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Staff photo by Olivia Ross / University of Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett answers questions from hosts Stephen Hargis and David Paschall during the Times Free Press Best of Preps awards banquet Wednesday night at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The post appeared on a University of Georgia parents Facebook page a couple of weeks ago. The mother of a UGA student wrote: "My daughter had to go all the way to Italy to meet Stetson Bennett."

Said Bennett, the MVP of January's College Football Playoff national championship win over then-reigning champ Alabama: "Yeah, that was wild. I was over there for a classics course. Fifteen days. We started in Greece, then went to Florence, Pompeii, Naples. Probably 20 people over there recognized me."

Asked how many people might have recognized him a year ago outside of his traveling party, he grinned slightly: "Probably nobody."

If Wednesday night's Best of Preps awards banquet is any indication, everybody seems to recognize Stetson Fleming Bennett IV these days. Close to 1,000 people squeezed their way into a sold-out Chattanooga Convention Center ballroom for this newspaper's annual salute to our area's finest prep athletes and coaches, as well as to hear the former walk-on Stetson Fleming Bennett IV — the best name in all of college football — talk about the Bulldogs' first national title in 41 years.

"It was surreal," he told the audience of how he felt at the moment Dawgs cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted a Bryce Young pass and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown to turn a nervous 26-18 lead into a 33-18 victory. "Right before, I was talking to the offense, getting us ready to go back on the field, because if Bama had scored and gotten a 2-point conversion, we would have had to drive down the field and kick a field goal to win."

That preparation, focus and understanding that it's never over until it's over had been learned the hard way during Bennett's senior baseball season at Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Georgia.

"We had the best team in the state," he recalled. "There's no way we weren't going to win. But we went to North Hall (High School) in Savannah and got swept. I never thought about what I'd do if my team won before they won after that."

But he also knew that Ringo's pick — at least as long as he didn't fumble it back to Bama — iced the game.

"I didn't even see Kelee score," Bennett said. "But it was the weirdest feeling. I could feel all this weight, all this pressure falling off my shoulders. I started boo-hoo crying. It didn't look very good."

Actually, it looked perfect. It looked like just what one might expect from a former walk-on who was not only not starting at the dawn of the 2021 season, "I wasn't even getting reps," he said of his preseason practice routine.

But he started soon enough and long enough to finish in the top five nationally in passing efficiency and yards per completion while throwing for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Photo Gallery

2022 Best of Preps awards banquet

So what advice would he give all the high school athletes in the crowd who might want to continue their athletic careers in college, even if it required walking on?

"Go all in," he said. "Be stubborn as a mule. Set your jaw every day. (But) make sure you love it, because getting up at 6 a.m. to practice is a grind."

Most success stories are shaped by the grind, the tiresome and often lonely work of self-improvement. Bennett didn't grow up in Atlanta going to fancy gyms and personal trainers and quarterback finishing schools.

He grew up in Blackshear, which was big enough to be blessed with a McDonald's and a Burger King, "but if you wanted to go to Walmart, you had to go to Waycross," Bennett added.

Yet from that childhood he has quite possibly become the biggest star of Georgia football since Herschel Walker led the Bulldogs to the 1980 season's national championship.

"My cellphone calls still haven't returned to normal," Bennett said of the difference winning a title has made. "That's probably left me forever."

One word about that cellphone. It drew a lot of attention as the Bulldogs marched toward their title because it wasn't a smartphone. Asked Wednesday night if he was aware of all the media attention that phone drew prior to the national championship game, Bennett slyly answered: "No, I couldn't see it on my flip phone."

The most unexpected of those calls on that phone after the title came from comedian Theo Von, one of Bennett's favorites.

But the oddest moment didn't have anything to do with an autograph request or posed picture or a congrats from a celebrity.

"A guy texted me wanting to know if he should buy a three-toed sloth," he recalled. "I said he should."

It would be normal for all this success and notoriety to have changed Bennett, to make the 24-year-old son of pharmacists Denise and Stetson III feel like the Big Man on Campus, even if he stands but 5-foot-11, weighs 190 pounds and looks as if just stepped out of a UGA fraternity house.

But when he returns to Blackshear, his parents have found a way to keep him humble.

"The last time I went home," he said, "they had me sweeping up the cigarette butts outside their pharmacy."

If Bennett can lead the Dawgs to back-to-back national titles, he'll have folks in Athens, Georgia, sweeping up confetti from a victory parade to celebrate the most famous former walk-on in college football history.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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