How Heisman finalist Stetson Bennett made longshot trip to New York
NEW YORK — Stetson Bennett landed here on a charter flight from Athens late Friday morning for a weekend that would have seemed unfathomable given the many twists and turns of his college football journey.
Yes, the odds of the former Georgia Football Walk-On becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist were probably on the order of winning the Mega Millions, but it’s true.
The former junior college quarterback will have a starring role on Saturday’s ESPN show at 8 p.m., taking place at the Jazz at Lincoln Center, where this year’s stiff-armed trophy will be presented.
It’s quite a step up from the 2021 season, when Bennett looked buried on the depth chart at #3 in the pecking order. It was hard to imagine that his parents and three brothers and sisters would vacate their schedules to make the trip to Manhattan to be here with him.
Now here he is rubbing shoulders at an event that’s drawing some of the game’s greatest alumni and putting him in an all-quarterback group this year that includes Heisman favorite Southern Cal’s Caleb Williams, Max Duggan of the Owned by Ohio State’s TCU and CJ Stroud.
“Should I take my jacket off?” Bennett asked before posing with the other Heisman Trophy finalists in his red and black Georgia “G” Letterman jersey.
More:Why Georgia football went 30 years without a Heisman Trophy finalist before Stetson Bennett
More:Stetson Bennett on shooting him for Hendon Hooker Heisman’s snub: ‘I didn’t make that call’
“No, you don’t have to,” a Heisman officer told him in the Astor Room on the 7th floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
Before the photos, Bennett spent half an hour holding court with reporters after hitting a nearby Italian restaurant for chicken parmigiana and pasta with vodka sauce.
“It’s crazy just being up here,” Bennett, who was seated at a table, told reporters, including five who cover Georgia daily. “Went on here. I’m glad you’re here. Bunch of familiar faces. I get homesick sometimes. It’s crazy, it’s special. I’m curious what the whole thing is. I look forward to getting to know Knox Max, Caleb and CJ a little better.”
Bennett actually seemed comfortable and spoke freely about any topic that came his way.
Was this his first trip to New York for the 25-year-old from Blackshear in South Georgia? “Once when I was 15. Dropped in on my little brother’s school trip.”
Finding out he was a Heisman finalist in Arkansas Monday night before Bennett won the Burlsworth Trophy for top player who started his career as a walk-on. “Knox, my little brother, told me and he came up to me and grabbed my arm and I could see it on his face and I knew what it was.”
How offensive quality control coach Buster Faulkner got Bennett to come back here last preseason, telling him, ‘We have faith in you. That could happen if we go.” I think I just heard it went ah yeah. But fuck, he’s a little bit right, to be honest.”
On his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, including removal as a starter in 2020. “Obviously we clash. He benched me, it hurt, but we’re cool now and I think we’re certainly better off going through all these ups and downs, trials and tribulations.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is expected to arrive on Saturday to be in attendance
Former Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart knows what a first-time Heisman finalist like Bennett goes through.
He traveled to New York this week to support Williams, who will be Southern Cal’s first Heisman winner since Leinart in 2004.
“It was definitely stressful,” Leinart said. “My freshman year, I had no idea I was going to win. You hear rumble, oh you could win but I honestly had no idea. I was pretty damn nervous and the next year I knew I didn’t stand a chance so I enjoyed the city. I was so happy and I was easygoing. It was two completely different experiences for me.”
He made a return trip as a finalist in 2005 but without the pressure in a year that teammate Reggie Bush won (later vacated) and Leinart finished third behind Texas quarterback Vince Young.
Bennett grew up a Georgia football fan but said he didn’t watch Heisman Trophy ceremonies as a kid. Instead, he watched player highlights and one caught his attention.
“Johnny Football,” he said of Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M’s 2012 Heisman winner. “The guy was a rock star. He was something like the world. I’ve been watching this guy.”
Now the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Bennett is the one to be watched throwing big in big games like throwing for 274 yards and four touchdowns in a 50-30 second championship win over LSU last Saturday games makes.
“I know where that boy was and where he is now, and it’s a living testimony that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything,” said Steve Buckley, the 2018 Bennett at Jones College in Ellisville, Miss .
Sam Vaughn was a teammate on the Georgia team with Bennett in 2017.
“When I first met him and we hooked up, I was pretty impressed with him,” Vaughn said.
Both were big fans of NFL star Aaron Rodgers and exchanged texts about Roger’s exploits.
“I felt like he had some, I wouldn’t say Aaron Rodgerseque traits, but he did some things I could definitely learn from,” said Vaughn, now an Atlanta investment banker. “When I first saw him throw, saw his footwork and how fast he was, I felt like he was good enough to play anywhere. If it wasn’t Georgia then somewhere.”
Vaughn moved to West Florida after the 2017 season for more playing time, but played one season before his career ended with elbow surgery.
Bennett was out the door himself after spring 2018 training.
“We had a few conversations about it and I knew he was going to do that,” Vaughn said. “I think he saw and felt he was good enough to play, which he clearly was.”
Bennett bet on himself to get a scholarship offer after one season as a walk-on. His role as Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield on the scout team has become legendary.
Mayfield won the Heisman that season as the only previous former walk-on to become a finalist.
“He’s the target,” Bennett told the Oklahoma before the Rose Bowl. “Walk-on to Heisman, that’s amazing. Without doubt. Obviously I want to play here one day.”
He is more than played. He’s 27-3 as a starter and two wins away from a second national title.
Smart and his staff came in with an offer for Bennett, who had committed to Louisiana and also had an offer from Samford.
Buckley said he shed tears as he watched Bennet receive the Burlsworth Trophy for top player to start his career as a walk-on.
“I’ve been doing this for 29 years,” Buckley said. “I don’t know if any kid has ever committed, fought, scratched more than this kid. I’m also talking about physical, I’m talking about mental. It is difficult. What he did is hard.”
Bennett said people told him not to return to Georgia because they knew how hard it could be to get on the field.
“I think they saw it as a roster filler,” Bennett said. “They were probably right.”
As he said at the Burlsworth banquet, “I trusted myself, kept working and then finally got lucky and made it.”
Bennett was shown a picture of him from recruiting camp as a high school player at an Elite 11 event on Friday.
“I still see the same kid,” he said. “He’s quite stubborn, he needs a haircut, but he knew that at the time and he came here.”