In his final year of school, Preston Rogers is one of the few to have earned the explicit trust of Dan Mullen. Mississippi State’s coach arrives at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday’s wearing whatever Adidas gear Rogers put in his locker.
Each practice, while run by Mullen and his coaches, is kept by Rogers, whose stopwatch never leaves his hand, entrusted with the task of keeping time, keeping practice on schedule and knowing when and where everything is supposed to happen.
Nine years before, when people actually knew him by his given name, Rogers was a Chicago native and high school senior on the Mississippi coast with no intentions or ideas of ever setting foot in a college classroom. The thought just hadn’t occurred to him.
Then, Stick, as Rogers is now known, saw Sylvester Croom on TV, MSU’s new head coach.
“I told my teacher, ‘I really like this guy. He’s kind of cool,’” Stick said.
The teacher grabbed him by the arm, took him to an empty room and set a freshly-printed pile of papers in front of him.
“You’re not leaving until you’ve filled out an application for Mississippi State,” she said. “That’s your job today.”
The application he filled out that day was the only one he signed his name to. It was MSU or nowhere.
January 5, 2005, Phil Silva roamed his equipment domain on the opposite side of MSU’s locker room. In walked a tall, skinny freshman, looking one part eager and two parts afraid.
‘Hi, I’m Preston Rogers.’
‘Son, do you eat?’ Silva replied in his gravelly Cajun voice.
‘You look like a damn stick.’
“And that was it,” Silva now says with a laugh. “It stuck ever since. Everybody knows him by Stick. You just look at him.”
Every now and then, Stick says, Silva will call him by his given name just to mess with him, but even his mom doesn’t call him Preston.
He’s been branded as Stick by MSU equipment.
Receiving the new name was appropriate for the guy who got to school with thoughts of maybe becoming a coach, and now leaves eight years after his re-christening knowing exactly what he wants to do. He’s going to work in equipment. It’s what he knows now.
The draw for Stick isn’t necessarily the ins and outs of the job, but the same thing that got him to MSU in the first place. People.
He was attracted to the school because he liked Sylvester Croom the man. He enjoys his job because he’s a people person. He spends all day talking to co-workers, players, coaches and the like, cracking jokes, offering encouragement and doing his best to make everyone around him smile.
His infectious attitude is a part of what makes him so good at what he does for Silva now. In a nutshell, he takes care of the coaches. The head coach, whoever that may be at any given time.
“A ball sailed a little bit over the receivers,” Stick said. “Coach was sitting a few yards away from me and it almost smoked him. I barely deflected it.”
Stick looked at Croom, worried the worst was coming, a public berating of a then-young student.
“He looked back at me said, ‘Hey, that was pretty good.’”
One of Stick’s first experiences with Mullen was similarly incidental, though this time, the ball did hit the coach, metaphorically speaking.
Stick’s job was to keep the team on pace during practice in two-a-days, the point man for where in the rigid practice schedule the players and coaches were.
“I had a horn and stopwatch, every five minutes,” he said. “Very first two-a-days, I made the guy switch up the cards on the tower. Coach Mullen looked at the tower, looked at me, said, ‘Stick, what period are we in?’
Stick knew he had messed up. He knew Mullen was only asking him because he, too, recognized the error.
“He wasn’t too happy about it,” Stick said with a guilty smile.
But that moment, in some way, started a bond between the two.
“To this day we still joke about it. Every time we hit that period I tell Coach and he gives me a little smile.”
“He’s very comforting for me to have around,” Mullen said. “I got a level of trust with Stick. Stick’s been with me since day one here.”
He’s been around far longer than Mullen, in fact, and certainly, charging him to keep practice time requires trust, but it isn’t Stick’s only task.
Mullen’s maroon visors at practice, his white jackets on the sideline of games and his polos in press conferences all come from Stick.
17-year-old Preston Rogers, when he spoke in awe about Sylvester Croom, wouldn’t have guessed he’d have a new name and a part-time job as a fashionista within three years.
One of his chief duties is to dress the coach.
“Coach always walks in and says, ‘Stick, what am I wearing today?’”
Adidas, Stick says, likes to showcase Mullen as the face of Mississippi State football. The responsibility of making that face look good falls on the skinny kid in Silva’s office.
“Coach puts a lot of trust in me. All his stuff goes through me,” Stick said. “Mullen wears it, then it hits the stores. Coach doesn’t even look. He just puts the visor on and goes.”
Mullen has never told him no, either.
While his primary responsibilities fall with Mullen, no one at an MSU practice doesn’t know him.
The shuffling of the bag hanging at his waist as he runs by, the fist bumps down the sideline, the screeching of the air horn at the end of every period and the loud laugh following frequent jokes let you know Stick is there.
At the end of one practice, Mullen called for Stick and told him to stand near the goal-line. He then sent a punter to the other end of the field. If Stick caught the punt, bag still hanging around his waist, the team didn’t have to run. If he didn’t catch it…
“All I had to do was reach out and grab it,” Stick said. “I was trying to be fancy back there and I dropped it. The team had to run.”
Despite the extra bit of running, he still got pats on the back and plenty of laughs.
“He’s got a great personality,” Silva said. “He’s one fine young man. He’s a really appreciative young man. I’m gonna miss him, just having him around, knowing he’s here.”
Finally, after nearly a decade, Stick’s time in Starkville is at an end. School is finished and the real world awaits. Silva and Mullen both say they wished they had a way to keep him, an extra position or some manner in which they wouldn’t have to lose the guy they trust so much.
Stick doesn’t want to leave either. He’s still a people person. Asked what he’ll miss the most, his voice drops to a whisper, eyes red and unfocused, looking ahead,
“The best part about the job is being around these guys. It’s like one big family and Phil’s the father.”
He finishes his time his time in Starkville with at least a handful of opportunities he’s still finalizing his choice on.
If nothing else, he’s got plenty of experience.
“Most people that are in college for eight years leave and start doing surgeries,” Mullen joked.