Vanderbilt recruit Bennett killed

Updated: February 18, 2010, 5:29 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Running back Rajaan Bennett, one of Vanderbilt's top-rated signees for the 2010 class, was killed early Thursday morning in an apparent murder-suicide at the family's home in Powder Springs, Ga.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the story on its Web site.

Police responded to a 911 call about 2:30 a.m. ET Thursday from Bennett's home. When they arrived about four minutes later, they heard gunshots, Powder Springs police Maj. Charles Spann told the Journal-Constitution.

Two people ran from the house following the gunshots, including Bennett's mother, Narjaketha Bennett, and his uncle, Taiwan Hunter, who had been shot. Both were hysterical, police said.

The Cobb County SWAT team was called to the scene, and officers found two people who had been shot and killed inside the home: Bennett, 18, and Clifton O'Neal Steger, 39, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, according to Powder Springs police Lt. Matt Boyd.

Police said Hunter, 32, who is Narjaketha Bennett's brother, was wounded and underwent surgery. He was in critical condition Thursday afternoon.

Steger was later identified as a former boyfriend of Rajaan Bennett's mother. No motive has been given for the shooting.

Bennett, listed at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, rushed for 1,857 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior at McEachern High School and led his team to an unbeaten regular season. He was recruited by several SEC schools, including Kentucky and Tennessee, before choosing Vanderbilt.

[+] EnlargeRajaan Bennett
ESPN RecruitingVanderbilt recruit Rajaan Bennett rushed for 1,857 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school senior.

In a statement, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said the program was "devastated" by Bennett's death and that their thoughts were with his mother and family. "As we got to know Rajaan, it became very clear to our coaches that he was a better person than he was an athlete," he said.

Later, in a meeting with reporters, Johnson's voice cracked with emotion as he recalled the day Bennett committed to Vanderbilt.

"I felt great. In my opinion, it was the best place for him. ... It was going to change his life," he said.

"Rajaan was the man of the house," Johnson added. "He took care of his brother and his mother and his sisters, and they all looked up to him. That's what he was trying to do at the end. You hate to see guys have to have that role that early in their lives, but he handled it as good as anybody possibly could have."

Bennett was rated as a three-star prospect by ESPN Recruiting, and as the 25th-best player in the Journal-Constitution's Fab 50, which was published earlier this month.

Bennett's high school coach, Kyle Hockman, said Bennett was one of the best kids he's ever coached.

"I'm sure you want to talk about Rajaan on the football field, but I promise he's a better person than he is a player," Hockman said when Bennett signed with Vanderbilt. "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 hardworking. He's a guy that is very respected by his teammates and the McEachern community. I think the world of this young man," Hockman said.

McEachern principal Regina Montgomery said counselors would be at the school to help students with the grieving process, but, "we don't know what we're going to do tomorrow, we're just trying to get through today together."

"We have a population of 2,200 kids," Montgomery added, "and when you're Rajaan Bennett, you touch the lives of all 2,200."

This is the second murder that has rocked the Vanderbilt football program during Johnson's tenure as coach. Former running back Kwane Doster was shot and killed in December 2004 while sitting in the back seat of a friend's car in Tampa, Fla.

Doster had just finished his junior season at Vanderbilt. He was named the SEC Freshman of the Year two seasons earlier after rushing for 798 yards.

Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Chris Low | email

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