How Stetson Bennett went from walk-on to national champion

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

When we talk about athletes achieving their sporting dreams, we really mean they reached some version of glory parallel to what they actually envisioned.

For even the greatest, things don’t turn out exactly as they expected. Childhood Tom Brady and childhood Aaron Rodgers both envisaged themselves as superstar quarterbacks — but in the colors of the San Francisco 49ers

Patrick Mahomes imagined himself playing in a Super Bowl more than a decade before he actually did — but in his youthful mind’s eye, he was throwing it around in a Dallas Cowboys uniform.

But now, with Georgia's 33-18 victory over Alabama in the CFP National Championship, Stetson Bennett trumped them all. Loading Video…

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RJ Young breaks down how Stetson Bennett led the Georgia Bulldogs to a CFP National Championship victory.

Bennett isn’t expected to wind up as a National Football League starter. It might be a long shot for him to be drafted at all if he chooses not to return to Georgia next season. But he wasn’t expected to be a national champion either, and he is, both now and forevermore. 

Monday was the biggest game of Bennett’s life and the critical point of a journey that reached countless crossroads and endured untold obstacles. At every stage, every time there was a decision to be made, he made the choice that kept the dream alive, even when it looked like the opposite would happen.

Bennett’s desire has always been the same since he was 3 years old and growing up in Blackshear, Georgia, in the heart of Bulldogs country. It was, quite simply, to play quarterback for Georgia and lead the Bulldogs to a national title. Nothing else mattered. Nowhere else would suffice.

On Monday, amid a roller coaster of a night, against an Alabama defense that seemed to have his number, Bennett's wildest fantasy came to bear.

"I love this place. I love this team," he said when asked why he stayed to fight for his place when alternative options presented themselves. "I believe in myself. I [wanted] to win a national championship here."

Two-star high school recruits don’t usually head to Athens, but Bennett did anyway, walking on to pursue his dream, opting to risk failing in its chase rather than set a more attainable goal. His freshman year, he ran the scout team, was given a non-QB number (22) and had to share a locker with a similarly low-rated teammate. 

When he made a temporary move away, it was to Jones County Community College in Mississippi, with the thought that he could catch Kirby Smart’s eye more easily from afar than while he was right under the coach’s nose.

Figuring that Jake Fromm would turn pro and Justin Fields would transfer, Bennett came back a year later. Yet Smart kept recruiting over him, bringing in transfers JT Daniels and Jamie Newman.

Bennett got the job in 2020, then lost it to Daniels, who began 2021 as the starter. When Daniels suffered an oblique strain, Bennett replaced him and was under center as the team destroyed everyone up until the SEC Championship defeat against the Crimson Tide. 

But Bennett's hold on the job never felt secure. Until Daniels contracted COVID in the buildup to the playoff semifinal against Michigan, a switch back seemed possible.

"Life is tough," Bennett said. "You’ve got to fight through it."

In college football, where the eye test counts for so much, the 5-foot-11 Bennett was never the guy. He doesn’t use social media for a reason; it’s not a very kind place for someone in his position.

Calls for him to be replaced came at different points of the season — and again as things unfolded Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium. When a seemingly disastrous fumble gifted Alabama the ball at the Georgia 16 and the Tide converted it into an 18-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, Daniels' name was trending on Twitter. You can figure out why.

Right then, the dream might as well have been further away than ever. Bennett was getting rushed and harried. On the other side, Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young appeared more settled, and it seemed that even Georgia’s nation-leading defense wouldn’t hold indefinitely.

But then, in the moment of his greatest tribulation, Bennett found something within himself. 

It started with a slice of fortune mixed with perfect execution. As Alabama jumped offside, Bennett was freed to toss one up from where he stood at midfield, all the way to the end zone and the waiting arms of Adonai Mitchell.

Then things looked different. Bennett was invigorated, and Georgia’s run game was gaining traction. With 3:33 left, Bennett found tight end Brock Bowers to build an eight-point lead. Young’s pick-six to Kelee Ringo on the ensuing drive iced it — which is how you found Bennett’s face on television screens across the nation, tears cascading down.

"[It] just hit me," he said. "I hadn’t cried in years. It just came over me. When you put as much time as we do into this thing, it means something."

Imagine, if you can, all the emotions Bennett felt in that moment. The young man — having been reminded time and again that few thought he was up to this, having been doubted and derided and dismissed, having faced a brutal setback with everything on the line — reached deep and found the answer.

"I liked seeing the walk-on outplay the Heisman winner," FS1’s Chris Broussard said Tuesday on "First Things First." "[Bennett] didn’t make the mistakes at the end that Bryce Young made. The best team won."

Bennett is part of legend now, no matter what comes next in his life and career. He’s part of a rare collection of quarterbacks to have denied Alabama in the biggest game in college football. He’s part of why the Bulldogs found the solution to 41 years of disappointment and why the state of Georgia has only just started what will be a long, long celebration.

He’s all of those things because of a monumental number of reasons, coincidences and micro-events but only one that truly mattered: He dared to dream.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.