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AP photo by Darron Cummings / Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett celebrates after the Bulldogs beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 11 in Indianapolis. Bennett is the guest speaker at Wednesday's Best of Preps banquet, hosted by the Times Free Press at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

With this newspaper's Best of Preps banquet approaching its 25-year anniversary heading into Wednesday night's edition at the Chattanooga Convention Center, the magic moments from past guest speakers can blur a bit.

For instance, a speaker once told the annual crowd of 5,000 or so: "Too many people think the more you play something the better you get, and that's not true. Specialization has gotten out of hand. We've forgotten to have fun." Was it former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz or lifelong Brave and fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Chipper Jones?

(Answer: Smoltz)

Which of two former NFL quarterbacks with longtime ties to the city of New Orleans — Drew Brees, who played for the Saints, or Eli Manning, who grew up in NOLA but spent his entire pro career with the New York Giants — once spied a young person who appeared to be pop star Justin Bieber on a giant video board during a crucial moment of a pivotal road game, turned to one of his massive offensive linemen, a lineman almost assuredly untouched by "Bieber Fever," and said, "There's your favorite musician," that one-liner breaking the pressure and sending his team on to victory?

(Answer: Brees)

Speaking at the banquet, one athlete from a completely individual sport once said this about his favorite sports moment not involving his own profession: "I wasn't very big. I'm not sure I even got in for as much as a minute in the (soccer) state title game, and we ended up losing. But just to be a part of it, to play someone we'd never played before, to get to spend the night in a hotel with your teammates, that will always be special to me." Who was it?

(Answer: NASCAR royalty Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

It is an incredibly special list of past speakers that national championship-winning University of Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV will follow in the footsteps of on Wednesday. Be it record-setting Olympic medal swimmer Michael Phelps, women's tennis legends and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, Brees and Manning, Jones and Smoltz, former Southeastern Conference football coaches Bill Curry (perhaps the most polished speaker of them all), David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier, former Tennessee Titans and current Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, etc., they've all inspired and entertained a convention hall full of young athletes each spring as few can.

And Bennett should similarly take over the room as surely as he took over the College Football Playoff national title game in January, when he guided the Bulldogs to two fourth-quarter touchdowns to knock off then-reigning champ Alabama and hand the Dawgs their first natty since 1980.

The name Stetson Bennett IV may sound like some fourth-generation Atlanta lawyer who wears a bow tie and seersucker suit each weekend when he takes his family to Sunday brunch at the Piedmont Driving Club, but his game is pure guts and guile, as one might expect of someone who once walked on at UGA, left for junior college, then returned to his dream school from the small Georgia town of Blackshear (population, 3,506, according to the 2020 census).

Photo Gallery

Best of Preps guest speakers through the years

And before anyone thinks this little speaking gig is a pretty big challenge for a young man who graduated from Pierce County High School in 2017, it could be argued that the funniest, most relaxed Best of Preps speaker ever was former University of Tennessee basketball player Admiral Schofield, who took on the assignment in the spring of 2019 a mere 75 days after the Volunteers' NCAA tournament run ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Purdue.

A single story Schofield told from that June evening to prove inexperience is not alway an obstacle: Running into Vols coach Rick Barnes during the first days of his freshman year, a 268-pound Admiral was asked by his coach: "You like steak, don't you?"

Barnes then asked: "You like potatoes, too, don't you?"

When Schofield answered "yes" to both questions, Barnes replied: "Well, you're not touching a basketball until you lose 30 pounds."

Said Schofield as he finished the story: "And I didn't. The first day I walked into the practice facility, I saw the student managers all running to put the basketballs in a closet. They had this big, black treadmill, and I was on that thing every day for two months. I almost went to a Dick's Sporting Goods to buy a basketball so I could remember what it felt like, but I stopped eating cupcakes."

Indeed, he soon weighed 235 pounds, was named a first-team All-SEC player his senior year after averaging 16.5 points per game and is currently on a two-way NBA contract with the Orlando Magic.

Anyone who wishes to see if Bennett can match or better Schofield's excellent effort — which during the most recent nonvirtual Best of Preps event before this one due to the coronavirus pandemic — can purchase tickets at bestofprepschatt.com. All athletes and coaches who were named to a Best of Preps team during the past school year can claim their complimentary ticket to the event by contacting marketing@timesfreepress.com. As Brees was wrapping up his Best of Preps talk in 2011, he touched on a theme that's been repeated over and over again through the years by far more speakers than not.

"Play as many sports as you can for as long as you can before you have to narrow it down," Brees said that night. "Do what you want to do. Do what makes you happy."

Because as Smoltz noted during his turn at the podium in 2015, to do something that doesn't make you happy is anything but fun, which is what playing sports at all levels, but especially in high school, was always supposed to be about.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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