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EXCLUSIVE: The Rise of Stetson Bennett

Along with his family and friends, First Coast News travels back to the Georgia QB's roots to discover what made "The Mailman" who he is today

BLACKSHEAR, Ga. — The first stop on the Mailman’s route was a vacant lot in Nahunta, Georgia.

The “mailman” in question is, of course, Stetson Fleming Bennett IV, the quirky, shaggy-haired, unheralded, starting quarterback for the University of Georgia. He gained the “Mailman” moniker by sporting a USPS ballcap to football camps as a teen.

His father, Stetson Fleming Bennett III, bought this plot of grass adjacent to the family’s pharmacy decades ago and transformed it into a field of dreams – dubbing it “Rx Field.”

“We had our own fields, so we’d play anytime we wanted to,” the elder Bennett explained recently. “We would put up a sign on the pharmacy [saying] ‘Game Tonight.’ There'd be 50 to 75 people just coming by Highway 82, and they would just stop in and watch a football game.”

The football field was created when “Little Man” was in grade school.

The obsession began when he was a toddler.

“Our goal from the time he was three years old -- he said he wanted to play quarterback at the University of Georgia,” Bennett III explained. “So, [I said] well, let's go to work. And we came up with a plan and worked the plan.”

Credit: Stetson Bennett III
Stetson Bennett IV (left) told his father Stetson Bennett III (right) at the age of three that he wanted to be the starting quarterback at the University of Georgia.

Rx Field was actually Step 2 of The Plan.

Step 1 was meeting the local high school football coach.

“The first time I met Stetson III was when he came to a booster club meeting… and he wanted to introduce his son to me,” Brunswick High School head football coach Sean Pender detailed. At the time, Pender was the head coach of Brantley County High School. “Stetson [III] started coming in learning football strategy, and he started bringing ‘Little Man.’ So, we started bringing him to practice with us. And we started talking about fundamentals of quarterback play.”

Now, football wasn’t anything new to Stetson III, a former walk-on at Georgia Southern University. His father, “Mr. Buddy,” had played football at the University of South Carolina, too. “Football changed the Bennett’s lives,” Stetson III says.

The Bennett’s and their love for football, in turn, would change plenty of other lives, too. Because this was not just pick-up football being played on Highway 82.

“The kids would ride the school bus there every day,” Bennett’s co-coach Mark Royer explained. Royer's son, Chase, is Stetson IV's best friend. “The driver knew who they were, would drop them off, ‘High Five’ them on the way out the bus door, tell them ‘good practice.’ They all got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some fruit, and a juice.

“But what a lot of people don’t know is that we actually bought some books and hired a middle school teacher. And the teacher actually helped them with their homework. So, we actually had a tutor there from the middle school who showed up and helped these [boys].”

Credit: Stetson Bennett III
Snapshots from the Brantley Bandits travel football team, coached by Stetson Bennett III and Mark Royer. During the team's 12-year old year, they played 34 games, going 32-2.

“The Brantley Bandits” football team traveled, too. One year, they played 34 games, traveling throughout the state of Georgia. They went 32-2.

In addition to building the field and the recruitment that came along with running a travel football team, Bennett III and Royer, a former Marine, built a CrossFit training building – “the Hideout” -- complete with air conditioning.

“I’ve often thought about writing a book about it. And I would call it ‘Over the Top and What’s Good for It,’” Royer explained.

“And I’ll be honest with you: we were considered over the top.”

Just ask Stetson IV’s mother, Denise.

“I made the sandwiches and then I filled the prescriptions so we could have the field,” she smiled. “And when they would practice in the middle of the summer, I was the one running out saying ‘it's 98 degrees. Please give them a break!’”

But no one – not the parents or the boys – would change a thing.

“We're excessive in our workouts, and we are playing too many games. And we're working too hard. And, you know, for me and Big Stet -- to his credit -- he was like, ‘we're going to give these kids every opportunity that they can have to get to whatever it is they want to do,’ Royer recalled. “We didn't just give them a place to play: we brought the school teacher in. We understood the importance of academics. We also understood the importance of the sport itself and what it could do for those young men.”

Credit: Stetson Bennett III
The Brantley Bandits were more than a football team, placing a heavy emphasis on academic achievement. They had the opportunity to meet President Jimmy Carter during the State Championship Tournament in Plains, Georgia.

