Bobby Johnson was filled with questions after he learned of the murder of Vanderbilt football signee Rajaan Bennett early Thursday.
The Commodores’ coach, however, was certain that whatever took place in the suburban Atlanta home of the all-state running back, Bennett’s primary motive was to protect his family.
“Rajaan was the man of the house, there was no doubt about it,” Johnson said during an emotional news conference Thursday morning. “He took care of his brother and his mother and his sisters. They all looked up to him. That’s what he was trying to do at the end.”
Bennett’s death was part of a domestic violence incident in which another member of his family was wounded, and the suspected murderer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
It also was the second time in a little more than five years a player connected to Vanderbilt died from violent circumstances. Former Commodores’ running back Kwane Doster was shot to death in his hometown of Tampa following the 2004 season.
“When you lose players, it’s just extremely unusual,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to overcome. You just question everything about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, how people are doing, how the world’s doing it and how people act. Could we have done something different?
“We’re going to miss him. … We’re going to try to do everything we can for the family. For our current players and coaches this is a big blow, not because we’re losing a football player but because we’re losing an outstanding young man.”
Bennett, whose father was murdered several years ago in Florida, was considered the top recruit in Vanderbilt’s 2010 signing class, which consisted of 24 players who signed national letters-of-intent on Feb. 3.
He rushed for 1,857 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior and earned multiple letters in track and field at McEachern High School. In the classroom he had a 3.8 grade-point average, and at home was a caretaker for his brother, a special needs student in the 10th grade.
“You just want to move the clock back a day and let’s get this thing done differently,” Johnson said. “It’s horrible to deal with, and I know the family and McEachern High School … it’s much tougher for them. They’ve known him for a long time. They know what kind of person he is and they’re having a much tougher time than we are.”
Johnson was at the family home the night in late January that Bennett committed to Vanderbilt.
“Rajaan did a great job in the recruiting process,” he said. “He was deliberate about it and he looked at the information. I think he made decisions for the right reasons. That night we went there, he told us he was going to come to Vanderbilt and I felt great. In my opinion, it was the best place for him.
“It was going to change his life.”