OPELIKA, Ala. — There’s not much that happens in downtown Opelika that surprises Zach Holmes. That’s the product of three years spent working in the heart of the small town in Alabama, where church steeples rise high and football is king.
He barely acknowledges a passing train rolling through the middle of the downtown historic district, divided by the tracks into two halves.
“Everybody is kind of used to it,” said Holmes, the general manager at Niffer’s at the Tracks.
It’s a steady town, where the pace of the downtown often correlates to football and Niffer’s is no exception — its busiest times are tied to football. Friday evenings bring a packed house decked out in red and black clothing, bearing the name of the Opelika Bulldogs before the crowd files out and the concrete stands at Bulldog Stadium fill in. The focus on Saturday falls on Alabama and Auburn, especially the latter as the Tigers play a few miles down the road. And when Auburn is on the road, Niffer’s sees a bigger crowd of fans who want to escape the madness of TigerTown.
That was the case two weeks ago. Auburn was on the road and a lunch rush came in with a section of football-crazed fans lingering for the slate of night games.
Holmes had the three main TVs in the corner bar area showing Auburn at Ole Miss, Nebraska at Wisconsin and Clemson at Florida State. But then a table of six or so customers — Holmes identified them as religious regulars — made a request he had never heard before.
They wanted to watch Tennessee at South Carolina.
“People asked to put the South Carolina game on because they wanted to see Jake Bentley play,” Holmes said. “They were excited he got the start and all that stuff. Of course, I turned it because the customer is always right. Then I started pulling for South Carolina because they were pulling for Jake Bentley.”
Jake Bentley is not from Opelika.
He’s from Duncan, S.C.. But that fact is nothing more than a technicality. He only lived in Opelika for two years and started for one season. Those, too, are technicalities.
Opelika is home, the place where he became well-known around the city and earned a sterling reputation for his play on the field and his character away from it. It’s the place where that reputation should still be mounting and he should be playing.
Bentley is a should-be high school senior quarterback starting as a freshman at South Carolina, a should-be Friday night main attraction playing on national television on Saturdays. He’s doing something that Opelika defensive coordinator Erik Speakman would be surprised if he sees again in the next 15 years, but the fact Bentley is doing it is in no way surprising to anyone in Opelika.
“Everybody sees now what we’ve seen,” Speakman said.
The stories about Bentley give the impression he played 15 years at the school, not just one before forgoing his senior season to enroll at South Carolina. They paint the picture of an unassuming star football player, a loyal son, an incredible throwing arm, a straight A-student, a fiery leader, a compassionate friend and a far-reaching impact that has the city of Opelika watching him at South Carolina.
Jake Bentley the football player is easily defined by who Jake Bentley the offseason wiffle ball player is. He had completed rehabbing from knee surgery, but the prospect of stretching a double into a triple propelled him headfirst into the mats representing third base.
Dr. Mark Neighbors, Opelika Schools’ superintendent, saw the play unfold from the second floor of the Opelika indoor facilities — a 40-yard practice field surrounded by weight equipment.
“I got onto him,” said Dr. Mark Neighbors, Opelika Schools’ superintendent. “I said, ‘Jake, I appreciate that competitiveness, but this is wiffle ball.’ That’s the kinda fire he has.”
The long list of attributes Opelika football coach Brian Blackmon lists when he talks about Bentley starts with being a winner, a leader and a competitor, all of which roll into one energetic and passionate person who players love to follow.
“The higher the pressure, the better he plays,” Blackmon said. “The thing about Jake is he plays his best in the biggest games. He’s not a guy that just plays good when you’re playing teams you’re better than. He’s a guy that plays good no matter who you are playing. He just gets better the better the competition gets.”
The examples are numerous. There was the time Opelika traveled to play Central Phenix City, a powerhouse that handed Opelika its only two regular-season losses in the past three years. The more the Red Devils blitzed Bentley, the better he played.
“It was like a guy possessed on the field,” Blackmon said.
He elevated again to lead Opelika back from a 20-10 halftime deficit against Benjamin Russell, a game Opelika went on to win 45-26 behind a handful of Bentley touchdown passes. The week before, he engineered a game-winning drive to beat Auburn High School, Opelika’s biggest rival. When the game-winning throw left his hand, Bentley took off toward the Opelika sideline and started leaping and fist-pumping when it landed in J.D. Worth’s hands — a picture of it now framed in Dr. Neighbors’ office.
