The annual Times Free Press Best of Preps awards banquet is returning to an in-person event this summer and will be headlined by a nationally recognized college athlete.
Stetson Bennett IV, who last season guided the University of Georgia's football program to its first national championship since 1980, will be the guest speaker for the June 8 banquet at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Tickets are available for purchase at bestofprepschatt.com.
The past two awards banquets were held virtually due to COVID-19 concerns, but this year's event will once again host more than 800 of the area's top prep athletes, coaches and their families.
"We are excited to be back to a live event with Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett as our speaker as he prepares to help the Bulldogs defend their title," said Kate Tew, marketing and events manager for the Times Free Press. "Stetson's story of going from walk-on to last season's national championship MVP is an impressive message for our region's student-athletes."
Bennett went to Georgia as a walk-on player in 2017 and was best known as a freshman for emulating Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield on the Bulldogs' scout team as they prepared for the Rose Bowl, a national semifinal in the College Football Playoff that season. He left the program after the 2018 G-Day spring game and played that season at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, where he threw for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns while guiding the team to a 10-2 record. He then rejoined the Bulldogs in January 2019 as a scholarship player and was a backup that fall behind Jake Fromm.
After playing in eight of Georgia's 10 games during the 2020 season, including five starts, Bennett was third on the depth chart last summer but rose to the starter's role early in the season.
"I always had confidence and believed in myself," Bennett said. "A lot of people didn't believe, but I felt like I was right and they were wrong, so I was going to keep working at it. If I give it my best shot and they turn out to be right, that's OK. So long as I gave it my best shot, I could accept whatever happened.
"Sometimes you give other people more credit than you give yourself. That's the message I hope to get across to all the kids at the banquet. The fact that there will be so many young people in the audience is really what made me want to be there for this."
The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder from Blackshear, Georgia, helped the Bulldogs end a national championship drought that had surpassed four decades by finally overcoming Alabama with a late rally for a 33-18 victory in January in Indianapolis.
Bennett's 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell with 8:09 remaining in the title game put Georgia up 19-18, and after the Bulldogs forced Alabama's offense into a three-and-out series, Bennett connected with tight end Brock Bowers for a 15-yard touchdown and a 27-19 lead with 3:33 left.
The game was sealed moments later when Georgia's Keelee Ringo intercepted a Bryce Young pass and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown with 54 seconds to play. Bennett completed 17 of 26 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the championship victory.
One of the more lasting images from that night came in the closing seconds, when Bennett was overcome with emotion as the realization set in that the game was in hand.
"We score to go up eight but they had the ball, so I was just walking the sideline, keeping my mind locked in and my teammates ready," Bennett said. "Keelee gets the pick, and it just hits me. I didn't even know that kind of weight had been on me, but I literally felt the weight fall off my shoulders and I just started crying uncontrollably.
"I was a pretty good baseball player in high school, and we were No. 1 in the state and rolling through the playoffs my senior year. I remember on the bus ride to the state championship game we were already planning what we would do after it was over because we were just so overconfident. We wound up getting swept, so then fast-forward to before the national championship and that memory from high school came back. I didn't plan anything or think about anything other than just preparing for and then playing that game, so when it was over, I guess all those emotions I had built up just came out."
Georgia's triumph ended a seven-game losing streak to Alabama while clinching the Bulldogs' second Associated Press national championship and their first since 1980. Their 14-1 record set a program mark for single-season wins.
"What's unique about Stetson is the guy handled everything the right way," Georgia coach Kirby Smart told the Times Free Press during the 2020 season. "He was not getting a lot of reps early in camp, and to his credit, he took a lot of value in the reps he did get.
"He came and saw me a couple of times and wanted to know where he was and why he wasn't getting a lot of reps. He didn't cry, pout, leave or transfer. He just kept working and working, and when he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it."
Prior to the national title game, in the Orange Bowl semifinal against Michigan, Bennett was 20-of-30 passing for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers to help the Bulldogs bounce back after losing the Southeastern Conference championship game to Alabama weeks earlier.
Bennett played high school football at Pierce County, where he led the school to three consecutive state playoff appearances, throwing for 3,724 yards, running for 500 and scoring 40 total touchdowns as a senior. Despite those accomplishments, Bennett was rated a two-star quarterback by recruiting services and his only Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer was from Middle Tennessee State University due to the fact he was only 5-9 and 185 pounds at the time.
"From where I'm from, very few people go to college," Bennett said. "A lot of them, especially the athletes, that do go wind up coming back because they get homesick. You feel these emotions like maybe I'm not good enough, and you think you're alone and the only one going through it.
"But the truth is that everyone has those doubts. The ones who make it are the ones who are determined not to quit. Hopefully someone at the banquet can hear that and it will help them to stick it out when things get tough later."