennett, 23, is a feel-good 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 scholarship one year later (“we had to fight, scratch and claw to get him to come back,” Smart said).
This season, among all the five-star signees playing for the Bulldogs, the undecorated Bennett established himself as No. 1 at the sport’s most important position.
“It’s surreal to have your older brother doing things at that level,” said Luke Bennett, one of Stetson’s four younger siblings and an all-region receiver for Pierce County High. “I have a twin brother (Knox), and it was always me versus him (in the backyard) ,and Stet was all-time quarterback. To see the same thing that he did in the backyard at that level, it’s cool.”
Despite Georgia being ranked No. 1 for much of the season, Bennett had his naysayers. They awakened 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 fan vitriol, a climax of season-long debates whether he was “the guy” despite his school record efficiency.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we can win it with Stetson Bennett,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said before the playoff. Bennett, who’s “not a big revenge guy” by his own admission, dismissed critics by completing 20 of 30 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-11 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl, in a CFP semifinal.
“I don’t know if Stet needed it, but momma needed it,” said Denise Bennett, Stetson’s mother, who attends every game. “I don’t ever want him to feel the pressure, but I know he handles it very well. He’s been able to navigate hard times, personally and athletically, unbelievably well.”
Finding a football tutor in Blackshear
Bennett doesn’t have a flare for the dramatic. Those who know him say he’s polite, especially in the yes-ma’am, yes-sir kind of way. He totes a flip phone, doesn’t advertise on social media and appreciates music on vinyl. He leads without the rah-rah style. His game itself is calculated, built more on smarts than physical prowess.
One of many instrumental decisions in Bennett’s path to Monday: His family’s move to Blackshear.
Terri DeLoach, then superintendent of Pierce County Schools, hired Sean Pender from Brantley to oversee Pierce County football. Pender, whom Bennett III calls an “offensive genius,” paired beautifully with Bennett.
“It was just a huge turnaround for us,” said DeLoach, who described Bennett as a “blue-collar quarterback who gets down in the trenches.”
Bennett passed for over 9,000 yards – now 11th all-time in Georgia high school history – and threw 95 touchdown passes (12th all-time). He was region offensive player of the year as a senior. But he was a two-star recruit.
“He was getting looks from FCS (and) Division II (schools), but the 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’ve ever had. Sometimes, if you don’t fit within that mark, you’re just not going to get recruited as heavily.”
Said the late Tommy Palmer, long-time Georgia high school football announcer, during Bennett’s junior year: “He’s probably the best quarterback in the state that everybody hasn’t heard about yet.” The audio can be readily found on his dad’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 rode by, Smith approached him.
“I know a kid in my hometown who can flat spin it,” Smith said. “He’s 6-foot, runs a 4.5 40 (yard dash).
“Chaney said, ‘So he’s 5-10?’
“I said, ‘He’s probably 5-11. But he does run a 4.5.’”
Chaney watched Bennett highlights on his phone, praising his running ability and throwing motion. “Tell his parents to email me. We’ll take a look at him,” Smith recalled Chaney responding.
Three weeks later, Bennett threw in Athens, earning a walk-on opportunity.
“He’s setting an example for all those kids who aren’t 6-foot-4 or have all the tools of being a starting Division I quarterback,” DeLoach said. “He’s going to have a legacy, and a testimony, that he’ll be able to give to other people.”
Representing a town that embraces him
Blackshear is well-garnished for Bennett (the support only increased as skeptics grew louder). Signs reading “We love our Mailman,” a nod to Bennett’s noted nickname, and “Go No. 13″ are among the endorsements. The area loves its Bulldogs, but this is about an individual who’s heartened the lives around him.
“His tangibles seem ordinary, but his intangibles are extraordinary,” said Ryan Herring, Pierce County’s current state championship-winning coach who oversaw Bennett’s younger brothers. “(Bennett) epitomizes so many things we need in our society. His story is a lesson I’ll tell the rest of my life as a coach.”
Herring, an avid Alabama fan, will be in Indianapolis wearing a No. 13 Georgia jersey.
When Bennett takes the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, he’ll represent the hometown he inspires. His journey is a testament to the region that provided him the infrastructure to beat the odds.
Bennett’s life has led to this. He was the second-grader prompting 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. The scout-team Baker Mayfield. The fourth-stringer. The unlikely answer.
On Monday, he can be the national champion.
“If there’s one person that I want the ball in their hands with a chance for the Georgia Bulldogs to win the national championship, it’s Stetson Bennett,” the prophetic Morgan said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
WE HAVE YOU COVERED
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution continues its expansive coverage of Georgia’s quest for a college football national 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 on Team AJC. As you have all season, you can count on us for the most complete coverage, before and after, of the culmination of the Bulldogs’ historic journey.