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Georgia Football

What's in a Name? Georgia Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett - A Brief History

September 12, 2021
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ATHENS - It’s a wonder that Stetson Bennett IV’s knee didn’t stick to the turf while in the victory formation in Fayetteville in 2020. 

Through generations of tough times, “stickability” has been a term used by his family to describe not just getting through but thriving in hard times. If Bennett IV’s knee stuck to the ground, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to the people who know him or his family. 

Stickability is a real thing to Stetson Bennett IV, and his forefathers. Bennett IV, known as “Stet” to his family, is the fourth person to have his name. The process of how he ended up with his name is as winding as his path to, from and back to UGA. 

"When I left I never thought I would be back,” he told reporters after the 37-10 win at Arkansas

Maybe not, but perseverance and stickability are in his blood—particularly for the school he loves. 

“He would die on that field for his team and Georgia,” said Bennett IV’s high school coach Sean Pender, who left Pierce County for Brunswick the year after Bennett IV left for Athens. “He loves that school. Loves it.”

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ATLANTA - Georgia QB Stetson Bennett during No. 4 Georgia's 52-7 win over Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 30, 2019. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

From the Brantley Bandits to Silver Britches — this is how Stetson Bennett IV got his name, and the journey he took to wind up in the victory formation on the field at the University of Arkansas where his grandfather once coached. 

The long and winding tale of the Bennetts starts with tragedy. But faith and football had major influences on how the family rose from poverty - what they call being “dirt poor.”  

Stetson F. Bennett, Sr, known as Papa Bennett to his family, was the son of sharecroppers. He had an elementary school education.

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Stetson F. Bennett, Sr reading the Bible.

Papa Bennett made moonshine. That was one way he provided for his family. It is a craft that requires a lot of time away from home, and the ability to not be found for long periods of time. 

Off making shine, Papa Bennett was unaware that his first child, a two-year old girl named Violet, had died. His wife, Irene, was forced to wait for her husband’s return to tell him the horrible news. All she could do was “keep vigil over the dead child laid on the ‘cooling board,” the couple’s granddaughter Vi Bennett said. 

When Papa Bennett learned of his daughter’s passing, his life changed in a fundamental way. 

“He was so distraught he fell to his knees, and asked God for forgiveness and vowed to follow Him for the rest of his days,” Vi Bennett said of her grandfather. 

Papa Bennett went from making sprits to preaching about the Holy Spirit. 

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Faith has been a major part of the Bennetts since that tragedy. Papa Bennett became a Baptist preacher traveling by foot, if necessary, to spread the gospel. Over time he farmed in Wayne County, drove a school bus and eventually was elected as the Clerk of Court for the county — a position he held for 16 years.

Football made its mark with the next generation. Papa Bennett’s oldest son, Stetson F. Bennett, Jr., was the quarterback for Jesup High School and earned a scholarship to play at Auburn. But his trip to the Plains was interrupted by injury and a “secret” wedding to his wife Patsy. The two remained married until his passing. Stetson Jr. went on to serve as the Clerk of Court in Wayne County for decades after taking over for his father in 1965. For the next 47 years, at times through difficult health problems, he served in that role for the county. 

Meanwhile, Bennett Jr’s brother, Richard “Buddy” Bennett had proven to be a pretty good signal-caller, too. He won a state title at Jesup in 1954. Like his older brother, Buddy was good enough to earn a scholarship to play football in college. There was one hang-up, however. After Buddy’s first year at Stetson University he found out the school was dropping football. 

Although not tragic, it was life-changing news. It was 1957, and Buddy had to move on, but to where, and how? He knew a coach from Stetson that was headed to South Carolina to work for the football program. Buddy figured he could make it work in Columbia… but he had to get there first. 

So he walked and hitchhiked the entire way — nearly 400 miles — to Columbia from DeLand, FL. 

He played for three years for the Gamecocks and was one of the top rushers in the league his final two years in the ACC. Buddy then moved into coaching. He started at Waycross High before jumping into the college ranks. He was an assistant under Bobby Dodd at Tech, then back to Carolina and then to Screven County. 

He then transitioned to college again — this time at East Tennessee State University. While in Johnson City, he and his wife found out they would welcome another child into the world. By that time the Bennett brothers had decided they wanted the name “Stetson Bennett” to carry on. 

