Roy Exum: Faith, Family & Football

Friday, October 23, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The most heralded player in any college football huddle is the one who got there via a “battlefield promotion.” These were always my personal favorites in the nearly 40 years I covered college football because, unlike a kid who head is swollen because some unknowing source decreed they were a “five star recruit” or a punk clown who changes his “commit” three times before his last year in high school, these are those who “earned” their teammates’ respect by “earning” a spot on the starting roster.

It's been 20 years since I’ve watched a “closed scrimmage” or stood in the thick humidity in a winning team’s locker room but I’ll allow I know more than most and, lordy, the sage old saying is true: “It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

On most Saturday’s I sit in my cubby hole at home, usually by myself, and watch as many SEC games as I can.

I read about the games, and get all hyped up when No. 3 Georgia is leading the Tide at half, and then I glory as Alabama plays to “the end of the whistle” and wears an opponent down with the skill of a surgeon in the second half. An Alabama trick is freely substituting in the early-season heat, so that in the fourth quarter the Tide players still have “fresh legs” versus the wobbly ones of the other side of the ball when points most count.

This year I’ve become enthralled by Georgia’s former walk-on quarterback, ‘Stet’ Barnett, and the “want to” he brings to the Bulldogs game as its starting quarterback. Last Saturday he went toe-to-toe with Alabama’s great quarterback, Mac Jones, in a fabulous first half between the SEC’s top two teams before the Tide rolled away after the half, winning 41-24.

Jones connected on 24-of-32 throws for four touchdowns (417 yards) while Bennett, true on 18-of-40, had a couple of TD throws (296 yards) but got in interception trouble late (3). Suffice it to say Jones has a far greater supporting cast (Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith) but I thought it was still one heckuva duel. Believe me, I still relish the gamesmanship, the intangibles

Unlike Jones, the TV announcers get as much glee as ‘Stet’s teammates over the fact the Georgia quarterback is listed on the depth chart as “Stetson Fleming Bennett IV” and I can guarantee you  that’s a tough name to endure under the hot August sun in Athens. Are you kidding me? A bunch of Bulldogs don’t even have middle names, much less Roman Numerals that mean the fourth generation with the same name. To a bunch of football players during grueling two-a-days practices, nobody puts on ‘airs,’ you understand, because at the training table the older players will chew on you like a $2 steak.

At any rate, ‘Stet” is a kid I follow because of his “want to,” which makes the college game so much greater than the “look at me” NFL, this as the pros TV ratings continue to plunge. Georgia is idle this Saturday, before traveling to Kentucky on Halloween, while Alabama will be a 21-point favorite in Neyland Stadium over Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. UT, 2-2, will be idle next Saturday before visiting upstart Arkansas (2-2) on Nov. 7.

Just before last week’s showdown against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, sportswriter Jed May of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph wrote a dazzling story on Stetson Bennett about his faith, his family, and the sport he adores. Allow me to share a rich look about the one-time walk-on who has emerged as Georgia’s leader:

* * *

‘AD ASTRA PER ALAS PORCI’ (LATIN: “TO THE STARS ON THE WINGS OF A PIG”)

(N0TE: This story, written by Jed May, appeared in the October 15, 2020, editions of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph)

By Jed May

The name looks like any other. Stetson Fleming Bennett IV. Twenty-one letters (23 counting the suffix) that identify the man quarterbacking the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs. But there’s a deeper story hidden behind those little symbols. A tale of tragedy and faith, of family and football. It has shaped “Stet” into the man and player he is today.

Stetson Bennett Sr. needed to make a little extra money. Named after a man his father admired in south Georgia, Bennett Sr. farmed with a third-grade education. He bootlegged moonshine to supplement his income.

Then tragedy struck. The family’s 2-year old daughter, Violet, died of pneumonia. When Bennett Sr. returned home and learned the news, devastation washed over him. At that moment, he knew his life had to change. He gave up bootlegging and devoted his life to Jesus Christ. “Most people don’t come to Christ when everything’s going great,” Stetson Bennett III said. “When they’ve got a great job and a wife that loves them and plenty of money, that’s usually not when you come to Christ. It’s usually when you’re broken.”

