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In December, The Athletic will be highlighting the coaches, athletes and other figures who made the biggest impact in the U.S. sports we cover, as well as in the fields of sports business, media and culture. Next up in the series is our honoree in college football: Stetson Bennett, the Georgia quarterback who completed an unlikely journey to the starting job last year, led the school to its first national title in 41 years, then returned this season to bring the Bulldogs back to the College Football Playoff. The full schedule is here.
ATHENS, Ga. — Denise Bennett never wanted football to be her oldest son’s identity. Stetson got football from his dad’s side of the family. He got his love of books from his mom’s side.
From a young age, he was the kid walking down the hallway with his face in a book. He once read a Harry Potter book in 36 hours. As an adult, he has gotten into biographies and just polished off a book about Winston Churchill. Often when Denise gets off the phone with Stetson, she realizes they never even talked about football, and that makes her happy.
And yet, as she stood outside Lucas Oil Stadium in January, Denise felt it. Football may not be everything about Stetson Bennett IV. But what happened in that stadium would define him.
“It was the hardest thing in the world going into that game knowing my son’s life would be changed forever by how it ended,” Denise Bennett said. “There was no going back to just being normal. That was just so heavy on my heart walking into that stadium in Indianapolis.”
In the second quarter, she had to leave. She went into a bathroom and prayed. It brought her peace that everything would be OK. It wasn’t that Georgia would win, it was that her son would be fine. Even into the fourth quarter, as Bennett fumbled and Alabama took the lead, she had peace.
Then she had joy. So did Stetson, crying when he realized that he and Georgia had won the national championship. A story that nobody predicted — walk-on leads his home-state program to its first national championship in 41 years — had come true. Screenplay and book offers surely would follow. The legacy of Stetson Bennett was forever secure, and now he could ride off as one of the greatest stories in college football history.
There was just one hang-up: Denise Bennett’s oldest son, the kid who loves a good book, wasn’t done writing his own story.
Bennett is back under center for top-ranked Georgia this season, leading the Bulldogs to a 13-0 record, an SEC championship and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. He’s also one of four finalists for the Heisman Trophy, to be awarded Saturday. For his unlikely rise to a national champion quarterback and his follow-up season that has Georgia two wins away from back-to-back titles, Bennett is The Athletic’s College Football Person of the Year for 2022.
Along this journey, as amazing and surprising as it has been, the signs have always been there, begging to be seen.
Six years ago: Richard LeCounte, the first player to commit to Kirby Smart after his hire as Georgia coach, lobbied the program to sign Bennett, who played against LeCounte in high school. But Bennett was too small (5-foot-10) to get big offers. Georgia bowed to LeCounte’s plea but only as a walk-on.
Five years ago: In the lead-up to their Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, Bennett mimicked the Sooners’ Baker Mayfield in practice, and then-Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was so impressed that when he was asked about it, his eyes got wide: “Stetson Bennett is a beast, man. Stetson Bennett. Stetson Bennett puts a lot of pressure on our defense because he is extremely quick, he’s fast, and he can throw.”
Three years ago: Then-Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes referred to Bennett, then the team’s top backup, as a “once in a lifetime quarterback.” At the time it seemed like a teammate stretching it a bit with the compliments. But looking back … well.
In fact, all along, Georgia’s defensive players, the ones facing him in practice, have been Bennett’s biggest advocates. Davin Bellamy, a linebacker on the 2017 team, told The Athletic that he thinks it was defensive players who pushed Bennett to transfer because they convinced Bennett he was too good not to play somewhere. And when Bennett did announce his decision to transfer during the spring of 2018, his father got a text message from former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, a 2017 All-American:
“Stet’s going to be fine. He’s the best quarterback we played against all year.”
But the world is a skeptical place, especially the college football world. Bennett’s stature and journey made him relatable. The plucky little kid. That’s also what turns him off to others, who want their quarterback to have certain measurables.
