The midafternoon parade included a bevy of trucks, cars and students from the high school and middle school. The man of the hour was stationed in the back of a black Ford truck at the end of the line, waving and interacting with the healthy number of spectators decked in Georgia red and Pierce blue.
“It’s tough to put into words,” Bennett said. “You come back to the town where you know basically everybody’s name. You feel like you don’t deserve all this attention. You just won a football game. But it’s special because I know that a lot of the fanfare I receive from playing for Georgia and winning the championship, a lot of people are looking for something. But I know that everybody here, in my hometown that I grew up with, they’re just doing it because they’re proud of us, proud of me and proud of their home. They’d do it for anybody that’s from here.”
Bennett’s story is one that will be referenced throughout college football history. The least heralded starter of a stacked Bulldogs roster became the most important, helping them overcome decades of disappointment.
Georgia’s regular season, while perfect by record, wasn’t without questions. The primary debate centered on the team’s ceiling with Bennett, a former walk-on who lacks the usual physical gifts of top-tier signal callers. The naysayers grew louder after Bennett and the Bulldogs’ star-studded defense floundered in the first meeting with Alabama, costing Georgia an SEC championship.
Coach Kirby Smart and offense coordinator Todd Monken stuck by Bennett, endorsing the kid whose competitive nature exceeded his physical acumen. Bennett threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl, leading Georgia to a 34-11 win over Michigan that put them in the national championship game against Alabama.
“(Smart) has courage,” said Stetson Bennett III, the quarterback’s father. “Everybody cares about the (recruiting ranking) stars; Kirby cares about football players. He knew. The locker room knows. I don’t care if you have zero stars or five stars, the locker room knows. We love everybody in that locker room, the quarterback room is amazing, but (Smart) having the courage to play someone who everybody outside the arena said isn’t good enough, good for him.”
Bennett wasn’t without blemishes in the title game, including a controversial fumble that helped produce Alabama’s first touchdown. But two of his final three passes went for touchdowns to freshmen – a beautiful 40-yard heave to Adonai Mitchell and a 15-yard score to acclaimed tight end Brock Bowers – to finally get Georgia over that Alabama hump. He finished 17 for 26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, completing a season in which he showed the same resiliency that’s been admired by his friends, family and coaches since his flag football days.
Bennett is a star now. But he’s still the same walk-on who had to endure years of turbulence before having a moment on Good Morning America and having a parade in his name. “Who I am doesn’t rise and fall with my magazine picture,” said Bennett, never short on level-headed perspective.
None of the 2021-22 accomplishments matter for the upcoming campaign. Bennett knows his final collegiate season will require his finest work.
“I’m excited for the months we’re going to have together throwing routes whenever these cameras are gone and me and the boys are learning how to get better at football,” Bennett said. “I’m excited for (Mitchell) going into his second year. I’m excited to see Brock. I’m excited to see Ladd (McConkey). I’m excited to see our O-line, everybody coming together to be more cohesive as a unit.
“I’m excited strictly for the football aspect. I love to play it and I love what it teaches us. And it’s a challenge when we play in the toughest conference in the United States. I think we’re all ready for it.”
But first, school. In between the games, practices and scheduled appearances, he’s still a student. Hours after wrapping up his parade, Bennett had an environmental economics assignment due 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
“I have to do that one in the Pierce night lab,” he said.