POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. – A large line of people mostly clad in McEachern blue is still waiting to purchase entry into Walter H. Cantrell Stadium on a cool October evening.
Those wearing red in support of Hillgrove leak through a side gate and either squeeze into the visitor section or find a place to stand on the fence.
Chants of ‘overrated’ erupt from the visiting student section as kickoff approaches, a time pushed back because men operating television cameras are scrambling to prepare to capture the action.
The electric atmosphere in the stands is what Rajaan Bennett lived for, but he’s no longer here.
Instead, his mother Narjaketha is in her usual seat, about five rows up near the 50-yard line. She smiles and laughs as her son Desy waves and says hello to virtually every fan walking by. Her daughter Narcharlette is somewhere else with friends.
The family attends every Indians game – home and away. It’s their way of staying close to Rajaan.
“It is kind of bittersweet, but altogether it’s fun,” Narjaketha said.
As McEachern’s top-ranked team exits the locker room to take the field, many players casually touch a waist-high granite monument.
An excerpt from an essay Rajaan wrote eight days before his death are inscribed below his image, his trademark dreadlocks and serious gaze on display.
A framed copy of the essay sits in Troy Postell’s dorm room at Shorter University. He’s a kicker now, but he grew up as a quarterback handing the ball off to Rajaan. Postell thinks of his close friend every day.
“You want to pick up the phone and call him,” Postell said. “But he’s not going to pick up.”
Somebody once told me that, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Life hasn't been a walk in the park for me, but I'm thankful for the obstacles, hardships, and accomplishments that GOD has provided for me. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be the Rajaan Bennett that you know today. I wouldn't have things any other way. Strength is the ability to do or bear things in the state of being strong. – Rajaan Bennett
‘What he had to do’
Charles Bennett moved his family to Georgia from Ft. Lauderdale Fla. shortly after getting a new job in 2000.
Less than a year later, Charles died tragically in a car accident. He left behind his wife Narjaketha and their three children. Rajaan was the oldest; a 10-year-old boy who took on tasks like watching after Desi, a special needs child and caring for his sister on days his mom worked late.
“He felt like he was the man of the house,” McEachern High School principal Regina Montgomery said. “You would never know it. He never complained about it. He did what he had to do.”
Whatever needed taken care of, Rajaan could manage. Often times he would eat lunch with Desy and other special needs children at school.
“I can’t tell you how important he was to his brother,” Montgomery said.
Rajaan stayed away from the wrong crowd and kept over a 3.5 grade point average through his senior year. He was able to balance the added responsibilities of his home life with other aspects of his life.
“A few of us knew about it early on,” Postell said. “One day the question came up and we found out about his dad and everything. He wasn’t always torn up about it. It never came up too much. He pretty much accepted it. To know everything that he had gone through and for him to be so humble was amazing.”
The adversity instilled a noticeable strength in Rajaan. He developed a mental toughness, a motivated drive and a remarkable work ethic. Those traits helped him take care of his family. They also applied in sports.
“Football was important, but he understood the big picture,” said Jimmy Dorsey, McEachern athletic director and former football coach. “A lot of times kids at this age don’t quite get that just yet.
“When you’re a one-parent family, not just one person can take care of a special-needs child,” Dorsey continued. “Rajaan had to grow up in a hurry. He was just the same guy every day. A good example setter.”
Some days I would wonder - why me? But eventually, I realized that it was my turn to become a man. As I became older, I came to notice that in life you use strength as a blanket to protect you from this cold world…– Rajaan Bennett
‘It was his persona, the way he carried himself’
Not many freshmen suit up for McEachern’s varsity football team. With an enrollment of well over 2,000 kids, the Indians don’t hurt for experienced and talented upperclassmen.
Rajaan was the exception.
“When he came here as a freshman we actually kept him with us on varsity because it was real obvious,” Dorsey, who coached Rajaan for two seasons, said. “There was a lot more to him than just his athleticism. It was his persona, the way he carried himself and his work ethic. For a freshman, he was special in that regard. He got right there in with us.”
Rajaan was starting by the end of his sophomore season. He exploded his junior year. His body grew to 5-11, 215 pounds with a broad, muscular frame and powerful legs. He was obviously a standout runner, but he was a well-rounded player.
“One thing that always stuck out with me was how well he could catch it out of the backfield,” said Bryan McClendon, University of Georgia running backs coach. “McEachern used to line him up out wide and throw him things.”
The stellar junior campaign sparked recruiting interest from colleges around the nation. Running back was an especially deep position in the state in the 2010 class. King High’s Mack Brown, who eventually signed with Florida, was considered the best.
“Every time Rajaan heard about Mack and the stats he was getting he would literally push to get more yards than him, and he would do it,” Postell said. “He never ran out of energy. He was a dang energizer bunny. We’d get a huge gain and he’d go back and run it again. He surprised everyone. We’d known him for so long, but he still surprised us all the time.”
