I got the call early Thursday morning from our breaking news desk.
There had been a shooting death. It involved a high school football player, I was told. A “big-time player,” one that had been recruited and signed a college scholarship. At that point we had no IDs.
A little while later I was informed this player went to McEachern High School and had signed a scholarship to Vanderbilt. I knew immediately it was Rajaan Bennett.
In that instant it was like somebody just punched me in the gut and all the air left my body.
My first thought was, “Rajaan Bennett? Really? How could that be? Such a good kid. Who’d shoot him?”
Then details slowly began to pour in. A domestic dispute. A murder-suicide. The mother’s ex-boyfriend. Bennett, 18, had been “the man of the house.”
I don’t want to mischaracterize. I was not close to Bennett personally. My relationship with him was professional, as one voice on the phone to another. I called him throughout the recruiting process to find out what was going on. But you really feel like you get to know someone when you talk to them regularly over several months.
There toward the end it could have been Louisville or Kentucky or Vanderbilt for Bennett. Not surprisingly he went with the best education.
The breaking news desk needed my help because I know the coaches and have all the numbers. They wanted me to call McEachern coach Kyle Hockman.
Talk about assignments you dread.
For six months last year I worked as a reporter on the AJC’s breaking news team. During that time I covered the triple murder and suicide of Professor George Zinkhan, a little boy’s shooting death by his grandfather in Commerce, the parking deck collapse downtown and countless fires and fatalities.
So you’d think I’d be used to such things. Truth is, you never are.
Coach Hockman answered his cell knowing what I needed. We both struggled through the conversation.
“I don’t know the timing of it,” Hockman told me, his voice deep and heavy with grief. “I just don’t know a lot more information.”
When did you find out, I asked?
“About 5 this morning.”
I started to ask another question and Hockman cut me off.
“The school is going to release a statement later this morning,” Hockman said. “I don’t want to talk further right now. Maybe later I can talk to you personally. I’m sorry.”
“He was a good kid wasn’t he, Coach?” I said.
“Just one of the best ever.”
Choking back emotion, Hockman hung up.
I’ll give you all the football data. Bennett was team captain. He was 5-foot-11, 210-pounds, all muscle. He carried the ball 236 times for 1,857 yards and scored 29 touchdowns to lead McEachern to an undefeated regular season. He was the Class AAAAA offensive player of the year, first-team Class AAAAA All-State and No. 25 on the AJC’s Fab 50.
But that’s not what the folks in Powder Springs are going to remember. I hearken back to Coach Hockman’s words on the occasion of Bennett signing with Vanderbilt University.
“I’m sure you want to talk about Rajaan on the football field, but I promise he’s a better person than he is player,” Hockman said. “He has a great head on his shoulders, a guy that has been the man in his household for quite a while, yet still worked to maintain a solid GPA in class and become such a great player. Rajaan is both humble and hard working. He’s a guy that is very respected by his teammates and the McEachern community. I think the world of this young man.”
So did a lot of people.