The problem was that Stetson Jr. and his wife were past having children. They had three girls and were done with childrearing. In that time the brothers decided that the next boy from Buddy and his wife Jayne would be Stetson Bennett, III. 

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A portrait of Stetson F. Bennett, Sr.

That happened in 1969, which was the same year East Tennessee State took out Terry Bradshaw and Louisiana Tech to win the national title. It was the same year the nickname “Bennett’s Bandits” came to be. 

Buddy went on to work at Tennessee where he coached a record-breaking secondary that tallied 40 interceptions in a season. Then he headed to Arkansas, where he coached under Frank Broyles. He went back to Tech before ending his college coaching career at Virginia Tech in the late 1970s. 

The moves around the South were common for college coaches, but the family settled down in South Georgia by the 1980s. Stetson Bennett III was a quarterback, too. Although he grew up listening to Larry Munson while he gathered pecans on Saturdays in the fall, Bennett III needed to find a place other than UGA to play.

By the time college rolled around in the late 1980s, he found his way to Georgia Southern. Erk Russell’s triple-option offense made the Eagles national champions more than once, and quarterbacks in Statesboro ran the ball - and got tackled a lot. 

Bennett III figured he would make a go of it running the triple option for Erk. After spring ball in the late 1980s, Erk brought Bennett III into his office and asked what he thought of running the triple option. 

“I think I will make a really good defensive back in a couple of years,” he told the legendary coach. He loved football, but learned that running the football as an undersized quarterback was not ideal. 

It was time to move on from the sport. Bennett III transferred to UGA and focused on pharmacy. That decision would bring him back to the area he grew up a few years later to work in local, independent pharmacies in the area. 

Soon after that Stetson Bennett IV, or “Stet” was born. 22 years later he slipped on red britches and won a game on a field where his grandfather once coached.

The decision to walk-on at UGA came after official visits and recruiting from Georgia’s new coach Kirby Smart in 2017. The Bulldogs had two highly-touted players at QB already, but Bennett had been groomed for stickability — in whatever form that came in. He also loved the Dawgs, so UGA was his college choice.

That year he was quite sticky with Smart. Bennett IV was on the scout team as the Bulldogs powered their way to the SEC championship and on to the Rose Bowl Game to face Oklahoma. 

Bennett IV was to mimic Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. He drew rave reviews from folks in the program at the time. 

“Stetson Bennett is a beast, man,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said before the game. “He puts a lot of pressure on our defense.”

“He's phenomenal,” Roquan Smith, who would later be a first-round draft pick, said in the run up to the game. “He's quick as a cat.”

“He's made Roquan look silly. He's made me look silly. He's made a lot of people look silly,” Lorenzo Carter said. “You just have to practice like we're playing the game, and Stetson does a good job at that.”

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CARSON, CA - Georgia QB Stetson Bennett during practice for the 2018 Rose Bowl Game at Stubhub Center on December 29, 2017. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

“If you wanted to be like a Baker Mayfield mini-me, that kid can play ball. He can play probably at any school he wants to right now and be up for starting if he was just a little taller. But the kid, he can play. I love him.” UGA DB J.R. Reed said before the Rose Bowl Game.

Smart said he grew to know just how tough Bennett IV was during those practices. 

“He’s a great competitor,” Smart said. “I spent a whole year with him on the scout team the one year he was here, and I got to see the guy. Very composed. Very good poise.” 

It wasn’t anything new for the signal-caller. From the time he was little to his final season at Pierce County, Bennett IV slowly worked his way into becoming a deft quarterback. He wasn’t big, but he knew what he was doing. His arm was impressive, and he could run with the best of them.

When Bennett IV was growing up his father encouraged football by creating the atmosphere in the community for young children to work on academics and sports after the school day ended. The grass field beside the pharmacy where Stetson III worked was put to use each day after school for football drills. 

“After school, he provided the children with tutoring and a PB&J sandwich and milk,” said Pender, who was the coach at Brantley County at the time. “Stetson, the dad, built a weight room out there, too. The kids would do their homework; they would get a snack; and then they would practice.”

Pender said the after-school spot allowed the children, who were not in high school yet, to form a bond. 

