The game was over, the championship clinched. Kelee Ringo had just picked off the final important pass of Bryce Young’s brilliant season, run it back 79 yards, and the Georgia Bulldogs were going to end a 41-year drought, would finally escape the grip of Alabama’s band of crimson bogeymen.
Now, all at once, the moment finally overtook a 23-year-old football player named Stetson Bennett IV. All at once Bennett — the best story in this college football season — began to weep on the sideline. He looked at the scoreboard and saw the evidence of what he and his teammates had done — Georgia 33, Alabama 18 — and that’s all it took.
“It just hit me,” he would say a few minutes later, confetti falling all around him, a young boy’s dream officially springing to life in bright, vivid color and deafening resolution. “Good Lord. Wow.”
As a boy in Blackshear, Ga., Bennett had dreamed the dream so many kids in so many forgotten quarters of the Peach State do: leading the Bulldogs to glory for the first time since Herschel Walker was a freshman. He has spent so much of his career in Athens either unwanted, overlooked or underappreciated.
That will no longer be the case.
Stetson Fleming Bennett IV will never again have to pay for a meal, for a beer, for a bottle of wine anywhere within the state borders. This one will be forever. This one will be eternal. The Bulldogs looked like they were about to lose another big game to the Crimson Tide, and Bennett was a big reason why.
And then — in what felt like an eyeblink — the game turned upside down.
Bennett turned it upside down.
“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
That was the darkest moment. That’s when the Georgia faction of sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium began to wonder if maybe they weren’t destined to spend one more season followed by a dark cloud. The Bulldogs clung to a 13-12 lead, early in the fourth, the game a throwback rock fight between the SEC’s two most glamorous programs.
Then, Bennett was pressured in the pocket. He tried to get rid of the ball, and it sure looked in real time — and on more than a few replays — that he had merely thrown an incomplete pass. But the officials ruled otherwise: They called it a fumble. Alabama’s Brian Branch recovered with his foot a millimeter inbounds. And four plays later Young found tight end Cameron Latu in the end zone.
It was there that you could almost hear college football settle back onto its axis: Bama was ahead. Surely, Nick Saban’s crew would figure out a way to finish off his eighth national championship, seventh at Alabama. All they had to do was contain Bennett, who has spent his entire career hearing people pine for someone else, anyone else, other than No. 13.
It was on Bennett now. All of it. Game. Season. Championship.
“I had to. Otherwise, we were going to lose,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to fix this.’ ”
He fixed it. You bet he did. The Bulldogs got the ball back, and Bennett started throwing the ball with more confidence than he had all night: 18 yards to Jermaine Burton; 10 yards to Kenny McIntosh. He targeted Burton again, and a pass interference brought them 15 yards closer. A sack pushed them back to the Bama 40 — Bennett held onto the ball for dear life.
And so it was: second-and-18. Just over eight minutes left. Bennett began his career at Georgia as a preferred walk-on, ran the scout team and shared a locker. He transferred to a junior college in Mississippi. He was recruited to play at Louisiana, but then Kirby Smart made a scholarship offer. He would arrive buried, again, on the depth chart. Smart kept recruiting over him. Bennett stayed. In his heart, he always was the kid from Blackshear, born to be a Bulldog.
And now, he dropped back. There was a flag — Alabama had jumped offside, free play. There was a key block. Bennett heaved the ball as far as he could. And about 49 yards away, the ball dropped into Adonai Mitchell’s arms in the back of the end zone. Georgia had the lead. Bennett added another short TD pass one possession later.
Then, Ringo picked off Young.
And the moment finally tackled Stetson Bennett harder than any Alabama defender had all night. In that moment, it was impossible not to paraphrase the famous line from Hoosiers — “This is for all the walk-ons who never got a chance …”
Only this was real life. And Bennett said it better.
“I hope it gives someone a little hope,” he said. “Keep your mouth shut, work hard. Life is tough. Work through it.”