But it’s not all about fire with Bentley. Sophomore quarterback Cade Blackmon — coach Blackmon’s 16-year-old son — said he learned a lot from seeing Bentley’s ability to stay calm and poised. Speakman believes Bentley took some of that game management and level-headed approach from Opelika’s previous quarterback, Matthew Christian, whom Bentley backed up as a sophomore. Then there is the way Bentley, living in the midst of uncertainty in the spring, latched onto “The Dominant Dawg Leadership” program organized by running backs coach Ben Landers to have upperclassmen mentor teammates. Landers intentionally assigned Bentley underclassmen to mentor who might need it more than others, and Bentley had his team in the top 5 of 27 groups by the time he departed.
“I did it knowing that if he stayed, he was going to make a difference on those guys,” Landers said. “If he didn’t, he was going to set the tone.”
In a fitting sense, Opelika’s team chaplain Tommy Ray’s lasting image of Bentley’s competitive nature and passion is the final time he put on an Opelika uniform. The season came to an end against eventual state champion Spanish Fort — coached by Blackmon’s younger brother, Ben — in the state quarterfinals, leaving Bentley distraught at having not lead Opelika to its first state championship.
“I still have this picture in my head of him standing there, crying like a baby,” said Ray, who’s known in the community as Mr. Tommy. “His helmet was like 10 or 15 yards from him. I walked over and picked his helmet up. I said, ‘Jake, you need to pick this helmet up’. I prayed with him. That’s one of the most touching prayers. I will always remember that until I die.”
It’s a loss that lingers in Opelika, which opened this year’s state playoffs with a 48-12 win last Friday. The way it hit Bentley stuck with the players, as it spoke to the love he had not only for the team but for the town.
“That’s what meant so much to us,” Worth said. “Knowing that it’s not his hometown and to know that he wanted it that much, not for his hometown. If you ask him now, I guarantee you he would say Opelika is his home. That’s remarkable that football can have that big of an impact on somebody’s life after living somewhere for two years after being born and raised somewhere else. It just shows the kind of relationships you build with people through football.”
Worth had every reason to not be Bentley’s biggest fan when he arrived in Opelika. He was groomed to be the next Opelika quarterback in middle school and practiced with the varsity team as a freshman, waiting his turn. Then Bentley arrived in 2014 when his father, Bobby, was hired as an offensive analyst at Auburn — the college that offered Bentley a scholarship before he played a down of varsity football.
Expecting to take over as the starter for 2015, Worth’s world flipped and the transition to wide receiver began, as Blackmon had a clear answer to the ever-popular question around town in 2015: Who is going to be the quarterback?
“It was pretty easy,” Blackmon said. “When you’ve got a 6-foot-4, 215-pound kid that’s got an NFL arm, a coach’s kid with a football IQ off the charts, high character, incredible grades, incredible work ethic, straight-A student, it’s not hard to decide.”
Ray, who sends Bentley weekly Bible verses, had never seen anyone like Bentley at the position. He played catch with him once before he learned his lesson and never came back for Round 2. But as talented as Bentley was, he proved to be more likable as a person to his coaches and teammates — meeting all the checkmarks, as Blackmon likes to say.
“Everybody fell in love with his personality and his leadership skills and everything about him,” said Speakman, who was a graduate assistant with South Carolina coach Will Muschamp at Auburn in 1996.
For Speakman, that meant a good-natured ribbing directed at the quarterback when one of his defensive backs picked off Bentley in practice. He would, of course, hear it right back after a good throw. After practice, Bentley was more than fine with walking upstairs to Speakman’s office to sit and talk.
“He is going to make this place his living room,” he said.
Blackmon has further proof of that, evidenced by some repairs needed in his office. The corner of a wall in his office is scuffed with footprints and is missing paint where Bentley would lean back in a chair, put his feet up and study film during Thursday quarterback meetings.
“Usually, if you want to find him, you had to find a field somewhere that he was throwing the ball or a film room that he was watching film,” Blackmon said. “He told me the other night that (South Carolina quarterbacks coach Kurt) Roper has got a saying that being a quarterback is not a position, it’s a lifestyle. There’s a lot of truth in that and a lot of Jake in that statement.”
Weekly Thursday night dinners, hosted by various churches in Opelika, would see Bentley vacate his usual table to bounce around the room talking to teammates from any grade and position group.
Worth, impressed by how the highly touted Bentley never pouted as a backup during their sophomore season, saw many of his character traits in Bentley and they became best friends.
“He’s always working hard,” Worth said. “Every weekend on Sundays, two days after games, ‘You wanna go throw? You wanna go work out? You wanna go do this?’ If you’re talking about our friendship, that’s what it was. Always trying to get better. Always going to get better.”
