“Y’all don’t understand,” Jay Hughes said. “I’ve been waiting on this so long.”
Mississippi State’s senior safety hadn’t played in a game since August 31, 2013. In the first quarter of the season-opener last year, his foot exploded in pain. Hughes’ Achilles was torn and his season was over as soon as it had started.
Years of training, months of offseason practice. Blood, sweat, tears, the works, all for nothing. All to watch the year end so quickly and spend the season on the sideline.
“This is real pain,” Hughes said that day.
364 days later, Hughes returned to the field. MSU was hosting Southern Mississippi.
“I was pumped, man.”
Yes he was. As soon as he stepped off the bus and into the locker room, Hughes went straight to the field, the grass he had worked so hard to see again.
He was dancing, jumping, yelling and fist-pumping his way down the field, three-piece suit still on. By the time he reached the endzone where his fellow students were watching and cheering him on, his jacket had come off and was being spun in the air. Sunglasses, suspenders and vest still intact, he was ready to play right then. Right there.
Just to get on the field would have been enough for Hughes. The team captain was happy just to play again after such a wait.
Then the game started and the energy Hughes had pre-game carried onto the field.
At the end of the first half, with MSU up 28-0 but USM threatening to score and take momentum into halftime, Hughes intercepted a deep Southern Mississippi pass to save the shutout and end the half with momentum squarely in MSU’s favor.
“That’s what you want in a veteran unit,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “When you feel momentum start to swing, you stop it.”
The unquestioned leader of the defense, as junior quarterback Dak Prescott calls him, Hughes was the man his coaches needed to make a play.
And it wasn’t his last.
In the third quarter, the shutout was once again in jeopardy as the Eagles were attempting a field goal. Someone, it’s tough to tell who, blocked the kick.
Without hesitation, without slowing at all, Hughes sprinted forward, scooped up the ball and ran 68 yards straight into the opposite endzone. It was his first touchdown since the state championship in high school.
He didn’t even try to watch himself on the video board above the endzone he was running to.
“I was just trying to get there,” he said with a laugh.
He did make it, eventually, if not a little tired from the run.
“I laid down in the endzone and it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever known,” Hughes said.
Everyone on the field had followed him to paydirt and surrounded him in celebration. His teammates on the sideline sprinted onto the field to congratulate him.
“I was almost late to hold the ball [for the extra point] because I was celebrating with him,” Prescott told reporters.
For as energetic, enthusiastic and wild as his teammates and the crowd became after the score, Hughes found himself in a sort of sleepy euphoria. The kind of weary happiness that comes after a hard job done right.
He didn’t even make it off the field by himself, actually. Fellow senior Robert Johnson picked him up after a hug and ran down the sideline with Hughes on his shoulder as teammates slapped his helmet and yelled for him as he passed by.
“Just to be back,” Hughes began, “I feel like I kind of owed it to myself … I’m back, man. We’re back.”
MSU won the game 49-0, not exactly a tightly-contested battle, though Hughes certainly bears some responsibility for MSU maintaining a shutout.
But he was the story of the game for those who know him, his teammates and coaches, in particular. They know how much he means to the team. He’s a playmaker, as he showed Saturday night, but more than that, he’s an emotional leader. He’s a rock for everyone around him. Always there, always encouraging, always teaching and always leading.
That’s what made Hughes’ return so special.
“Just amazing,” Mullen said. “A guy that does everything the right way for the program. He’s a guy you want.”
To Hughes, nothing is about him. But to those watching on the sideline Saturday, at least for a few hours, it was all about Hughes.
364 days later.