The eldest Bennett traded the bottle for a Bible, the still for the pulpit, and became a preacher. He rode donkeys or mules or walked to different churches every Sunday to spread the word, usually receiving a homemade chicken dinner as thanks before he headed back to his home place in Jesup.

His son, Stetson Bennett Jr., gained fame as the quarterback of the Wayne County High School Yellow Jackets, earning a scholarship to Auburn. Injuries, and an early marriage, cut his career short. That marriage produced three girls. Deciding the name should live on, Bennett Jr. and his younger brother Richard agreed that the younger brother’s next child should be named Stetson. In 1969, Stetson Bennett III came along.

Bennett III had football in his future from the start. In addition to his uncle, his father Richard had quarterbacked Wayne County to the state championship in 1954. The Yellow Jackets toppled mighty Valdosta in the playoffs, with Richard Bennett earning the respect of legendary Valdosta coach Wright Bazemore with his competitiveness on the field.

That same kind of fierce determination can be seen in Stetson Bennett IV today in Athens. Late in a blowout win over Tennessee on Oct. 10, Bennett IV scrambled for a first down and took a big hit. Head coach Kirby Smart said he wishes his QB would learn to slide a bit more, but that has never been in the Bennett’s’ nature.

“He’s not going to quit when it comes to football,” said John DuPont, who called all of Bennett IV’s games at Pierce County High School in Blackshear, a southeast Georgia town located between Valdosta and Savannah. “He’s not going to quit. He’ll die before he quits.”

Richard Bennett had no quit in him, either. He earned a scholarship to play football at, ironically enough, Stetson University before the school shut down its football program. Rather than go back home and work on the farm like his father wanted, Bennett hitchhiked 400 miles to Columbia, South Carolina to earn a spot as a Gamecock.

As for Bennett III, he grew up listening to Larry Munson call Georgia games while picking up pecans on the farm. He eventually earned a walk-on spot as an option quarterback at Georgia Southern under Erk Russell. He eventually decided to transfer to Georgia to pursue a pharmacy degree.

He didn’t have as long of a career in football as those that came before him, but Bennett III sees how football has changed the fortunes of his family. His father went to school mainly to play football but got an education along the way that changed the fortunes of the clan descended from sharecroppers.

Bennett III’s long-term decision to pursue pharmacy allowed him to coach his son in everything growing up, from football to tiddlywinks.

“There was a lot of discipline. You learn discipline early. When you don’t learn discipline early, there’s a problem,” Bennett III said. “He knew that I was going to be harder on him than anyone else. It was going to be rough, but hard work pays off.”

Pay off it did. In eighth grade, Bennett threw for around 450 yards in a junior varsity game, a mark DuPont (also a teacher at the school) believes is a record. In ninth grade, Bennett IV saw limited action on the varsity squad in mop-up duty. After his first touchdown pass, the radio announcer DuPont declared on the air that Pierce County had its future star. Father and son heard that report and elbowed each other in the car “like a couple of little schoolgirls,” DuPont said.

Bennett IV took over the starting job as a sophomore. It’s not easy for a player that young to earn the respect of his teammates, but his center, Clay Denison, said the quarterback set the example every day. “He just went out there and balled, and people respected that aspect of his game,” Denison said. “He wasn’t much, at least sophomore year, I wouldn’t consider him a vocal leader, but he sure showed being a leader at practice, always giving 100 percent, always giving 100 percent in his film work to get better.”

One of Bennett IV’s favorite players in high school played for one of Georgia’s SEC rivals. Former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel left quite the impression on the Pierce County quarterback. As a senior, he even threw up the iconic money-sign hand gesture in DuPont’s British literature class.

That swagger, even a hint of cockiness, displayed itself in Bennett IV. DuPont said he occasionally bordered on class clown, “shucking and jiving” as he entered class from the hallway. On the field, Bennett IV emulated Manziel in more than just his celebrations.