After all: football had already changed the Bennett’s lives once before.

“My daddy had five children. All five of us went to college. Why did we go to college? Because my daddy went to college. He just went to play football. But while he was there, he got an education. So, football can change these little boys lives in South Georgia,” Bennett III said. “First off, for some of these kids, they'll be the first one to go to college [in their family] because of football. So, football is very important here.”

No one embraced that more than Stetson IV. His mother recalls him getting in “a lot of trouble” in the second grade for tackling in flag football, organized through Brantley County’s recreation department. Rx Field proved to be the perfect segway from childhood play-time to Georgia High School Football. Royer notes the physical and mental advantage the Bandits had upon advancing to the next level over their peers.

“So, for those who say, ‘they shouldn't do this’ and ‘they’re playing too much and shouldn't work that hard’ -- I disagree,” Royer said. “I think get after it while you can and then, once you're able to turn them over to the high school program, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Because it's gonna be a fun time.”

That brings us to the next stop on the Mailman’s route.

The entire Bennett family moved to neighboring Blackshear so Stetson could attend Pierce County High School. It was all part of The Plan.

“I knew we were going to have to put up prolific numbers to get a chance to play quarterback at University of Georgia. And so that's what we did,” Big Stet explained. “We went to went to play for somebody that can give us those numbers.”

An old friend, in fact: former Brantley County head coach Sean Pender, now the head coach at Pierce County.

“Pierce County takes their football seriously. [And] we’ve not always been a winning program,” Shawn Smith, former Pierce County Recreation Director and a former Bears quarterback in his own right, explained. “I mean, 5-5, 6-4 seasons, even going 7-3? ‘Wow! What a great season!’

“[We] had a coach come in -- Sean Pender – who the Bennett family followed, because of his, you know, scheme, and they just took this town to a different level of thinking. Of winning”

While the Bennett’s and Pender had a longstanding friendship, make no mistake about it: Little Man would not be handed the starting quarterback job. During Stetson’s freshman year, the Bears had future UCF Knight Tyler Harris under-center. There was also another quarterback in Stetson’s class: JaMar Lincoln, a gifted athlete with multiple family members who had played in the NFL.

“They were splitting [playing] time back and forth. And [then], Lincoln fractured a bone in his thumb,” Pender recalled, noting both boys’ outstanding marks and leadership on and off the field. “Stetson finished out that game and we won an exciting game in overtime, and the very following week was Stetson’s first week [as a starter.] And that was [against] Tattnall County. And, in the first half, there’s Stet, up to four touchdown passes. He played the first quarter, second quarter and one drive of the third. That was it. From that point on, that’s what it was, every week. It was the same [kind of numbers] over and over and over.

“And by the time [Lincoln] came back from the broken thumb, we moved him to defensive back and the rest is history.”

The numbers were eye-popping. In two-and-a-half seasons as Pierce County’s starting quarterback, Stetson threw for 6,648 yards and 58 touchdowns. He ran for another 1,000-plus yards and 17 touchdowns. Pierce County made playoff runs each of Stetson’s three seasons at the helm.

Credit: Denise Bennett
Stetson (left), Knox (back left), Denise (back right), Luke (right), Olivia (front left) and Mav (front right) Bennett. The Pride of Pierce County.

Stetson also developed a unique bond with Pender, a former stand-out for Hal Mumme’s Air-Raid, Valdosta State teams of the 1990s.

“Every Friday morning, before football games, I would send him a new Red Hot Chili Peppers song. He would groove to it pretty much throughout the day, during the game,” Pender said.

So when you see Bennett on the Georgia sideline, playing the air guitar after a big touchdown-scoring drive?

“You better watch out. Because whoever they’re playing: it's about to get lit up,” his father grinned.

The infamous “Mailman” nickname came about around this time, too.

“We talked about ‘how are we going to stand out [at these quarterback camps?]’” his father explained. “I mean, literally, some of these camps would have 400 quarterbacks, and they're looking for quarterbacks that are 6’4’’, 220 lbs. And so, to be able to stand out, we had to have something. Some people wore neon shirts, some neon cleats. And he said, ‘hey, I got that hat from a buddy,’ and he said, ‘I'm just gonna wear this mailman hat.’ I said, ‘I think it's brilliant.’

“He went to a camp with [running back DeeJay Dallas, now with the Seattle Seahawks] and DeeJay said, ‘hey now. The Mailman can deliver.’ And, you know, it kind of stuck.”

