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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Stetson Bennett was all set to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette, a quality program out of the mid-major Sun Belt Conference. He had given the top level of college football a shot, attending Georgia as a walk-on out of high school.
After one season there of inaction, he left for junior college, where he put up strong numbers at Jones County in Mississippi, and verbally committed to Louisiana-Lafayette in December 2018.
“I woke up on signing day and planned on signing there,” he said over the summer, “And then Georgia called.”
Kirby Smart was offering him a scholarship. Bennett couldn’t say no, despite the obvious hurdles ahead of him to get on the field — the five-star recruits and gifted athletes who would be ahead of him. He would get recruited over, even as a backup. But Bennett was convinced he could outwork the more talented competition.
However, even the 5-foot-11 quarterback couldn’t have believed it would work out this way, not to this extent. Nobody could’ve. The odds were stacked against him. Just rising up the depth chart to one day start at Georgia was an accomplishment. These last two years is the stuff of legend, a Hollywood script that, ironically, took him to Los Angeles on Monday night for the national championship game, as he joined an exclusive club of starting quarterbacks who won consecutive titles with a 65-7 bludgeoning of TCU at SoFi Stadium. Bennett became the sixth quarterback to do so, and the first since Alabama’s A.J. McCarron in 2011-12, after his six-touchdown, 304-yard masterpiece completed the Bulldogs’ perfect season.
“He’s got G.O.A.T. status forever in Athens, GA.,” Smart said.
It was a storybook ending to a unicorn of a college career that even dwarfed the Cinderella story of his opponent, TCU, which had 200/1 odds to win it all back in August, in terms of its unlikelihood.
A former walk-on who was lightly recruited and undersized, who became the quarterback to lead Georgia to its first national championship in 41 years last January, and then followed that up with an even better season. Bennett won 25 of his last 26 starts, 28 of 31 overall and in four playoff games over two postseasons, produced 15 total touchdowns, just one interception and completed 67.8 percent of his passes. This year, he beat C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, Hendon Hooker and Anthony Richardson — four of the top five draft-eligible quarterback prospects for April’s NFL draft according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. — and Monday night the 25-year-old signal-caller became the all-time single-season passing leader in Georgia history with 4,127 yards.
Think of all the quarterbacks in Athens, Ga. before him who couldn’t end the drought, from Matthew Stafford to Justin Fields, Jake Fromm to Jacob Eason, Aaron Murray to Quincy Carter, Eric Zeier to David Greene. Last season, he started the year No. 2 on the depth chart, behind prized USC transfer J.T. Daniels. When Daniels suffered an oblique injury, Bennett got his chance. He never looked back, Wally Pipp’ing Daniels.
“He overcame us,” Smart said.
There have been similar stories of walk-ons bucking the odds to stardom. The most recent was Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders’ wide receiver who caught the game-winning touchdown for Clemson in the 2016 national championship game. Adam Archuleta, an NFL analyst with CBS, became a first-round pick out of Arizona State in 2001 after starting as a walk-on and played seven years in the NFL. Arizona State was Archuleta’s only option at the Division I level, and it wanted him to play linebacker, although he only weighed 185 pounds at the time.
“To me, it was OK, my foot’s in the door,” he recalled.
Bennett’s story is different. There is only one quarterback — it’s the most important position on the field. He had to overcome so much to be the guy for Georgia. He needed an incredible amount of belief in himself, an innate ability to handle adversity and not let it negatively impact him. And to be able to handle prosperity after working so hard just for an opportunity.
“I don’t know all the guys who walked on and went on to have success, but I would have to rank him up there near the top or at the top,” Archuleta said.
It is ironic that Georgia couldn’t get over the hump until it finally gave the job to Bennett, who is known as “The Mailman,” because he once wore a U.S. Postal Service hat to a showcase camp while in high school. Bennett enjoyed growing out his hair and wearing glasses to those showcases, and then winning them, shocking onlookers.
“It was my thing,” he said.
At Georgia, the quarterback position was the one issue dogging Smart for all the success he had in his first six years at his alma mater. He couldn’t answer the quarterback conundrum, until he finally — and reluctantly — gave the ball to Bennett.
On a team of five-star recruits and future NFL players, Stetson Bennett pushed Georgia to new heights, making it the new Alabama as the preeminent power in the sport. Early in the fourth quarter Monday, Smart called timeout and took out Bennett, allowing him to walk off the field to the standing ovation he deserved. One teammate after another embraced him — the part of the movie when the sappy music would hit.
After Monday night, Bennett should stay in Los Angeles for a few days and pitch his story to screenwriters. College football has never witnessed a journey quite like his.