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INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes in life you see a story that is almost too hard to believe, and you wonder what kind of dedication it would take to lead someone to that reality. Well, look no further than Georgia starting quarterback Stetson Bennett, who wrote the final chapter of his own story on Monday night.
In college football, a walk-on rarely touches the field during the regular season, much less become the starting quarterback of his team. He’s normally situated somewhere on the scout team, preparing his scholarship teammates for their next opponent. This was the case for Bennett, who played the role of Baker Mayfield in practices as the Bulldogs prepared to face Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose Bowl.
But sometimes, if you work hard enough, those practices and hard work pay off down the line. This was the case of Stetson Bennett, who can now call himself a National Champion.
After going through fall camp, Bennett found himself thrust into the starting role since JT Daniels was still recovering from an injury. From the season opener against Clemson to the finale against Alabama, Bennett never relinquished his starting spot, though it certainly would’ve been easy for his head coach to replace him.
When asked after the national championship game about the journey Bennett has been on and whether he knew back then that Bennett would lead Georgia to a National Championship, Kirby Smart expressed confidence in his quarterback.
“I’d have thought, ‘Hell yeah, we won a National Championship!’ I’d have been pumped. Five years ago, he was delivering passes like Baker Mayfield against the scout team. There’s a lot of guys that saw him on that scout team make plays with his feet, his arm whip and decision making, and we were very impressed.
“But again, to think that it would come this far from that National Championship he was a part of there to this one, man, what a story.”
Though the 33-18 final score looks rather lopsided, there were times on Monday night when the situation looked pretty bleak, especially when Bennett fumbled the football in the fourth quarter. But this would not be the defining moment for a young man who had put in so much work to get here. He was hell bent on not being the reason Georgia lost the football game and was ready to get back on the field to redeem himself. He did that on the next series, driving his team 75 yards in four plays for a touchdown.
He spoke about the fumble and the following touchdown drive after the game:
“Yeah, I mean, I knew that once I fumbled the ball I was not going to be the reason we lost this game. Coach Monk dialed up awesome play action. We had been running the ball a lot, and I think we went three straight play action and then one deep ball, then we got them to jump offsides because they’d been timing up the snap a lot. But it’s the thing that Coach Smart and the whole team has been preaching all year: resiliency, toughness, composure, connection.
“I knew that those guys beside me had my back,” Bennett added. “And I had their back, too”
Just as he’s picked this football team up all season, his defense did the same for him, picking off Bryce Young late in the game and returning it for a touchdown. Still, some folks doubted how good this team really was. Yes, the first matchup didn’t go as planned, thanks to some poor defensive effort and interesting offensive play calling, but this team held onto each other throughout the journey, never giving into one play or the one loss. They’ve been on a mission since the start of the season, which led them to a national championship.
Bennett doesn’t remember the last time he cried or showed emotion, he said it’s been years. But after he led his team to a championship that has eluded Georgia for 41 years, the emotions finally ran out of him.
“Then the tears afterwards, that just hit me. I hadn’t cried in, I don’t know, years, but that just came over me. That’s what — when you put as much time as we do into this thing, blood, sweat, tears, it means something.”
It’s obvious that this season will be remembered for the dominating defense, but the story of Stetson Bennett will live on in Athens forever. When you think back on the 2021 Bulldogs, the first name that will most likely come to mind is the former walk-on quarterback who had so many doubters, but who kept putting one foot in front of the other.
In full Stetson Bennett form, he never made the season about himself, and he never will. He was surrounded by a group of talented players who picked him up whenever he ever needed a lift. And the magnitude of his defense isn’t lost on Bennett.
“Well, I mean, first of all, it was the defense who kept us in this game. While we were stumbling over our own feet the entire first half and then starting out in the second half. They won this game for us. We executed a few drives. We could have done so much better. But we got the job done whenever we needed to.”
As he’s mentioned countless times, he wouldn’t be in this spot without his family’s support and encouragement along the way. The late night calls, picking him up when he was down, the conversations about staying at Georgia and seeing it through, Bennett is thankful for all of it. So postgame, when he was asked what he wanted to do to celebrate, his family was on his mind.
“But I haven’t seen my family yet. I just want to go hug. They’re — they’re the ones who have been in my corner the entire time, always supported me. That’s what I’m looking forward to right now.”
On Monday night, Stetson Bennett and a group of players who gave their all made history and did it the right way. There’s one thing that his story should tell us all, and we should never forget.
Don’t ever give up on your dreams, no matter what.