It expanded well beyond football. Worth recalled a comical back-and-forth chant battle at Opelika’s basketball game at Auburn High School. It ended with Bentley sitting down in the front row after the Tigers’ student section changed the name of his girlfriend at the time, saying, “They got me on that one.”
More often, it was eating at downtown hotspot Jefferson’s or playing video games, as the Opelika team has a fascination with playing NCAA Football video games in a tournament format. Bentley commonly chose Clemson as his team in the heated competitions. Cade Blackmon, who coach Blackmon said thinks the world of Bentley, got involved in the video games and the constant throwing sessions as well, often cruising around Opelika listening to rapper Kodak Black afterward with Bentley.
Cade watched the way Bentley visualized games — stadium, field, fans and all — the night before a game, starting over if something felt off about the flow.
“He taught me everything that comes with being a quarterback,” Cade said. “It’s not just a position, like every other position. It’s a lifestyle. He taught me how to handle that and how to handle things when they don’t go your way.”
More often than not, things happening on the football field tend to go Bentley’s way. Last Friday afternoon, Blackmon sat in his office, pulling up play after play of Bentley making one impressive throw after another. Speakman stood by the television in the corner, suggesting more plays to pull up.
After one throw in particular that showed Bentley land a terrific pass into a tight window between two defenders and the sideline, Speakman turned and slightly shook his head.
“Normal people don’t do that,” Speakman said.
There is a belief that borders on an insistence from those around Opelika that while Bentley dazzled in an extraordinary way on the football field, he shone brighter yet in other ways. They describe a kid more interested in his character than his statistics and someone anyone could walk up to and talk with because he knew everybody.
“I think he could have been a 2-star quarterback, doing OK at Opelika, playing his senior year here, and everybody in this community would have loved Jake the same,” said Brittany Cahela, Bentley’s guidance counselor, who admired his charisma and infectious personality.
Cahela has long possessed a soft spot for students who “look out for the little guy,” a quality she saw in Bentley. She identified an innate ability in Bentley to be kind to someone no one has talked to all day and to pick out the teammate having a bad day — a skill not even limited to his own team. She witnessed a moment after Opelika beat Central Phenix City last season when Bentley went to comfort an opponent who was in tears after the loss, telling him they will do great in the playoffs.
“Anybody that has ever asked me about him in our community or outside, like, ‘I saw your quarterback is going to South Carolina,’” Cahela said. “I always say the best thing about that kid is he is a straight-A kid and he has got the character of gold. …
“He is good in those moments where it’s not that people are watching him. He is going to be doing the right thing, whether people are watching him or they’re not.”
When Bentley walked into Don Shirley’s advanced placement American history class as a 10th-grader, he took the seat front and center. He occupied that unassigned seat for the following two years, as he went through early American history and modern American history.
“He chose to sit in that seat, not even knowing me or anybody else,” Shirley said. “He’s the kind of kid you wish every student would be.”
Bentley, among other football players in Shirley’s class, soon was tutoring other students in the class, during which he was an active participant in Socratic discussions. Shirley’s class was far from the only advanced class on Bentley’s schedule at Opelika. He took AP English, pre-calculus, government, economics, genetics and Latin 2 as a junior — the latter two driven by his aspirations to go to medical school.
“He didn’t walk in and say I’m going to the NFL,” said Cahela of Bentley as a 10th-grader. “He said I want to be a doctor.”
Opelika running back Weldrin Ford was in a lot of the same classes with Bentley, particularly math classes. Ford claims he often received the better grades, thanks to Bentley’s added push.
“He used to motivate me because we would talk trash to each other,” said Ford, who also found motivation from Bentley when he went through rehab for a knee injury soon after Bentley completed his.
Bentley’s grades were always high and he always was quick to make up work if he missed any, Shirley said. Ray, who sometimes substitute teaches at the high school, said Bentley’s true presence was seen in how he carried himself in the hallway, showing respect in order to get respect.
“The people inside the program and in the school really got to know him,” Blackmon said. “They all got to see another side of Jake, which is the caring, people person that he is.”
Time to go
Bentley’s love for Opelika and his love for his family left him with a major decision to make in the months following his junior season. His father was off to South Carolina, having accepted a job as the Gamecocks running backs coach. Bentley had to choose between transferring for his senior year, living with the Blackmons in Opelika or enrolling at South Carolina, the school he committed to in March. The first choice he eliminated was playing at another school, while wheels began turning to potentially enroll at South Carolina a full year early so the family could remain together.
“You could see he had a sense of, ‘I want my mom and dad together. I want my family together,’” Cahela said. “I do think that was a huge reason that he wanted to go on to South Carolina. He gave up his senior year so that his family could all be together.”
