INDIANAPOLIS – The hero was suddenly easy to spot and yet impossible to see. Just like he always was.
The 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship was over for a few minutes, the Georgia Bulldogs eventually defeating archenemy Alabama 33-18 in a competition much closer than that final score will ever explain. The air above the Lucas Oil Stadium lawn was full of cigar smoke and confetti. Georgia soccer players, coaches, and their families were running around frantically, gathering in pockets of people, hugging, sobbing, and screaming in groups of two, three, five at most.
Then there was the horde encircling No. 13. The quarterback. Stetson Bennett IV, he has the country club name and work ethic. They couldn’t see him, but he was definitely there, his six-foot (1.70-m) body easily hidden by the television cameras, boom microphones, and full-arm extension smartphone camera snaps.
“Bennett! Bennett! They need you on stage! ” shouted a Georgia athlete with a few security guards in tow as they worked to break into the ring of photographers, reporters, and teammates who had walled the quarterback. The kid who gave scholarships to smaller schools and decided to move on in Georgia only to go to junior college, to return, lose the starting job and get it back due to a starter injury while being followed by Dawgs who didn’t I don’t think he had the lightning bolt or the talent to take on 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 boy who went to games in Athens, Georgia and was walking around his garden with a soccer ball draped in a UGA jersey under his arm, acting out every child’s fantasy in the world – winning everything for the team born adoring.
“Bennett! Bennett! We really have to go! “
“At the moment?” the 23-year-old with the curly head called back.
“Yes, you are the offensive MVP!”
Bennett laughed and trotted to join his companions on the podium. “Well, look at that!” said a teammate, pulling a black Victory Lane title t-shirt over his shoulder, to the quarterback as he sped by. “They all love your ass now, don’t they ?!”
The quarterback grinned and nodded, but graciously refused to indulge in it. He did the same when he stood on this stage and absorbed the applause of the thousands of fans dressed in red and black, many of whom had been benching since the beginning of December. He politely avoided questions about doubters during the post-game celebration.
“What is your story, your perseverance, your struggle, your attitude towards all the outsiders, all the walk-ons out there saying?” College GameDay host Rece Davis asked him live on global television on stage.
Bennett’s answer? “I mean, I have no idea …”
He later did the same during his talks with the national media.
“I’ve been telling you the whole time, and I think some people may not have believed me, that I really don’t hear about this stuff, the social media and whatever, I really don’t,” he said on Monday that night for Tuesday morning. “Our goal was to do what we did. We made it. Some things someone said about me on the internet won’t change that. “
Good thing. Because at halfway through the game on Monday, a lot of people were saying a lot, from hardcore dawgs to people who probably hadn’t seen much, if any, Georgia football all season. He was 11 of 17 for 127 yards, no TDs, and was sacked twice. Every throw looked questionable, and so the questions rose like a tidal wave.
It only got worse when he lost a pass-turned fumble early in the fourth quarter (whether it actually was a fumble is a whole different discussion) leading to an Alabama touchdown pass and an 18-13 Crimson Tide -Guide led. But Bennett responded just four games later with his own 40-yard touchdown pass. Georgia took the lead 19-18 and was never behind.
Bennett’s last stats line: 17-for-26, 224 yards, 2 TDs, both coming in the fourth quarter.
“The fumble was not cathartic,” he said demonstratively in his press conference after the game. “That was just football. I didn’t bow my head and say, ‘We won’t lose this game like that.’ ”
Then he started rattling off the names of the teammates he said got promoted and did what they had to do to win the game.
Maybe Bennett is not what Bennett did, said, or felt. But his family thought about it in the stands. His followers at home in Pierce County, Georgia, thought so. And so were the teammates he mentioned to take attention away from himself. Not that way. Not him.
“We didn’t want to let that happen,” said recipient Jermaine Burton during the celebration on the field. He started this ride with an 18-yard composer of a trench. “We wouldn’t let that happen to any of us, but above all, we definitely couldn’t let that happen to Stetson. Not after everything he’s done for us. It wouldn’t end like this. “
It didn’t. It didn’t end with the bizarre fiddling. It didn’t end with the wobbly first three quarters. It didn’t end when Twitter said he should be put on the bench.
Instead, the too small, too slow, “he’s just a game manager” dreamer turned walk-on-turned-starter was the first former walk-on to beat a Nick Saban team since 1997. The first quarterback to be recruited as a two-star recruit to win a national title. The first QB to be placed outside the top 20 in his position to win a national title in the past two decades. He finished 104th.
The last five quarterbacks to win the College Football Playoffs Cup have been Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Mac Jones. They were all first-round NFL draft picks. Bennett’s latest predictions ranged from being a late third-round player to being a free-agent signer at best. But now he’s the first quarterback to lead Georgia to a national championship since New Year’s 1981. He won’t have to buy lunch or a beer in the state of Georgia for the rest of his life.
“Did I cry? Yes.” Bennett confessed when he left the media room at around 1 a.m. “I think I haven’t cried in years, but there was no stopping tonight.
Stetson Bennett IV turned into the hall and headed towards the locker room, where his teammates waited lovingly and no social media haters were allowed near the door. He stepped into a ring of waiting staff from the sports department and Indiana police. The little guy immediately disappeared between them.
The immortal Dawg hero. Easy to see and yet not to be seen.