Boy, did he ever deliver.

“If you look at the stats out of Georgia – the Jake Fromm’s, if you will – they’re 12, 13,000 [yards] in four years,” Smith said, comparatively to Bennett’s nearly 7,000 passing yards in two and a half years. “So, the kid’s pretty special. I don’t care if he’s 5’5’’. The kid can throw the ball. I’ve seen it: deadly accurate. His off days aren’t like other people’s off days.”

But of course: college coaches did care about Bennett’s height. 5’11’’, for what it’s worth.

Stetson had one FBS offer, Middle Tennessee. He had dozens upon dozens from FCS programs and all six Ivy League schools.

“Harvard and Yale had never been to Pierce County to do recruiting,” Royer noted. “They both showed up the same day. I had never seen the principal at the time ever come to football practice [until then].”

But Harvard wasn’t part of The Plan.

Stetson wanted to play for the University of Georgia. Even if it meant walking on.

“You know, he made a 30 on the ACT and so most of it was paid for,” Big Stet explained. “So I said, ‘Yeah, we could find that dream for sure.’”

The next few stops on the Mailman’s route are heavily documented. 

Stetson IV walked-on at the University of Georgia in 2017, redshirting and playing on the Scout Team. He infamously played the role of “Baker Mayfield” prior to the Dawgs’ Rose Bowl match-up with Oklahoma. Stetson was respected by his teammates. He was at his dream school.

But he wanted more.

“After his first year, he said, ‘Dad, I want to play,” Bennett III recalled. “I said, ‘well, let's go play.’”

Then came a year at Jones College, a junior college in Mississippi, and another 1,800+ yard season. Like any junior college transfer, Stetson hoped to jump back to the Power Five level. Once again, his options were limited.

“Coach Pender was talking to [then Georgia offensive line] Coach Pittman,” the elder Bennett recalled. “And you know, they were ‘hey, will he come back to Georgia?’ I said, ‘he won’t come back [because] we think we’re good enough to play.’’

Jake Fromm was the entrenched starter for the Dawgs in his second season. Five-star recruit Justin Fields was backing him up.

“It was a tough decision for him. And because he had been there, and he just wanted to make sure he was going to get a shot there – like, get a fair shake at it that he could play.”

"It was a hard decision for the family. It was a hard decision on him," Denise Bennett added. "He did not make the decision frivolously. Lot of prayer."

Stetson stuck with The Plan. He went back to Athens.

And sat.

 “I will say, as a mama, it’s really humbling to learn from your child,” Denise reflected. “That’s what I did. I learned how to behave from my son, throughout this. That was unbelievably humbling. He handled it much better than I – I’m not that person. He is.”

Credit: Stetson Bennett III
Stetson (left), twins Luke and Knox (center) and Mav (right) Bennett at a UGA game. Denise Bennett says she's most proud of her son for "the amazing role model" he is for his brothers and younger sister.
Credit: Denise Bennett
The Bennett's (from l to r: Denise, Knox, Luke, Stetson; Mav and Olivia) at the University of Georgia Family Gala in 2019.

Then came the next stop on the route: the first road trip of the 2020 season.

The Mailman and the Dawgs headed to Arkansas. 

“Five weeks earlier, they tell me he is fifth on the depth chart. And, you know, he didn't believe it. I didn't believe it,” Big Stet said.

Another series of well-documented moves – Jamie Newman’s opt-out, JT Daniels’ ACL recovery – led to Stetson’s name rising a bit up the depth chart in the weeks that followed. How far up no one quite knew.

Until the opening day starter, D’Wan Mathis, was pulled, and Bennett was inserted into the line-up.

“I was watching on TV, and when you saw Stetson warming up and coming into play – I mean, I was getting chills,” Pender exclaimed.

The Mailman delivered. Stetson was 20 of 29 off the bench, throwing for 211 yards and a touchdown. Georgia came back to win the game 37-10.

Credit: Denise Bennett
Stetson embraces his mother, Denise, after a UGA game in 2019.

Coincidentally, Stetson was not the only Southeast Georgia boy who came off the bench and helped the Dawgs earn the win.

Or the only Sean Pender prodigy.

