I’ve been avoiding this for days now. Weeks, really.
I keep pulling up the same blank Word document, staring at it for a few minutes, then running off to do laundry or get gas or make a phone call, or whatever other excuse I can come up with to avoid writing these words.
But I’m out of time now. I’ve only got about 24 hours before I have to give everything back anyway, so if I don’t say any of this today then it just won’t get said.
I just twitch-stroked the keys “command+s” out of habit to save what I’ve written so far. A box popped up asking me to give this file a name. I considered it for a split second and absent-mindedly typed in “goodbye letter,” but I stopped before hitting enter and officially saving the file as such.
This is not a goodbye. It’s a thank you.
Thank you, Mississippi State, for giving me the best six years of my life, and thank you, Starkville, for giving me quite literally my entire life.
Tomorrow is my last day writing for MSU, and the coming weeks will be my last living in Starkville.
I should get the particulars out of the way real quick, since I’m being far too dramatic and not nearly informative enough, though you should be used to that by now if you read many of my stories.
This is a decision I have been mulling for a great deal of time and one I finally came to recently. I have loved just about every second of working for MSU, if not all of them, and I stand by my belief that there’s not another place in the world like Starkville nor another community in existence like the one surrounding MSU.
No offense to my friends at Dave’s Darkhorse Tavern, where the servers shirts have an all-caps “NEVER GRADUATE” printed on the back, but I was born in Starkville and raised in Starkville, educated by Mississippi State and employed by Mississippi State.
It’s time to graduate, as bittersweet as that moment may be.
To say I’m leaving for greener pastures would imply that something else could be better than what I’ve had here. The truth is that I’m just going in search of different pastures.
I don’t know what my next step is, I just know I need to take one.
This may end up being a little all over the place, and I apologize for that. I’m used to telling other people’s stories, not my own.
In the summer of 2012, I sat in the Athletic Director’s office with three people who all have since moved on to other things. Scott Stricklin wanted to hire an in-house reporter at MSU, and Joe Galbraith had, unbeknownst to me, campaigned hard on my behalf, despite the fact that I was barely a year out of college, was covering State athletics exclusively through twitter and radio, and was mostly paying my bills by working at a coffee shop (a belated thank you to Strange Brew for getting me through college.) Mike Nemeth was there to right the ship if he realized a terrible mistake was being made. I don’t know if they will all read this (just kidding, I know you’re reading this Joe, tell Ericka and the kids I said hi) but I can’t put into words how grateful I am that you took a chance on me, so I won’t even try.
It was an interesting proposition for someone with an education and background in journalism, and I wasn’t sure if it was one I should accept. I talked to the few friends in the industry I had, and some said it probably wasn’t a good idea, while others said, well, it wasn’t the worst idea they’d ever heard.
Saying yes was the best decision I’ve ever made. It took nearly all of that first year to figure it out, but I was somewhere in Omaha the following June when I had the first moment that let me know I’d done the right thing and wrote the first string of stories that made me think I had found my voice.
I’m not one to remember specific things like this, and it’s honestly a very stupid thing to have held on to and remembered so well. I’d be fairly surprised if the other person in this story even recalls that it happened, though I know his memory is much sharper than mine.
I sat in the lobby of the Omaha Doubletree (wi-fi in the rooms was and still is practically non-existent) the morning after a College World Series game and wrote about Hunter Renfroe hitting a bomb over the deep walls of TD Ameritrade Park and securing a victory for MSU. I had spent the entire game in the dugout and had seen every little moment leading up to and following the big hit. My audience at the time was small, but I was proud of the story I’d written. I was realizing how enjoyable it is to write about baseball.
Then I shut my laptop and went about my day.
Later, I got on twitter and saw something that blew my mind. Rick Cleveland had tweeted the link to my story. THE Rick Cleveland. The legend. The Governor! The person I and every other Mississippian of my generation had grown up reading had tweeted a link to my story! He didn’t say much about it. He didn’t even tag my twitter handle in it. He didn’t need to, though. All he said was, “This is good reporting.”
That was a compliment I’ve been living on for years.
Man, it’s been a hell of a ride since then.
For 134 straight years following MSU being founded, not a single athletic team played for a National Championship. How lucky am I, then, that I’ve been able to cover three National Championship appearances in the five years following that run and some of the best stretches in nearly every sport MSU has?
Some of my favorite memories are obvious. The symmetry of having trips to Omaha as bookends to my time at MSU is not lost on me. Getting to cover National Championships, Final Fours and bowl games were all incredible experiences.
My first Egg Bowl to cover was as a student in 2009, the renewal of the rivalry.
Watching the No. 3 team in the country beat the No. 2 team in the country to become the No. 1 team in the country in front of the largest and loudest crowd in MSU history was unforgettable.
I’ve been to Miami and Utah, NYC and Ohio, Dallas and North Carolina, Kansas City and Oklahoma. I got to spend two weeks sightseeing in Italy for the total price of zero dollars, all because the basketball team had an open spot for someone to come along and write about the trip. Just standing there with Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters, looking at the statute of David.
