GSU's Matthews honors friend with jersey number

Demarius Matthews isn't sure why his friend Rajaan Bennett wore No. 5. He doesn't think it had anything to do with Reggie Bush, the star running back who won the Heisman Trophy in that number at USC.

"You ask him who his idol is, the first thing he would tell you is, ‘I don't have one,'" Matthews said.

Matthews, a freshman cornerback at Georgia State, knows this much. When Matthews takes the field Sept. 2 for his school's first game, he will wear No. 5 in memory of Bennett, the McEachern High star killed in an apparent murder-suicide in February.

"Every time I put it on, I ask him and God to watch over me, help me do my best," Matthews said.

Soon after Bennett's death, Matthews called coaches to ask for jersey No. 5. After making sure it was unclaimed, they granted it to him.

Said Matthews, "I just felt that it was the right thing to do."

In the process of creating a team, as Georgia State has done for the past two years, assigning jersey numbers has been one of the less difficult elements, though one not completely free of some complexity.

"There's 90 kids out here," Panthers assistant head coach George Pugh said after practice Thursday morning. "Every one of them has a specific number that they want."

Generally, players were asked for their three top choices, and coaches did their best to accommodate.

Said Pugh, "All the single-digit numbers, you can bet that two and three guys would want those numbers, including a defensive lineman."

Not everyone went that low. Quarterback Drew Little asked for -- and received -- No. 11. It was the number he wore at Henry County High, which he originally picked because his high school quarterbacks coach wore it in college.

Offensive tackle Joseph Gilbert wore No. 70 at Georgia Tech, but it was already taken when he transferred. Not wanting to make waves, he took 71, which he said "was actually my brother's number in high school. I'll throw it on and wear it for him."

Nose guard Eduardo Curry chose No. 91.

"That was the year I was born, 1991," he said. "I thought it was a good year for me, seeing that that's the year I came into the world."

Matthews said wearing Bennett's number drives him.

"When I want to quit or stop on a play, I can't because the first thing I think about is, I can't let him down," Matthews said.

That responsibility extends past the field. After Bennett's father died in a car accident when he was 10, Bennett became the man of the house to his two younger siblings. Matthews vows to take care of Bennett's family just as Bennett, who had signed with Vanderbilt and carried a 3.8 GPA at McEachern, had sought to do. Matthews said he and Bennett, who became friends in eighth grade, were like brothers.

"If you needed something, he'd give it to you," he said. "And if he didn't have it, he'd find a way to get it for you."

Matthews trades text messages with Bennett's mother, Narjaketha, every other day. He visits with Bennett's siblings, both of whom are at McEachern, when he is home from Georgia State.

"They've taken on that role of being a big brother," Narjaketha said of Matthews and another close friend, Marcus Gamble.

Narjaketha has established a foundation in her son's memory to benefit underprivileged children. On Sept. 4, she will host a charity walk and a youth rally for the foundation.

She plans to be at the Georgia Dome this season to cheer on Georgia State's No. 5.

"They're trying to do everything in their power to make sure his name stays alive," she said. "When he told he was going to wear No. 5, all I could do was hug him."