“As I’m watching Stet warm-up, I’m thinking ‘yeah, I see [Bennett’s jersey number] 13,” Pender said. “When I saw [jersey number] 70? Whoa!! Wait a minute. Warren [McClendon] and Stetson right here in the same TV frame at the University of Georgia!?”

Former Brunswick High stand-out and four-star offensive tackle Warren McClendon had also been in an intense battle for a starting spot this summer. He, too, did not get the start on opening day.

“Warren was fortunate enough to come in that day and do a little bit and get an opportunity,” his father, Warren McClendon Sr., smiled.

Like Stet, he’s stuck in the starting line-up ever since.

So, too, has kicker Jack Podlesny – formerly of Glynn Academy and, like Stetson, a walk-on.

“He had no vision of kicking in high school and college at the next level,” his father, Ike Podlesny, chuckled.

Podlesny has since kicked a 50-yard field goal on the road at Alabama and a 51-yarder against Tennessee. He is tied for the SEC lead in made field goals with eight.

“Stetson was in the competition, Warren was in a competition. Jack was in a competition. No one had established himself as a per se starter coming into the season,” McClendon Sr. said. “But, fortunately, everybody had enough will, enough determination to excel in it, that they waited for the opportunities. And when they get the opportunity, they took advantage of it.”

“Everyone needs that break,” Pender added. “And when you get that break, what happens when that break happens?”

With that said:

What’s the next stop for the Mailman?

The annual Georgia-Florida Game in Jacksonville is the obvious answer. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart reiterated earlier this week after the Bulldogs’ quiet, 14-3 win over Kentucky that he is sticking with Stetson Bennett as his quarterback.

The people of Pierce County and Southeast Georgia have seen the message boards. They see Twitter. Daily. 

“I've often wanted to get on and give my fair share of [trash talking back at them],” Royer, ready to defend Stetson at any turn, said with a wry smile. “You know, [they] really don't understand the work ethic that has been driven into these young men that are coming from here.”

“[For all we know] they can be JT Daniels family,” Smith chuckled. “You just don't know. Like I tell my friends -- they all want to get in there and [I say] just listen: the person you're arguing with probably has no clue what he's talking about when it comes to football.”

But it’s because these gentlemen have seen what the Mailman can do.

“What a lot of the nation has seen for the first time, we have seen over and over and over,” Pender explained. “And that's the thing about Stetson: those of us who know him, we knew all he had to have was one, legit opportunity.”

Moreover: it’s not like Stetson or the Bennett’s are taking any of it to heart.

“They keep bringing in people. That means that he’s probably beat out the ones that are there,” Stetson Bennett III smiled.

"You know, hard work's undefeated. And it allows, little boys, little girls to dream -- 'hey, I want to do this.' And so that's what it's for: everybody under six feet in the state of Georgia. They're like, 'I can play at the University of Georgia.'

Credit: Stetson Bennett III
Stetson Bennett III has spent the last 19 years helping make Stetson Bennett IV's dream to play at the University of Georgia a reality.

“When he came in [to the Arkansas game], I literally put my hands over my head and I was like, ‘Thank You, Lord.’ For the opportunity for him to have his dream. A legitimate chance to win a football game for the University of Georgia.”

The Mailman had seen The Plan through. He’s made it to the final stop on his route.

“I have seen a lot of dedication with fathers and sons going through the years,” Pender said. “This is the one that actually made it to that dream.”

- - - - - - -

Rx Field is now a Burger King.

The Bennett’s sold the lot a few years back. The only traces of it can be found on a Google Earth search prior to 2018. Trust me: this sportswriter went searching, and she was just as disappointed as you are.

Sure, building a Post Office on top of it would have made for the ultimate, cliche ending to this heartwarming tale. But come to think of it, “Burger King” is actually kind of fitting. Because despite what college recruiters told him, despite what scores of armchair quarterbacks and statisticians continue to tweet, retweet and share:

Stetson Fleming Bennett IV has always made it his way.

-

First Coast News would like to thank the following individuals for taking part in this project: the Bennett family, including Stetson III, Denise, Luke and Knox; Sean Pender; Glynn County Athletic Director Steve Waters; Ike Podlesny; Warren McClendon Sr.; Mark Royer; Shawn Smith; and Pierce County High School Athletic Director Brandon Jernigan.

Credit: Denise Bennett
The Bennett's have been Georgia fans their entire lives. Here they are attending the Georgia-Tennessee game in 2016.