Stetson Bennett need not defend himself. I’ll do it for him

12/31/21 - Miami Gardens -  Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and quarterback Stetson Bennett toss oranges from the trophy stage after beating Michigan 34-11 to win the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, Dec 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens.   Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

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12/31/21 - Miami Gardens - Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and quarterback Stetson Bennett toss oranges from the trophy stage after beating Michigan 34-11 to win the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, Dec 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

I love the Stetson Bennett story. I also hate the Stetson Bennett story.

I love it because, as a person of ancient age, it reminds me of why I came to follow sports. Maybe you haven’t heard of Frank Merriwell, the All-American boy. Maybe you didn’t read the Chip Hilton books. Maybe rags-to-riches tales weren’t catnip to you. (Cue Bill Murray in “Caddyshack”: “Cinderella boy, tears in his eyes.”)

Those were the stories every sportswriter wanted to write. Stetson’s Bennett’s saga is such a tale – and Mr. Bennett, as opposed to Messrs. Merriwell and Hilton, is a real person. He wanted to be Georgia’s quarterback. His parents went to UGA. He joined the Bulldogs as a walk-on. After a year at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, he returned on scholarship. He became Georgia’s quarterback. He remains Georgia’s quarterback. He was offensive MVP of the Orange Bowl. His team will play Monday for the national championship

This should be the time of his life, and maybe – we can only hope – that’s how he’ll remember it. But whenever he has spoken over the past week, he has been thrust in the position of defending himself. If you’re the quarterback some Georgia fans don’t want quarterbacking Georgia, such is life.

The usual disclaimer applies. We have no idea what percentage of Bulldogs backers believe Bennett isn’t good enough to lead their Bulldogs. Maybe this is a tiny strident minority. Maybe 97% of the electorate loves him. Thing is, we media types see disparaging tweets and ascribe weight to them. Thus has Bennett come to be viewed as something less than the people’s choice.

Bennett before the Orange Bowl: “I don’t really care what anybody else says … You can’t put any value on people who really have no clue what they’re talking about talking. I wouldn’t listen to myself if I was giving a speech on heart surgery. Not comparing football to heart surgery, but it’s the same kind of gist. So why would I listen to somebody who doesn’t do this for a living and just watches it happen? It really doesn’t bother me. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes, I guess, but I don’t have social media, so I don’t wallow in it. I don’t sit in it. I don’t think about it.”

Bennett after the Orange Bowl: “I didn’t go out there and play well in spite of people.”

Bennett on Monday: “There was no personal doubt. I knew what I had to do. … But it wasn’t to prove anything to me that I could play football in this league.”

Don’t. Can’t. Wouldn’t. Doesn’t. Didn’t. Wasn’t. That’s a slew of negative contractions. When Bennett began doing Zoom interviews last season, there was a lightness about him. He seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth. In this playoff run, it’s as if he’s awaiting the moment when an interrogator mentions “noise.” When it arrives, you can almost feel him cringe.

ExploreStetson Bennett’s story a testament to community that nurtured him
ajc.com

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

This isn’t the first time a segment of the constituency has turned on Georgia’s quarterback. It happened with Jake Fromm in Year 3. Unflattering contrasts to Justin Fields, by then doing dazzling deeds at Ohio State, surely helped induce Fromm not to stick around for a Year 4. All Fromm had done was win the SEC once, the SEC East three times.

Let’s go back 15 years. Joe Tereshinski III, a third-generation Bulldogs player, was named the No. 1 quarterback after a four-way preseason competition. You’d have thought such a choice would have stirred pride in Bulldog Nation: One of our own! Uh, no. The masses – Twitter was in its infancy, but message boards were in full flower – clamored for Matthew Stafford, the big recruit with the big arm. JT3 got hurt. Stafford would settle in as No. 1, as everyone figured he would, but here’s how many times over three seasons he took Georgia to the SEC Championship game: zero.

Maybe this happens elsewhere. Maybe Alabama fans have little faith in Nick Saban’s capacity to pick quarterbacks. Now read that sentence again and see how silly it sounds. Championships buy credibility. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship in 40 years. Georgia supporters live in daily dread of never knowing another coronation.

Every fan base frets. That’s the nature of fandom. That said, the local fretting smacks not of rational concern but of irrational hysteria. Having taken two teams to the playoff final, shouldn’t Kirby Smart be trusted to pick a quarterback? Oh, and Bennett ranks fourth nationally – one spot ahead of Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young – in passing efficiency. (Oh, and Fromm ranked fifth in 2018.)

We in the media get paid not to root for teams. We are allowed to hope for a good story, which constitutes rooting for ourselves. Stetson Bennett IV taking Georgia to a national championship would be one of the great stories in the history of the sport. Cinderella boy, tears in his eyes – and maybe not just in his.

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