Victory and vindication for Georgia’s Stetson Bennett

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

INDIANAPOLIS — The hero was all at once easy to spot and yet impossible to see. Like he’s always been.

The 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship had been over for a few minutes, the Georgia Bulldogs having finally vanquished archnemesis Alabama 33-18 in a contest that was much closer than that final score will ever explain. The air above the Lucas Oil Stadium turf was filled with cigar smoke and confetti. Georgia football players, coaches and family were frantically running around, gathered in pockets of people, hugging and sobbing and screaming in groups of two, three, five folks at most.

Then there was the horde that surrounded No. 13. The quarterback. Stetson Bennett IV, he of the country club name and the blue-collar work ethic. You couldn’t see him, but he was most definitely there, his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame easily hidden by the TV cameras, boom mics and full-arm extension smartphone camera snappers.

“Bennett! Bennett! They need you up on the stage!” a Georgia athletic staffer with a couple of security guards in tow shouted as they worked to penetrate the ring of photographers, reporters and teammates who had formed a wall around the quarterback. The kid who passed on scholarships to smaller schools and chose to walk on at Georgia, only to leave for a junior college, return, lose the starting job and regain it due to an injury to the starter, all while dogged by Dawgs who didn’t believe he had the flash or talent to compete against more dynamic QBs like Bama’s newest Heisman winner, Bryce Young.

So, why stick with it? Because his only childhood dream was to do exactly what he did Monday night. The kid who went to games in Athens, Georgia, and ran around in his backyard with a football tucked under an arm that was draped in a UGA jersey, living out every fantasy of every kid in the world — winning it all for the team he was born adoring.

“Bennett! Bennett! We really gotta go!”

“Right now?” the curly headed 23-year-old shouted back.

“Yeah, you’re the offensive MVP!”

Bennett laughed and broke into a trot to join his escorts to the podium. “Well, look at this!” a teammate, in the midst of pulling a black “Victory Lane” national title T-shirt over his shoulders, said to the quarterback as he ran by. “They’re all loving your ass now, aren’t they?!”

The quarterback grinned and nodded, but graciously refused to revel in it. He did the same as he stood atop that stage and soaked up the applause of the thousands of red- and black-dressed fans, many of whom had been calling for his benching since early December. He politely sidestepped questions about doubters during the postgame celebration.

“What does your story, your stick-around, your fight, your attitude say to all of the underdogs, all of the walk-ons, out there?” College GameDay host Rece Davis asked him onstage on live, global television.

Bennett’s response? “I mean, I have no clue …”

He did the same later, during his chats with the national media.

“I’ve told you all along, and I think some people maybe didn’t believe me, that I really don’t hear any of that stuff, the social media and whatever, I really don’t,” he said as Monday night was turning into Tuesday morning. “Our goal was to do what we did. We did it. Some stuff that someone said about me on the internet isn’t going to change that.”

Good thing. Because at halftime of Monday’s game there were plenty of people saying plenty of stuff, from hardcore Dawgs to people who probably hadn’t watched much, if any, Georgia football all season. He was 11-of-17 for 127 yards, no TDs and had been sacked twice. Every throw looked questionable, and thus the questions rose like a tidal wave.

It only got worse when he lost a pass-turned-fumble (whether it was actually a fumble is a whole other discussion) early in the fourth quarter that led to an Alabama touchdown pass and an 18-13 Crimson Tide lead. But Bennett responded with a 40-yard touchdown pass of his own only four plays later. Georgia took the lead 19-18 and never trailed again.

Bennett’s final stat line: 17-for-26, 224 yards, 2 TDs, both coming the fourth quarter.

“The fumble was not cathartic,” he said pointedly in his postgame news conference. “That was just football. I didn’t put my head down and say, ‘That’s not how we’re going to lose this game.'”

He then began to rattle off the names of teammates he said stepped up and did what they needed to do to win the game, working nearly as hard to deflect credit as he did to beat Bama.

Perhaps “I can’t lose it this way” isn’t what Bennett did, said or felt. But in the grandstands, his family was thinking it. His supporters back home in Pierce County, Georgia, were thinking it. And so were those teammates he mentioned to try to take attention away from himself. Not this way. Not him.

“We weren’t going to let that happen,” receiver Jermaine Burton explained during the on-field celebration. He started that drive with an 18-yard, tone-setter of a grab. “Not going to let that happen to any of us, but especially, no way we were letting that happen to Stetson. Not after all he has done for us. It wasn’t going to end like that.”

It didn’t. It didn’t end with the bizarre fumble. It didn’t end with the wonky first three quarters. It didn’t end when Twitter said he should be benched.

Instead, the too-small, too-slow, “he’s just a game manager” dreamer-turned-walk-on-turned-starter became the first former walk-on to beat a Nick Saban team since 1997. The first quarterback who was recruited as a two-star to win a national title. The first QB to be ranked outside the top 20 at his position to win a national title in the past two decades. He was ranked 104th.

The past five quarterbacks to hoist the College Football Playoff trophy were Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Mac Jones. They were all first-round NFL draft picks. Bennett’s latest projections ranged from a late third-rounder to free-agent signee at best. But now he is the first quarterback to lead Georgia to a national championship since New Year’s Day 1981. He’ll never have to buy a lunch or a beer in the state of Georgia for the rest of his life.

“Did I cry? Yes.” Bennett confessed as he left the media room around 1 a.m. “I don’t think I had cried in years, but there was no holding it back tonight. And I don’t think I’m done crying yet. Not a chance.”

Stetson Bennett IV turned into the concourse and headed toward the locker room, where his teammates were waiting with love and nary a social media hater was allowed anywhere near the door. He stepped into a ring of waiting athletic department workers and Indiana police officers. The little guy immediately vanished among them.

The immortal Dawg hero. Easy to spot and yet impossible to see.

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