A little before midnight Friday on Main Street in Starkville, people were everywhere. Not just in the businesses lining the historic street, but in the road itself. The sidewalks were overflowing with a game-weekend crowd.
“MAROOOON!” came the yell from one side of the street.
“WHIIIIIITE!” was the return shout from those on the north side of Main Street.
A little ways down the road, where the name changes from Main Street to University Drive as you approach campus, the cheering continued.
“Maroon! White! Fight fight fight!”
After eight months of waiting, Mississippi State took the field again Saturday night. Dak Prescott was throwing touchdowns, Chris Jones was sacking quarterbacks and Dan Mullen was having, ahem, animated conversations with referees.
Saturday night felt like Christmas morning to Bulldog fans and the weekend itself like an entire holiday season packed into three days.
The way a town changes is what separates college football from the NFL, except perhaps the Green Bay Packers, whose small-town community mirrors MSU’s as well as anyone.
The hosting of a game is an undertaking by the entire town. Restaurants, shops, hotels and city police. Those who spend their full year in Starkville become the matriarchs or patriarchs who open their homes to their family for Christmas.
The tens of thousands who come from elsewhere are reunited with those they haven’t seen for at least the course of the offseason. For some, it’s been years since they last made the pilgrimage.
What’s new, they want to know. So much has changed, while so much has stayed the same.
Saturday comes and the traffic in town empties onto campus. Tailgates fill with families, friends and food.
As grills light up and coolers are emptied it’s like Thanksgiving with every tent smelling like grandma’s kitchen and every collapsible table loaded down like the family’s nicest dining room setup.
Heck, some of the tailgates even have TVs, just like home.
Starkville has been dry for weeks, but as soon as gameday came, so did the rain. Hard, fat, unending rain. But no one cared. Thunderclaps over The Junction were greeted with the clanging of cowbells and scattered cheers.
“Bring it on!” the response seemed to be.
Their feet may be soaked, but their spirits refused to dampen.
Thick splashes echoed all around as accumulated rain on top of tents was pushed out.
“Watch your feet!”
Finally, the football itself. This is why people are so excited. This is why students, alumni and passers-by were chanting in the streets. 2014 is one of the most anticipated years of football in quite some time in this small town.
This fall marks 100 years of Scott Field, where MSU plays its games. Saturday was the grand opening of the new Davis Wade Stadium, renovated and expanded to hold nearly 62,000 of those screaming fans and family. Renewing an old rivalry, it was the first time MSU and Southern Miss had played in nearly a quarter century.
Oh, and this team is supposed to be good. Very good. Analysts have asked, why can’t Mississippi State win the West? Pundits have predicted Prescott could be a Heisman contender. The Bulldogs have nationally-recognized stars on both sides of the ball and a head coach beginning his sixth year with the best and deepest team he’s had.
Said SEC Network play-by-play announcer Dave Neal, “The buzz is something I haven’t seen around here in a long time.”
Under tents and rain with old college buddies, parents, in-laws, babies and girlfriends, that’s family, blood-related or not.
The angles are better on TV, the music sounds better on MP3 and you can beat the crowd to lunch if you catch a service online. But you lose the intangibles of fellowship. That’s what makes it special. That’s why Starkville overflows with Maroon and White every game weekend.
In a world seemingly ridden with crime, poverty and political battle, sports are something to agree on. Football is the commonality for those who may otherwise never have found a reason to talk to each other.
The results of games are borderline inconsequential, though the emotional investment is a significant one.
On Saturday night, on Starkville’s football-filled Christmas morning, Mississippi State’s family was rewarded with a feast.