Bentley already was on pace to graduate a semester early, but he wouldn’t have the necessary credits in Alabama to graduate in May. The South Carolina requirements, however, could be met with an online senior English course, which he took through Byrnes. Blackmon reached out to Muschamp to gain assurance that if Bentley gave up his final year of high school that he would be given a chance to compete to play.
Through it all, Bentley balanced the pressures of high school, offseason football, being recruited and being the acting man of the house. Cahela said he did it all with class, never showing a sign he was under stress. Shirley said Bentley became an even better student during that time.
On April 6, Opelika scheduled a team meeting so Bentley could inform his teammates that he would be leaving a year early to go to South Carolina before he made the news public. While Bentley didn’t play out his senior season at Opelika, he’s still paying close attention to the Bulldogs, who have gone 10-1 with Worth claiming his destiny as the team’s quarterback.
“When he left, it was bittersweet,” Worth said. “You get the chance to play quarterback, but you’re also losing one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and one of your best friends.”
When Worth checked his phone after the first game of Opelika’s season, he had a Snapchat from Bentley, who took a video of himself running frantically around his house celebrating Worth’s first touchdown pass of the season. Bentley subscribed to the NFHS Network, a site Opelika uses to broadcast its games, and Worth has come to expect a text or more after each game, as has Cade Blackmon.
“It’s like he never left, he’s just not playing with us on Friday nights,” said Ford, who received a long congratulatory text from Bentley after earning player of the game honors in Week 2 against Auburn.
Bentley visited during South Carolina’s bye week in mid-October, spending his four days off in Opelika. He hadn’t seen any playing time to the point, and Worth could sense that Bentley didn’t seem fully himself. Ray, who said Bentley is a devout Christian, gave Bentley a ride home from the team’s 38-37 win at Wetumpka on Friday and they prayed for patience. The desire to play was gnawing on Bentley, but that would soon vanish. He already had started receiving first-team reps at South Carolina and all indications he provided were that he would finally play the following week against Massachusetts.
“You could see when he came that Friday to see all of us and he knew he was going to get to play, he was just beaming,” Cahela said. “He just wanted the opportunity to play.”
He made his debut on Oct. 22, a true freshman who should be in high school but was starting for an SEC team, and the Blackmons were on hand to see it. They left from Pelham, Ala., following Opelika’s 35-17 win to cap its regular season and stayed outside Atlanta. They were up at 7 a.m., arriving in Columbia in time for the noon kickoff. Blackmon’s phone was busy throughout the visit, as Dr. Neighbors and Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller were among those texting him to tell Bentley they were proud of him.
“He is like my own kid,” Blackmon said. “It was really a blessing to get to come watch that UMass game, to be there to watch him in his first start, I was proud for him.”
The Gamecocks scored a touchdown on the opening drive and Bentley went wild. He threw both his hands in the air, fist-pumped twice, almost falling over on the second one. His Opelika teammates made sure to tell him he almost fell down because of his “ginormous” head, which earned him the nickname “Big Head.”
He threw a pair of touchdowns and 201 yards in his first college game.
“The first game, he was electric. I really thought he brought the energy back to South Carolina,” said Cade Blackmon, whose South Carolina lanyard from that game hangs out of his pocket. “I think that’s what he is really good at doing. I would see him play on Friday nights and he would bring that same energy and same competitiveness. Watching him play there, he’s making the same plays, just with different guys.”
Heart for South Carolina
A week later, two television setups ruled the living rooms at the Blackmon and Worth households. The Blackmons hosted six coaches and their families, while Worth entertained 15-20 of his teammates.
In a town defined by football and dominated by Auburn fandom, one TV at each house was devoted to the Tigers game against Ole Miss. The other locked in on South Carolina, as Bentley and the Gamecocks faced Tennessee in a primetime game.
“It’s been kinda unreal because he was down here a couple weeks ago,” Worth said. “Then you turn on ESPN and you see one of your best friends is playing. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ We were just proud of him.”
Shirley was tuned in and Cahela walked into her house and turned on the South Carolina game. Niffer’s at the Tracks tuned into see South Carolina, which Holmes said will be the norm from now on.
“This community now has a heart for South Carolina,” Cahela said.
Little more than 270 miles away, they all watched as Bentley did what they saw him do last year at Opelika. He stood tall, made some of his best passes under pressure, made some throws that were mirror images of what he did when he was playing for Opelika and he led the Gamecocks to a 24-21 upset win against the No. 18-ranked Vols.
“We were all sitting there going, ‘They finally realized what we’ve seen all these years,’” Speakman said.
Little more than an hour after the game ended, Worth’s phone vibrated. It was a one-word text from Bentley.