I covered an undefeated SEC Championship women’s basketball team and sat courtside for the largest crowd for a basketball game in the history of the state of Mississippi.
Some of the biggest, most entertaining and most incredible games in MSU’s long history were kind enough to unfold right in front of me.
Although Xs and Os were never what I was passionate about. It’s the people and the experiences I’ve had with them that I’ve loved.
God knows how many pounds of grilled meats I’ve eaten with old friends and new friends in the Left Field Lounge. If the players have fun on courts and fields during big wins, it’s hotel lobbies on the road and the Cotton District at home where fun is had by those gathering after big games.
Not all of the memories are good ones, though I’d never trade them for anything. Those in the Mississippi State world have lately had to say goodbye to far too many, far too early. Seeing an entire team in shock after the loss of Nick Bell was heartbreaking, and seeing an entire university rally around Campbell Dale was inspiring. MSU has lost too many, tragedy striking again just this week.
I’ll never forget riding through Memphis crammed four-deep into the backseat of a mid-sized SUV with three gigantic football players, myself and a guy very few people were talking about at the time named Dak Prescott stuck in the middle. No one else in the car was saying anything, so we just started talking about life, about what we want to do with ourselves, about sports being, ultimately, a pretty trivial thing.
It’s funny now, but it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time when Dak said that while he of course would love to play professionally, he knew the odds were slim. He just wanted to use the platform as effectively as he could for as long as he had it. He wanted to do as much good for as many others as he could with the resources he was given. If one person’s life was better because of him, then his own life was worth it. The more he could impact the better.
I won’t soon forget him running, juking and stiff-arming his way toward the endzone to silence Death Valley on a Louisiana Saturday night, either. But the sardine-can ride and conversation on a rainy night in Memphis is the Dak memory I’ll hold onto.
For a long time after I started doing this whole sports journalism thing, I struggled with it. I liked sports, of course. Loved them. But there was so much else going on in the world, so many real issues and problems, that I thought labeling sporting contests as “games” was exceedingly appropriate. Shouldn’t I be spending all this energy on something that actually helps people?
But then I started to realize what sports mean to people, what they do for people. In a global climate that has only become more divided and combative over the last several years, sport is one of the few things that still bring people together, individual rivalries notwithstanding.
Black, white. Old, young. Rich, poor. Liberal, conservative. Nothing in history has caused more high fives and hugs between Democrats and Republicans than sports. It often feels as if there are hardly any heroes left in the world, but sport seems to provide them every day.
I started to see how happy sports make people, win or lose. Whether it’s been a good day or a bad one, whether life is what you want or if it feels everything is against you, the escape of the game is always there.
Sports give people something to be a part of, something to belong to. Reading about your favorite team, watching an interview with your school’s coach, going to games every weekend – sports are what we do when we’re not doing what we have to do.
When I realized I was a part of creating that experience, a conduit to connect fan to team, I realized I was doing something worthwhile.
It’s the people we surround ourselves with that make it so special. Music has a far better sound quality when you listen to the album at home. Church services are far easier to get to if you just pull up the livestream on your computer. Sporting events are 100 times cheaper when watched on TV, and the line for the bathroom is significantly shorter, too.
Yet, we sell out concerts, show up to churches and file into stadiums every day.
There is a lot more to it than just the game.
Usually it doesn’t take me long to write stories, though I like for my bosses to think it takes me hours to do so. That way they think I’m working hard. But once I start, it’s a rare story that I spend more than an hour actually writing.
But I’ve been sitting here all afternoon. The sun was high when I started, but it’s almost fully blocked by the trees outside my house by now. It’s now the following morning and I’m still agonizing over this, minutes away from publishing a story where I still feel like I haven’t managed to get across what I was trying to say.
When you write so many words, you never know which ones are going to stick. It takes you by surprise most of the time, though there is the rare occasion where a writer actually likes something they wrote.
Back in 2016, MSU’s video department asked me if I could write a script for a video that was a goodbye and thank you letter from MSU to Dak Prescott as he finished his career in Starkville and moved on to the next step in his career.
In that script was the line, “We don’t know where you’ll go from here, what milestones and achievements lay ahead. But know that wherever you go, we go with you.” It wasn’t a particularly powerful sentence, especially not in a script that was rife with color and dramatics. But by the following fall, part of that sentence was on billboards across the country as MSU celebrated it’s former players in their new towns, putting up signs in Dallas and Seattle, Chicago and Philadelphia, Oakland and Detroit, each emblazoned with the key part of the line: wherever you go, we go with you.
There is no hyperbole when I say that this town and this school are what made me who I am, that the experiences I’ve had here shaped me into the person I’ve become.
I don’t know where I’ll go from here, what roads and adventures lay ahead. But know that wherever I go, I take Mississippi State with me.