South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley had just made his college debut, leading the Gamecocks to a 34-28 win over UMass.
To celebrate, the freshman met with Spartanburg County teacher Josh Steadings, as well as Steadings’ wife and two kids, in the parking lot after the game. Steadings, a huge South Carolina fan, was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident nearly two years ago, and Charlie Barnett, a friend of Steadings and of the Bentley family, organized the meeting the week before the game.
Barnett hesitated to ask Bentley if he would be available, knowing that it would be an important day for the signal caller, but when he mentioned it, Bentley insisted the meeting take place.
“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” Barnett said.
The hope Bentley brought to Gamecocks fans is the reason he was named The State’s Amateur Athlete of the Year.
Bentley is loved by many at Byrnes High and in the Duncan community, despite having never thrown a pass for the Rebels before moving away to Alabama prior to his sophomore season of high school.
Bentley was touted as the next great quarterback at Byrnes as he was playing middle school football at D.R. Hill. He was described as having the football IQ of his brothers Chas Dodd and Shuler Bentley, both Division I quarterbacks, but was bigger and had a stronger arm than they did at the same age.
But football isn’t what made Bentley popular with his teachers and peers and in the community. His personality did that.
“If you only know Jake Bentley the quarterback or as a football player you don’t really know him because there’s a whole, whole, whole lot more to him,” Barnett said. “He’s an extremely intellectual kid who has a lot of deep thoughts about life and religion and purpose and why are we here.”
Barnett taught Bentley in eighth grade and worked in Spartanburg County District Five for several years before recently taking a job as an administrator in Greenville.
He and his wife and two daughters are close with Jake, Bobby, Bobby’s wife Paulette and the rest of the Bentley family and have been for years.
When Bobby accepted a job as an offensive analyst at Auburn and the Bentley family moved to Alabama, the two families made a vow to remain friends.
“We all talked about it as a group and said, ‘Look, we’re going to stay as close as we are. All of us. This is not going to split up our friendship.’ We didn’t want to let that four-hour separation change everything,” Barnett said.
In a way Barnett was the middle-man between the Byrnes community and the Bentley family. The Barnetts would take weekend trips to Opelika and watch Jake’s high school games on Friday, then spend the weekend hanging out with the Bentleys before returning back to South Carolina.
When Barnett would get back to Duncan, he would be asked how Jake was doing as a quarterback and as a person.
“Everybody loves him. He’s a great kid. Even though he moved to Opelika everybody back home still looks at him as the kid from Duncan, the kid from Lyman, and they’re greatly invested in his success,” Barnett said. “It’s really more than pride. It’s a matter of seeing a great person in the limelight and seeing a great kid be successful. People are proud to see a great person out there doing things the right way and being successful.”
Byrnes boys basketball coach Layne Fowler started coaching in the district in 2001 and has had a strong friendship with Bobby Bentley since that time.
His family attended church with the Bentleys, and watched each of Bobby’s sons, including Jake, grow as kids and as athletes.
“For me I almost look at him as a son, and I think the community kind of does that,” Fowler said. “Jake has always been very humble. Seeing him do well excites everyone. Even people that are Clemson fans, they might not admit it, but they like to see Jake do well.”
As Jake was in Opelika for his sophomore and junior seasons of high school, people in the Duncan area still viewed him as a South Carolina boy.
“I don’t think you’d find anybody who would say Jake’s from Alabama,” Fowler said. “It resonates through this area that he’s one of ours.”
Byrnes senior Hayden Mitchem, who grew up playing sports and going to school with Jake, enjoyed watching the freshman lead USC to a 4-1 record in his first five college starts.
“He’s always been good, always been one of the best players on the team. I knew from an early age he was going to be where he is now,” Mitchem said. “I’m a South Carolina fan and seeing Jake go in and beat Tennessee and Missouri, it’s fun to see.”
Barnett and Jake have made time to communicate over the past several weeks, even with Jake going from a backup to a starter.
They met for wings in Columbia during the season and communicate through calls and texts regularly.
The two speak mostly about life but sprinkle in some football talk, and Barnett said Jake is handling the added attention of being the Gamecocks starter well.
“He’s stayed away from social media. He doesn’t pay attention to the hype and the talk. He’s focused on making himself the best quarterback he can be,” he said.
The State’s previous S.C. Amateur Athlete of the Year winners:
2004: Otis Harris, USC and Olympic sprinter
2005: Kate Niehaus, Spring Valley and Stanford runner
2006: Ray Ray McElrathbey, Clemson football
2007: Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State football
2008: Justin Smoak, USC baseball
2009: Mallory Cecil, Spartanburg and Duke tennis
2010: USC baseball team, 2010 National Champs
2011: Cody Proveaux, Pelion and Clemson golfer
2012: Michael Roth, Matt Price and Christian Walker, USC baseball’s Big 3
2013: Connor Shaw, USC football
2014: Sabrina D’Angelo, USC soccer
2015: Deshaun Watson, Clemson football
2016: Jake Bentley, USC football