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A hat’s journey: Following backup QB Stetson Bennett’s return to UGA on scholarship

How Stetson Bennett’s ‘Mailman’ hat became a viral sensation

University of Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett became a viral sensation in high school for his "Mailman"-style hat that he carried with him through training camps and to Athens, GA.
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University of Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett became a viral sensation in high school for his "Mailman"-style hat that he carried with him through training camps and to Athens, GA.

Editor’s note: The Telegraph opens a two-part series known as “Meet the backups” to profile those behind starting quarterback Jake Fromm. Part two will publish this weekend.

Eight miles north of Stetson Bennett’s hometown of Blackshear, a small southeastern Georgia hardware store sits alongside U.S. 84. Barnard Construction Company had a vintage postman’s hat, which seemingly had zero value. That’s until Bennett’s friend, Clay Denison, decided to store it in his Ford F-150 pickup truck with a collection of keepsakes.

Bennett always had some fascination with what Denison had gathered. He’s the son of a former mayor of Patterson (a town with one major intersection adjacent to Blackshear) and held onto various bits of memorabilia.

Bennett came across the hat, tried it on and instantly became fond with its style — a powder blue cap with an old-school postal logo and a royal blue bill.

“It’s very unique,” Denison said. “That fits his personality and ability as a quarterback.”

Throughout high school, Bennett had two evident disadvantages — a height of 5-foot-11 and playing in a town with maybe a few red lights where the publicity doesn’t stretch far beyond the hard-working folks at The Blackshear Times. He went to showcase camps, and the hat followed.

Bennett found a way to make himself different than the other quarterback prospects, and people took notice. DeeJay Dallas, now a running back at Miami, attended the camp and took to his widely-followed Instagram account with a picture of Bennett and tagged it “#Mailman.” At that moment, a nickname was born and followed Bennett to Georgia, where he spent his first season in 2017 as a walk-on.

“I think I may have won the camp,” Bennett said during spring practice. “I wore it a lot and the nickname stuck.”

Not many walk-on players become public figures, and some fans don’t even recognize many of them. Bennett had a different following. He accrued a personal fan club, and everyone wanted to see what the “Mailman” could do through four seasons as a Bulldog.

But it wasn’t that easy. This hat went on a long, winding journey that began in small-town Georgia, went to Athens, out across the southeast and back to the Classic City.

LEAVING GEORGIA

Bennett’s last memory of his initial arrival at Georgia allowed his popularity to ascend to another level. He simulated then-Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield as the Bulldogs readied for their eventual Rose Bowl win over the Sooners. Former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker called Bennett a “beast,” and players persistently raved over his talents.

For Bennett, Oklahoma’s offense became easy and mimicking it became unforgettable. The offense he simulated copied his scheme at Pierce County High School. He then completed 16 of 17 passes during one practice session, and head coach Kirby Smart gave Bennett a compliment for his work.

“Those are kind of rare,” Bennett said.

He cherished taking his scout team offense to the practice field each day, because they wanted to beat the No. 1 team — which, at the time, had Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Roquan Smith leading it.

“All of the (Rose Bowl) publicity, that was nice,” said Bennett. “But what else were we looking forward to? We weren’t going to play on Saturdays, so those were our games.”

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (22) during the Bulldogs’ game against Mississippi State at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Caitlyn Tam Georgia Sports Communications

As Fromm led the quarterback room alongside heralded recruit and now-Washington signal caller Jacob Eason, Bennett stole the spotlight for a few weeks. Georgia gave him credit for its win and spot in the national title game, but then dreaded news percolated within the Bulldogs’ locker room.

Bennett wanted to transfer. Georgia exhausted efforts to keep their walk-on quarterback, but to no avail. He made his way westward and the hat traveled 427 miles to Ellisville, Miss., and Jones County Junior College.

“I didn’t think I would play,” Bennett said, after pausing to think about why he originally left Georgia.

NOT AS EXPECTED

Bennett pulled into the campus parking lot in summer 2018, and heart-sinking thoughts rolled through his head. His biggest thought was the most obvious: Jones County isn’t Georgia, nor is it anything close.