When the movie about Bennett is made, the protagonists will include those Georgia defensive players, who knew all along. The antagonists will be the outside critics, all easily findable with a simple Google search. And the roundest characters will be the Georgia coaches, whose position on Bennett evolved to fit the story.
Here’s a scene for the movie: The spring of 2018, in Smart’s office, Bennett and his family going over his pending decision to transfer. Smart was blunt: He wanted Bennett to stay but couldn’t promise anything. Bennett was equally honest: He loved Georgia, but he wanted to play.
“That was an amazing moment for me, to watch my son do that,” Denise Bennett said. “That’s got to be scary as can be on a teenage boy. I just sat there, and you watch them grow up before your eyes.”
Three years after Stetson Bennett walked on at Georgia, a 2020 game at Arkansas gave him his first chance against a Power 5 opponent. He went 20-for-29 with two touchdowns in a 37-10 Bulldogs win. (Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)
And so he went to Jones (Miss.) Community College that fall, started a full season and earned a scholarship from head coach Billy Napier at Louisiana, a Sun Belt Conference program. Georgia was far from his mind: Jake Fromm was entrenched as the starter, Justin Fields was the heir apparent. That perfectly sets up the next scene: Bennett waking up the morning of signing day, checking his phone and seeing missed calls from Smart and his then-offensive coordinator James Coley.
Come back, they were telling him. Fields was transferring. You’ll be on scholarship and you’ll be the No. 2 QB.
But this didn’t mean the coaches were believers yet. They were just desperate. A year later, Fromm turned pro, and rather than hand the job to Bennett, they did everything they could to find somebody else: Jamie Newman and JT Daniels were brought in as transfers, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis was elevated to starter for the 2020 season opener. And Todd Monken, the new offensive coordinator, bluntly told Bennett he didn’t see him ever being the starter at Georgia.
“That was hard to watch some of the fire, gleam go out of his eyes,” Denise Bennett said. “You could just see it. That stunk.”
Then everything changed.
The next scene in the movie — pay attention here, screenplay writers — is Fayetteville, Ark., where the Georgia football team finds itself losing 7-2 in the 2020 season opener. Mathis has struggled. Daniels isn’t ready. Newman opted out weeks before. And on to the field steps Stetson Bennett, the man everyone seemingly had forgotten. He leads Georgia to a 37-10 win, throwing for two touchdowns and 200-plus yards. Then he wins the next two games, against Auburn and Tennessee. The college football world is abuzz …
And then comes a loss at Alabama. Two games later, a loss to Florida. Bennett hit his ceiling, the consensus says. Daniels starts the rest of the season, and that will do it for the Stetson Bennett story. When the 2021 season begins, Bennett seems to be third on the depth chart, behind Daniels as well as redshirt freshman Carson Beck. That only sets up another key scene: The week of the second game, when Daniels can’t play because of an oblique injury. The opponent is UAB, seemingly a good week to play the youngster. But something is turning with Monken.
“Get in there, Stet,” Monken says at one point during practice.
And Bennett throws five touchdowns against UAB. Daniels returns to start the next two games before another injury befalls him. By this time, Monken and the Georgia coaches really are starting to warm to Bennett, who starts the ensuing win over No. 8 Arkansas and never loses the job again, even after a loss in the SEC Championship Game.
“The reason Stetson Bennett starts is he gives us the best chance to win,” Monken said a few days before the Orange Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan. “Stetson, at times, I’ve probably undervalued his skill set. … There’s no doubt in my mind that we can win the national championship; there’s no doubt in my mind we can do it with Stetson Bennett.”
And with that, the movie can have a montage of Bennett’s big plays against Michigan, the lead-up to the rematch with Alabama and the huge fourth quarter of that game. And then, after Kelee Ringo’s pick-six, Bennett erupting in tears.
That night, ESPN had cameras on Texas A&M coaches, one of them Coley, who had recruited Bennett back to Georgia and coached him for a year. As he watched Bennett cry, Coley smiled and could be heard saying: “Good for that kid.”
A great way to finish.