Rajaan proved himself as a player and person in front of his peers at football camps and combines. The Southwest DeKalb duo of tailback Ken Malcome and defensive end T.J. Stripling, fellow 2010 prospects that are now both at Georgia, took note of Rajaan because of his dreadlocks, demeanor and consistent performances.
“As far as the camps go, all the athleticism was amazing to me,” Stripling said. “You could tell he was a real cool dude to talk to. He was a down to earth kind of dude.”
Offers started coming in during the spring of his junior year. It was evident Rajaan had the talent to play at a high level in college. But there something else that stood out. His maturity was undeniable. His mental makeup was an alluring quality for coaches who also evaluate kids off the field of play.
“He was an outstanding talent,” said Desmond Kitchings, who is currently running backs coach at Air Force.
Kitchings served on staff at Vanderbilt from 2008-10 and recruited Rajaan. The two became very close.
“We had recognized him in the spring of his junior year as someone that we needed on our football team,” Kitchings said. “When I first met him, his approach of things was incredible. He had a very high appreciation of what he had with his family and the goals he wanted to obtain.”
Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Wisconsin and others offered as the hype and buildup for Rajaan’s senior season grew.
Rajaan finished the 2009 season with 1,857 yards and 28 touchdowns, leading the team to a region title and it’s first undefeated regular season in a decade.
“He was the heart and soul of our football team,” Postell said. “I’m not just saying that. He really was. When you play for a team, confidence can spread all over the locker room. You get around Rajaan and he just spreads it. There was something about him. He had such a good influence on everybody around him.”
A loss in the first round of the state playoffs was disappointing, but Rajaan turned his focus to finalizing his college destination.
He took visits to Kentucky and Vanderbilt in January.
Pretty soon the choice became obvious. With thoughts of one day becoming an architect, Rajaan chose Vanderbilt.
“He was a very good student,” Dorsey said. “Obviously that has a lot to do with all that. He chose that school because of some of his academic interests. You know, I mean that had a lot to do with him as a person.”
“He was excited because he said they were the underdogs,” Narjaketha said. “He was very excited because of that and to see what he could do out there on the field.”
Vanderbilt gave Rajaan the chance to play football in the Southeastern Conference and also receive an education at a nationally respected institution. It was the best of the both worlds.
“He was a great athlete,” Montgomery said. “He got the opportunity to do things normal people didn’t get to do. The astounding thing was no matter what, he was the same person.”
Rajaan signed his letter of intent at a ceremony at McEachern on Feb. 3, 2010.
“The sky was the limit for him,” McClendon said.
I have to balance school, sports, friends, and family - and it gets so hard, but I push myself. I push myself like a sprinter who is neck and neck with an opponent with 10 meters left. With the strength that I posses, I feel like I'm Hercules.
I matured faster than all of my friends - and there will never be a time that I will give up. I may complain, I may refuse, and I may even cry about it, but I know I have to do what I have to do. – Rajaan Bennett
‘Helter skelter in the middle of the night’
“I got a phone call about 3 o’clock in the morning from a police officer that I knew,” Dorsey said. “It woke me up. Any time you get a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning it’s not usually good. Really didn’t know much details, had to get up and get dressed and figure out what the heck was going on.”
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night and my parents walking in,” Postell said. “They told me it was Rajaan. They said he had been shot. I honestly thought I was dreaming. I started tearing up. I slammed back on the pillow and tried to wake myself up.”
Narjaketha’s ex-boyfriend, 39-year-old carpenter Clifton Steger was a part of the family gathering with Rajaan when he signed to play for Vanderbilt. A little over two weeks later, he arrived at the Bennett household armed with a gun.
The exact reasons aren’t known, but Steger opened fire shortly after 2:30 a.m. He wounded Rajaan’s uncle, killed Rajaan and then turned the weapon on himself. Narjaketha, Desy and Narcharlette were unharmed.
“It took a while to get out because the police were still trying to figure out just what the heck happened in this house,” Dorsey said. “It was helter skelter in the middle of the night.”
From McEachern to Vanderbilt, word leaked out in bits and pieces, and nobody could believe any of what they were hearing.
“It wasn’t a good feeling for me,” Malcome said. “Actually, I was in school, and I was in a good mood and everything. Stripling, he text me and told me. It kind of hurt even though I didn’t know him for that long. Just being a Georgia running back and knowing that we were going to be playing in the future against each other and knowing we were going to be competitors. There would have been nothing better than that.”
“Any kind of violent loss of life is a tragedy, but for a young man that just seemed to have it all together, the timing of it, getting to go to Vanderbilt…” Dorsey said, his voice trailing off.
Vanderbilt had been through this before. Running back Kwane Doster was shot and killed in December 2004. News of Rajaan hit the Commodores coaching staff early that morning.
“It was terrible,” said Warren Belin, then the recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt. He’s now a coach with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“I got more phone calls on that day than ever because of all the relationships that Rajaan had created,” Belin recalls. “It was a great loss for his family and for us at Vanderbilt.”
“The night before he and I had spoke at length just making sure that his paperwork was in order,” Kitchings said. “It was extreme shock. He was a great young man. His mother, brother and sister were a great family. That’s not something that you go to bed at night thinking that you’re going to lose a young man like that.”