The dorms were suitable but didn’t match up. The athletic program’s football offices didn’t have millions of dollars invested into them like Georgia’s do — certainly not a renovated end-zone locker room.

“I knew how lucky I was to be (at Georgia),” Bennett said. “Junior college is, well, you know. Great coaches, great people and great football, but it’s not the same.”

Bennett suited up in a Jones County uniform for 12 games, and had a stat line that didn’t meet his standards. He recorded 1,840 passing yards (three games with double-digit totals), 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Bennett’s mind wandered elsewhere. He didn’t prepare from a football perspective like he needed to. But his efforts were enough to earn a scholarship offer, and the University of Louisiana came calling for his services.

On December 20, 2018, he was ready to ink his name and finalize a move. Georgia, in dire need of a quarterback after losing Justin Fields to transfer and seeing high-school pledge John Rhys Plumlee sign with Mississippi, looked past Bennett’s numbers and knew his capabilities.

That morning, Bennett saw a couple of missed calls from Smart and quarterbacks coach James Coley. He probably hadn’t spoken to them in a while. Bennett didn’t have many chances to watch the Bulldogs, either, other than attending the LSU game and watching the SEC championship.

“‘Geez, what is happening?’” Bennett recalled thinking. “It kind of scared me a little bit, but I called back and that’s when it happened.”

They had a scholarship offer in hand, which became an important factor as to why Bennett explored a transfer. A thought of returning to Athens was tantalizing. A return to top-notch facilities and teammates who forged strong relationships. He spent time speaking with his family and Louisiana head coach Billy Napier before making the last-minute switch.

A final decision didn’t occur until close to midnight, but Bennett’s journey saw him turn back to Athens and be a backup for Fromm once more.

“I really didn’t go about my business the way I should have when I was first here,” Bennett said. “I didn’t learn the playbook well enough, and I looked back on that process. First of all, I thought I was good enough to play here talent-wise. I didn’t really put myself in the best position and do enough to be as good as I could be.”

Within a matter of hours, a hat ends up a few states from where it intended. But this was home.

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) throws a pass during the spring game on April 20, 2019. Final score UGA Red Team 22, UGA black Team 17. Steve Limentani, ISI Photos Georgia Sports Communications

BACK WHERE IT BEGAN

On the practice field, Bennett carries a focused mentality and ensures passing accuracy. He gets upset if a pass is aimed at a receiver’s waist rather than the chest. Those habits have led to results as he tallied 210 yards and a touchdown in the G-Day spring game.

Throughout preseason camp, that didn’t fade and his offensive targets jump at an opportunity to work with him. Tight end John FitzPatrick loves how he throws it up to the tight ends and trusts them to bring in most pass attempts.

“You can never lay off your high horse,” cornerback Eric Stokes said. “He can put it on a dime and in any type of way. Stetson is a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback, and I love that he’s here with us.”

Smart saw a glimpse of the Bennett he knows all-too-well during the team’s first fall scrimmage. He went 7-for-8 on a 13-play drive. He led the second-team offense by converting a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 play.

“I’m proud of Stetson for that because he has worked really hard on doing that,” Smart said on Aug. 10. “He still has some areas he can improve on from checks to making the right decisions late in games and in two-minute (situations).”

Bennett’s return to Georgia comes with comfort and a wait-and-see approach to what unfolds next. He doesn’t expect to start at any point over Fromm, but his opportunity will come in 2019 — potentially during these next two games against Murray State and Arkansas State. Georgia could have some turnover next season if Fromm declares for the NFL draft, and Bennett’s name might be called.

The journey of the “Mailman” returns where it started. Bennett said his friend had possession of the hat as of April. But once he reclaims it again and places it atop his head, Bennett will remember its path, keep one thing in perspective and remind himself why Georgia is the latest stop.

“I deserve nothing, and nothing is going to be handed to me,” Bennett said. “I want to play here. That’s why everybody comes here.”

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Brandon Sudge has covered Georgia athletics as a correspondent for The Telegraph since 2016. He focuses on telling the deeper story within football, basketball, gymnastics and other sports. You can follow Brandon on Twitter at @brandonsudge.
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