“It was the hardest thing in the world going into that game knowing my son’s life would be changed forever by how it ended,” Denise Bennett, Stetson’s mother, says of last year’s national title game. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)
“He’s always been calm in the storm,” said Stetson Bennett III, who coached his son from the age of 5 on both baseball and football teams. In the clutch, Big Stet knew he could count on Little Stet, as he was known for a time. (Now Big Stet is just Stetson Bennett’s father, which is fine with him.)
Bennett — Little Stet — was always a deep thinker, originally a philosophy major, which caused one coach who was recruiting him to say: “I don’t want that in my quarterback.” Bennett eventually switched to law. He’s also a list-maker, pros and cons, which he did when he was deciding whether to come back for one more season of college football. If “legacy” was listed anywhere, it didn’t win the day. It was on his mother’s mind, but that came from the perspective of an adult with a longer perspective.
“I guess every decision was big: going to Georgia, going back to Georgia. But this to me was such a huge decision because he was on such a high,” Denise Bennett said. “And yeah, this season has worked out great, but honestly if you think about it, what if this season hadn’t worked out at all? It could’ve really, his legacy or the way people viewed him, would have been completely awful.”
There was actually plenty of buzz before the national championship that Bennett would walk away from football, maybe go to law school. But the morning after the game, he gave his most direct answer during an interview on “Good Morning America,” when Bennett was groggy, operating on only a few hours of sleep and maybe a swig of 33-year-old pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
“I’m going to play football next year,” he said. “We’ll see where. We’ll see if I can trust the decisions that are made by the staff and see where I’m going to play.”
Whatever discussion ensued with those coaches, no one publicly has divulged. Bennett’s father may know but said he’ll leave that for Bennett to say. As for the legacy question, well, he knows why his son took the risk.
“You bet on yourself, don’t you?” Bennett’s father said. “He knew his ability. He knew his work ethic. You’re not gonna outwork him. I mean, I can’t even think of another option. You do realize this is the first offseason he’s ever gotten through with the ones and the twos, right? Do you have any idea the difference that makes when you actually throw to these guys all year?”
Ultimately, that’s what it came down to for his son: Winning the championship didn’t just validate him. That freed him. It made him comfortable that he finally would be the unquestioned starter, and he wasn’t going to waste the chance. And with a full offseason as the starter, Bennett came through with 3,425 passing yards despite Georgia not passing for many fourth quarters. In Georgia’s three biggest games — Oregon, Tennessee and LSU — he’s been at his best. In Georgia’s five games against currently-ranked opponents, Bennett has accounted for 17 touchdowns, one more than USC’s Caleb Williams has in his five games versus ranked teams. (The other two Heisman Trophy finalists, TCU’s Max Duggan and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, only played against three currently ranked teams.) And in the one game Georgia was truly in danger, at Missouri, Bennett was 7-for-9 for 78 yards in the fourth quarter to lead two touchdown drives and help the Bulldogs rally from a 10-point deficit. The calm in the storm, just as in the fourth quarter in Indianapolis.
Off the field, Bennett has been living the life: He became social media friends with singer Colbie Caillat, which happened only because Bennett was asked at a news conference what his pregame music was, and he answered that it was her song “Bubbly.” He flew with the Blue Angels when they made a stop in southeast Georgia. He went on a European trip through UGA’s study abroad program, running into Georgia fans also taking summer vacations in Greece, Italy or England.
The family has been approached by people about screenplays or books. Nothing is imminent, according to Denise.
“It’s Stet’s story to tell,” she said. “And you wonder why. And that’s when it gets heavy. When you really, at night, start going, ‘Hmmm. Yeah, it’s just football, it’s just a game, life moves on.’ But this is a pretty big deal. And I think Stet’s unbelievably special, and I think he’s great. But it’s hard, hard, hard, hard, to get the same opportunities in small south Georgia than it is in the big city.
“So it really is amazing to be like, ‘How did this happen?’ Like, wow. That’s pretty unbelievable.”
The Athletic’s Sportspersons of the Year: The athletes and coaches who defined 2022
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)