“He was a master at making big plays out of nothing,” teammate Denison said. “He would be able to scramble out of the pocket, make a big throw. He was so fast that he could scramble and run for 30 yards. He was a very explosive player and just a guy that you would want as an offensive lineman because you know if you mess up, he’s going to make something out of nothing.”

Bennett IV also showed that fierce determination that is a Bennett family trademark. Denison, who is a year older than Bennett IV, remembers the final game of his junior year in the playoffs against a dominant Cedar Grove team.

The Bears were being dominated, held scoreless the entire game. Late in the fourth quarter, they had the ball with one more chance to score for pride. Despite the scoreboard Bennett IV led a desperate charge for points that ultimately came up short, but earned the respect of his teammates, nonetheless.

Denison also helped coin Bennett IV’s now-famous “Mailman” nickname. While cleaning out a warehouse at his job at a hardware store, Denison found a box with some old United States Postal Service hats and put them in his truck.

Later, Bennett IV saw one and took it for his own. He wore it around school, on gamedays and, most notably, to recruiting showcases and camps around the country.

“When I was in high school I was short, a short kid who didn’t really catch any eyes when I was going to football camps,” Bennett IV said. “So, I just wore this USPS hat one time just as a quirky little thing.” The hat served as a beacon, signaling to talent evaluators not to disregard the shorter kid from Blackshear. Just like his ancestors, Bennett IV felt the need to prove himself.

When a father and son share a name, odds are they’re pretty close.

The Bennetts are no different. DuPont described them as sometimes being “more like brothers than anything else.” They broke down film together and drove hundreds and hundreds of miles around the country for those recruiting camps, often just the two of them.

Feeling a need to prove he could play Division I, Bennett IV walked on at Georgia. He spent his freshman season in 2017 running the scout team offense. Players since then have raved about his phenomenal performances running opponents’ offenses against one of the nation’s best defenses.

The week Georgia played Vanderbilt, Bennett IV didn’t like running the Commodores’ pro-style, conservative offense. His father consoled him earlier in the week by saying he’d get to air it out the next week by preparing the defense to face Missouri. On Friday, Bennett III got a call.

“He said, ‘Daddy, I lit them up on Wednesday,’” Bennett III said. “‘Kirby made me stand up at the end of practice and he said, ‘Stetson Bennett just went 14-for-16 in between the 20s and 16-for-18 in the red zone. Clap it up for him.’ He went 30-for-34 against the number one defense in the nation.”

In the leadup to the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, Bennett IV emulated Heisman Trophy Winner Baker Mayfield. The defense raved about his performance, with then-defensive coordinator Mel Tucker calling the scout team signal caller a “beast.”

Feeling a desire to play after the 2017 season, Bennett IV spent 2018 at Jones Junior College in Mississippi. He led the team to a 10-2 mark and a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges title. When the time came to leave Jones, Bennett III tried not to voice his input with his son. He would support him no matter what he chose. But as Bear Bryant once said: “Mama called.”

Bennett IV decided to return to Athens, this time with a scholarship.

“Stet knew he was good enough to play,” Bennett III said. “It’s just, will they give me a shot?”

Jake Fromm held the starting job for Georgia in 2019, with Bennett IV as the backup. Heading into 2020 with Fromm gone, Bennett served as the de facto No. 1 for a while before the additions of graduate transfer Jamie Newman and USC transfer J.T. Daniels.

He served as the fifth quarterback in the team’s first scrimmage, and the fourth in the next following Newman’s decision to opt out of the season. That’s when he got some spiritual advice from his father, who connected the family history of preaching and pigskin.

After undergoing what he dubbed a “head salvation” in the third grade, Bennett III underwent his “heart salvation” in March 2019. In a down period of his life, just like his grandfather before him, he devoted his life to Christ.

“I just gave it all to the Lord, said, ‘Lord, you use me any way you want and I’m going to do what you say to do,’” Bennett III said.

He’s since had those kinds of discussions with his son. One day in preseason camp, with his son seeking to find a way up the depth chart, Bennett III read him Nehemiah 4:14. “When I saw their fear,” the verse reads, “I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.’”

