BLACKSHEAR, Ga. – The main road through town, aptly named Main Street, is quiet beyond the hum of a passing truck.
There’s a store in the middle of the strip — closed on Wednesday afternoon — with three big signs that engulf the windows and conceal what’s behind them.
If there was ever a doubt, those banners emblazoned with the white, red and black of the Peach State’s favorite college football team, remove it.
We’re a long way from Gator country.
And in Pierce County, it’s Stetson Bennett IV country.
Bennett — or just Stet to people here — had big dreams growing up. He was going to play quarterback at the University of Georgia.
Bennett went there and he left, then came back and made history.
Nicknamed the Mailman, Bennett delivered Georgia its first national championship since 1980 with a 33-18 win over Alabama last Monday night.
Bennett, an afterthought in Georgia’s 2019 signing class, was the game’s most valuable player.
In his hometown of Blackshear — population 3,506 according to the 2020 census — many of the Bulldogs signs have been swapped out and updated. Instead of supporting Georgia in its College Football Playoff quest, they now celebrated a title that had been a lifetime in the making.
“We love our Mailman.”
“The Mailman delivered.”
It still doesn’t seem real.
And when hugs and handshakes do confirm what she witnessed in Indianapolis on Monday night, Bennett’s mother, Denise, said she needs to pinch herself as a reminder.
“You can’t, I mean you really can’t [believe it],” she said Wednesday standing inside the family’s pharmacy and boutique. “That’s how you know there was, it’s something bigger. I mean, it’s just, everything’s fallen into place and I don’t think things fall into place accidentally.”
Bennett’s path from Blackshear to college football royalty is the stuff movies are made of.
He was a dreamer. A doer. Bennett was the record-setting high school player with a chip on his shoulder. He just had the grit and determination and talent to do something about it.
John DuPont taught Bennett at Pierce County High School and saw every one of his football games as the announcer for the Bears. Still, the journey is surprising because two-star recruits in a room full of four- and five-stars just don’t tend outshine them. That’s not the way college football works.
“When you hear Stet say the things about how you’ve got to have confidence in yourself, believe in yourself, that is really the way he thinks,” DuPont said. “But as we all know, because we’ve been watching the game for a while … it just doesn’t happen that way for everybody.”
The oldest of five children, Bennett grew up playing football in neighboring Nahunta before lighting up opponents in high school at Pierce County.
Bennett passed for more than 9,000 yards and accounted for 95 touchdowns for the Bears, numbers that put him just outside the top 10 in Georgia football history.
But prospective colleges were more interested in measurables and projections than high school accolades.
Bennett was 5-foot-10 and he still weighs less than 200 pounds. That limited his college options.
“I remember his senior year when he was getting recruited, Harvard and Yale were here recruiting him and they both looked at me and they go, ‘if this kid’s two inches taller, we’re not here recruiting this guy,’” said assistant coach Barry King. “And so, Stetson had the arm and the talent then, he just didn’t have the height, the measurables that they look for. But he had the heart and everything else and so we knew that he was going to be successful whatever he did.”
Georgia was always on Bennett’s mind.
He took a walk-on spot with the Bulldogs and left after a year there for Jones College, a Juco in Ellisville, Mississippi.
When another signing day rolled around, Bennett had a bigger offer list than before. He still picked Georgia.
And when Bennett got to Athens, there was still the small task of having to beat out much higher-rated players year after year just to see the field. Among the players who signed or transferred to Georgia when Bennett was there included Mandarin’s Carson Beck, D’Wan Mathis, and transfers JT Daniels, Jamie Newman and Austin Kirksey.
“The journey is what’s so wonderful. I mean, obviously, the outcome is fantastic, but it’s the journey that I think everybody’s more drawn to,” Denise Bennett said. “It’s exciting and the town was supporting him before we knew the outcome which is also sweet.”
Bennett played a modest amount in the COVID-impacted season of 2020 after Mathis’ inconsistency, and was Daniels’ backup to open 2021. But with the latter suffering an injury early this season, Bennett seized the starting job and never gave it back.
The defining moment — Monday night’s performance against the Crimson Tide. Bennett finished 17 of 26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter.
“There’s no doubt it’s storybook. There’s no doubt it’s going to be on the silver screen one day,” DuPont said. “I graduated from Pierce County High School and the University of Georgia, but I found myself wanting this to be a Georgia victory more for Stet than really even for my alma mater just because, as we’ve all stated, because of the fire that he had to walk through. So, to the victor goes the spoils. He’s earned every bit of it.”