Those at the state’s flagship university were equally stunned.
“We all heard about it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You’re sick when you hear about those kinds of things. If you met him somewhere along the way or at least evaluated him somewhere along the way, it’s a little closer to home.”
“It shocked me,” McClendon said. “I talked with the coaches at the school. I know Coach Richt talked to them. We gave our condolences to the coaches, family and friends. It really was disturbing just to know that the guy that was about to go to the time of his life sort of got cut short a little bit.”
Students and faculty arrived at McEachern that morning, but class was the last thing on anybody’s mind.
“It was probably one of the worst days of my life here as principal,” Montgomery said. “More than anything, you just wondered why someone who really had so much going for them, why would it happen to a person like that?”
News began to spread throughout the state.
“When I heard it I thought it was kind of crazy that it happened to him,” said Georgia freshman linebacker Amarlo Herrera, a 2011 graduate of Atlanta’s North Clayton High. “The time period that it happened was kind of crazy. It makes you start to think about how it happened to somebody that had something good going for himself. Why?”
“Oh yeah, it was crazy,” said Garrison Smith, a sophomore defense end at Georgia. Smith was a 2010 graduate of Douglass High in Atlanta.
“It was just sad when you see senseless violence,” he said. “Under the circumstances he did the same thing I would have done. He was trying to protect his mom, protect his family. It’s sad he died, but he went out like a real hero. That was real. That was a powerful thing he did. He’s in Heaven now, you know.”
The kids of McEachern organized prayer meetings later that night. Students from all over the metro area soon joined them.
“It was really something because even students who didn’t know him knew of him,” Montgomery said. “Kids from Hillgrove, South Cobb, Pebblebrook and other schools came. People from all over the county and state were there.”
I work hard at whatever I do - just for that man upstairs to smile down on me with the rays of the sun ...and they feel so warm. My drive cannot be stopped or even slowed down, because every obstacle has a way around it. Every day I become stronger from the weights physically, the books mentally, and life emotionally. – Rajaan Bennett
‘What would five do?’
In the days following, Rajaan’s essay began circulating. Teachers across the nation read it to their students.
“It was pretty in-depth,” Dorsey said. “It just talked about what he had been through, where he was heading and how he was going to get there, goals he had set for himself and where he had gotten his strength from. When you think about a young man at that stage of the game in his young life having that thought process is pretty amazing.”
A teacher read the essay in one of Smith's classes. He was moved to dedicate his Bobby Dodd National Lineman of the Year award to Rajaan.
“It had just happened that week,” Smith said. “I just didn’t want anybody to overlook the situation and forget about what had just happened. I definitely had to put his name in my speech and let everybody know that I was thinking about him. He was on my heart, too. I would have done the same thing. That’s just what it is. That’s what it takes.”
A memorial service was held at the McEachern gymnasium. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who has since retired, brought his entire staff to attend.
“As coaches our heart goes out to our players because we can’t be with them at all times,” Belin said. “It was a very tough time for Bobby Johnson and the entire staff and university. I credit coach Johnson for keeping things together.”
“There’s always something good that comes from something bad, it seems,” Dorsey said. “The way our school, community, the whole state of Georgia, nationally – really it was a great thing. The memorial service was one of the most moving things I have ever been a part of. It was just hard. It makes the hair on my neck stand up just thinking about it because he was such a special young man.”
McEachern retired Rajaan’s No. 5 jersey. A park bench was dedicated in his honor by the administration of Cobb County. And the plaque outside the locker room was set in place.
“I think about him all the time,” Montgomery said. “He signed a magazine he was on the cover of for me. It sits here on my bookshelf. I often remind kids about him. They raise the five. Some of them have it on their backpacks. They have shirts that say ‘What would five do?’ It’s something of a way that he’s memorialized here at McEachern. We want our students here to know his work ethic and his attitude.”
There is no limit to my strength and at the end of the day, I want to be known as the strongest. – Rajaan Bennett
‘The battle down in powder town’
McEachern and Hillgrove are locked in a defensive battle as bragging rights of both Cobb County and classification 5A hang in the balance.
Both bands furiously play on with the game tied at 10 in the fourth quarter.
Hillgrove takes the lead for good after a poor snap on a punt leads to a safety late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks win by two, behind Alabama-bound running back Kenyan Drake’s 188 rushing yards.
“That’s life,” Montgomery says later.
Narjaketha has to respect the performance. After all, she knows what a good tailback looks like. Her mind often drifts back to the Friday nights that featured her son Rajaan.
“Just seeing him out on the field and I’m screaming and whistling,” she said. “I can’t even say.”
Narjaketha will continue to be here. Watching. Supporting. Cheering. Remembering.
“It’s very important that our students see her at the games,” Montgomery said. “It helps to keep Rajaan in the forefront of our kid’s minds. It’s not always good to be reminded of people that are gone, but he was a good someone, so it’s OK. When people see her, they think good thoughts. It’s sad that he’s gone, but he was a good person that won’t ever be forgotten.”