The message passed from father to son. This isn’t just about either Stetson Bennett, father, or son. It’s about Bennett IV’s three brothers and his sister, of the family that’s come before and his family to one day follow. “You go see the man and talk to him and tell him that you plan on being the man, and then you go to work and show him that you are the man,” Bennett III told his son.

After all the comings and goings, the ups and downs, Bennett IV got his first real taste of Division I football when he entered the 2020 opener against Arkansas in relief of D’Wan Mathis. The junior shined, completing 20-of-29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

Smart praised Bennett IV after the game, saying his composure settled the team down after a rough start. The quarterback said he made sure to stay prepared because bad things happen when players aren’t ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

The next Saturday, friends peppered Bennett III with texts before his son made his first career start. The people asked if Dad felt nervous. He replied with Ephesians 2:4-5, another of his favorite Bible verses. ““But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved,” the verse reads.

After all, Bennett III said, this is what his son has trained for since he was 3 years old. All the rec league games, slinging it at Pierce County, the recruiting camps. All of it led to this moment. Right now, the Mailman is seizing it.

He performed well in his first start against Auburn, the school his great-uncle of the same name had been destined to attend. The latest Stetson passed for 240 yards on 17-of 28 passing, including one beautiful touchdown to George Pickens.

While being interviewed by ESPN after the game, teammates walked behind him singing, “Mailman! Mailman!” The same happened after the following game against Tennessee, when Bennett IV led the Bulldogs to a 44-21 triumph by throwing two scores and running for another.

“He understands coverage, so he knows where he’s supposed to go with the ball and he can work it across,” Smart said after the Tennessee game. “He got to watch Jake (Fromm) do that, Jake was really elite at that. Those things, he is advanced at that. I think the little things of changing the protection, looking at what play, somebody disguising the coverage, he’s growing in regard to the way he handles that.”

Back home, DuPont termed Facebook as the official “local, virtual Stetson scrapbook.” Everywhere around south Georgia, people are supporting the local hero. “He’s always loved Georgia,” Kicklighter said. “That’s his dream school. It was just kind of fairy tale how it’s happening now.”

Fairy tale. That’s a great way to describe the Bennett story. A family changed by faith, a group that has been involved in football so long they’ve gone from the split end being a novel concept to Bennett IV routinely lining up with four receivers split wide.

None of this was supposed to happen. Bennett IV himself embraces that thought with his Twitter bio that reads “Ad astra per alas porci.” The phrase translates as “to the stars on the wings of a pig,” a reference to the “when pigs fly” retort to an unlikely event.

The Bennett family, through faith and football, has gone from a poor family of farmers in south Georgia to a successful clan of businesspeople that, among others, boasts the starting quarterback at the University of Georgia. That’s the school Buddy Bennett wishes he had attended. He told his son that one of his biggest regrets was heading to Stetson University instead of walking on at Georgia.

But if you ask Stetson III or anyone else in the family, the biggest mistake you can make is doubting a Bennett.

“Who said he wouldn’t play?” Bennett III said when asked why his father regretted not going to a school where he might not have been able to see the football field.

“Hey, I’ll tell you who did — the same people that said Stetson Bennett IV couldn’t play. We don’t take that.”

* * *

ANOTHER FUN STORY: Auburn is being led this year by the sensational quarterback, Bo Nix. Last year he was the SEC Freshman of the Year after sparking the Tigers to a 48-45 thriller over Alabama in the vaunted Iron Bowl. He took the Auburn team to a 9-4 season as a freshman. I well-remember his dad, Pat, starring for Pat Dye in a spectacular career over 20 years ago and Dye’s Auburn teams were great. Auburn is 2-2 going into a noon battle at Ole Miss tomorrow. Auburn is a 4-point favorite but what makes this one fun is that Bo’s mom, Krista, is the daughter of Chattanooga’s much-beloved Jim Sattler. And I’m told he’s a dandy War Eagle grand-poppa. How much fun is that!

royexum@aol.com


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