“They did more together than just play football,” Pender said.

The Brantley Bandits, as the group was known, was very successful on the field. The group played 34 football games as 12-year olds. They fell in the semifinal game of the state playoffs. It was a remarkable success for all of the hard work the group put in. As high school approached, Bennett IV settled in at Pierce County, where Pender wound up after a couple of high school coaching spots along the way. He was able to hook up with Bennett IV, and the Bears were about to start scoring points and winning games. 

Only twice in the previous 15 years had the Bears gotten into the playoffs before Pender took over. They didn’t miss it from year one on. Pender’s final year in Blackshear was Bennett IV’s as well. That culminated in a run to the state quarterfinals. Their only region setback was a 56-46 loss to future UGA teammates Richard LeCounte’s Liberty County team. 

“We grew up playing football against each other,” LeCounte said after the win over Arkansas. “I have seen him sling it a lot. I am a big fan of his.”

Pierce County scored 44 points a game. 

“Stetson had a knack for understanding who would be open,” Pender said. “He knew where the defense would be.”

Sadly the summer before Bennett IV’s senior season, Richard "Buddy" Gordon Bennett, Sr., the man who orchestrated that his father’s name would move on with his son, passed. He would never see his grandson slip on the Silver Britches, or the journey he would take to put on the red ones a few years after that. 

And a journey that was.

Justin Fields was heavily decorated. Jake Fromm had taken Georgia within a play of winning a National Championship. Stet might have been able to move pretty well, but even he couldn’t maneuver out of this position. It would be hard, but if he wanted to play college football in a meaningful way, he would have to move on.

And so he did — to Mississippi and Jones Community College. 12 games, 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns later, the South Georgia native was getting ready to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette. Then Pender struck up a conversation with Sam Pittman, Georgia’s offensive line coach. 

Pittman was recruiting Warren McClendon, who played under Pender at Brunswick. Pittman took over the Arkansas job in 2020, and would have to face his old team in the season opener. No one could have predicted that in early 2019.

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ATHENS - Georgia QB Stetson Bennett talks with UGA coach Kirby Smart during No. 3 Georgia's 63-17 win over Murray State at Sanford Stadium on September 7, 2019. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

“I asked Sam if they would have liked to have him back. He was about to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette, and I think you could tell Stet’s heart wasn’t in it,” Pender said. “Sam just said back to me: “Absolutely we want him back.’”

But Bennett IV would have to figure it out. Fromm was still in Athens, but Fields was off to Ohio State. The 2019 depth chart looked very different than in 2018 at Georgia. 

“Things would have to be different,” Pender said. “And I think they were. When he came back he would get to compete for No. 2, and he won that spot.”

A year later, with Fromm off to the NFL, Bennett came off the bench to spark the Bulldogs. Down 7-2, Bennett moved the Dawgs 59 yards in eight plays in under a minute before Jack Podlesny nailed a 38-yard FG attempt to put UGA down 7-5 at the half. 

In the second half the Dawgs scored 25 offensive points to run away with the game. Pittman was almost certainly rethinking his strategy to recruit Bennett back to Georgia after watching him go 20 of 29 for 211 yards with two TDs and a game-changing 2-point conversion.

Vi Bennett was watching Stet from her home in South Georgia.

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Stetson Bennett VI during a 37-10 win over Arkansas.

“I’m surprised my neighbors didn’t come running to see what the matter was I was screaming so often,” she said. “Of course they were watching the game, too, and they may not have heard my screams because of their own. My phone was blowing up, and I had to put it on quiet so that I wouldn’t miss any of the game.”

After the 2-point conversion the Bulldogs ran away with the game thanks to an interception for a TD and a blocked punt. Georgia never looked back. 

Speaking of never looking back, when the time came for Stet to make his final decision as far as what he would do after a year in junior college he talked with his father about what he should do. That’s when Stetson III made clear to his son what his father Buddy told him about picking where to play. 

“Daddy told me,” Stetson III told his son Stet of his father Buddy, “The biggest mistake he made was not playing for the home team, which was Georgia.”

Those words helped guide Stet back to Athens for a second time. Stickability is a hard thing to avoid when your name is Stetson Bennett.

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