There aren’t many places Ben Beckwith would rather be than the middle of the woods on a cold Saturday morning. It’s nice to be away from the noise and bother of people and cars, though his hometown of Benton, Mississippi would be considered quiet by most (“There are two stop signs, two gas stations and a little barber shop and a little antique store,” Beckwith lists off. “That’s about it.”) In the trees, he can settle in and become part of the terrain that made him who he is. Watchful but calm, he’s at peace.
While most high school students are late to class because they slept through their alarm or stopped for donuts, Beckwith and buddies from his graduating class of 21 people at Benton Academy were late to school and sometimes missed it altogether because they were up early and off in the woods duck hunting. They often learned more out there anyway, nothing against standardized education.
But Beckwith, an admittedly passionate and emotional creature, has more loves than just hunting. His big heart, pumping blood to his correspondingly big body, has been won by a mistress even greater than the chase of duck or deer.
“I’d take Saturday night in Davis Wade Stadium over any time in the woods hunting, for sure,” he said. “They’re close though, I’ll say that.”
Hunting and football, the two loves of just about every small-town Mississippi boy. Most, however, eventually have to settle for just watching the football. Despite their hours after school on practice fields and in rundown weight rooms, or their moments of glory in the school gym at pep rallies and running through painted signs held in front of goalposts before games, the cleats are eventually exchanged for remote controls.
Beckwith, on the other hand, is living that dream. A senior offensive lineman at Mississippi State, Saturday will be the final night under the lights of Davis Wade for the surprise star in Maroon and White. He started his career at MSU as a walk-on no one else wanted, and he’s finishing it as an award-winning starter on one of the best teams in the country.
Beckwith is proof a country boy can do much more than just survive. This country boy has thrived.
“He’s Mississippi State in and out,” friend, teammate and quarterback Dak Prescott said. “A guy who had to walk on and fight for a position and fight for a scholarship … I love being on the field with him and having him protect me.”
Beckwith’s path from walk-on nobody to SEC somebody is a journey mirroring the steps of his life as a person. Growing up, Beckwith kept to himself. As much as he could in a town like Benton, anyway, where everyone keeps up with everybody. (“We had four girls in our class,” Beckwith says. “Once you date one girl, everyone knows your secrets.”)
But just as football helped him make a name for himself in high school (he played with the varsity team as a ninth grader), it’s done the same at MSU, where he’s gone from the hairy guy in freshman classes to Ben Beckwith: SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, Burlsworth Semifinalist and State football’s co-favorite head of hair. The goofy personality he always kept hidden to all but close friends has blossomed in Starkville.
What’s funny, though, is that he didn’t always want what he has now. Football was great, but of his many loves, baseball was once the greatest of them all.
Beckwith was a first baseman, third baseman, pitcher and clean-up hitter (“I was the power in the lineup,” he said, gesturing to his sizable frame.)
“My dad always said I had a knack when I was little kid for catching a ball,” Beckwith said. “I always had a ball in my hand.”
That athleticism ran in the family, it turns out. Beckwith’s older brother, who he refers to as B-Dub, was a two-sport star, as well, and went on to play baseball in college. Trying to keep up with big brother, who is six years older, middle school-age Ben would get in the batting cage his family had and crank the pitching machine up to 85 MPH just so he could try and match his brother. Age and experience be damned, Ben wanted to beat his larger and stronger sibling at everything, hopeless as it sometimes was.
“That made me who I am,” Ben said. “I get mad when I lose in Monopoly on Friday nights in the hotel. That competitive edge with my brother made me the athlete I am.”
It’s a spirit that eventually led to Beckwith’s arrival in Starkville. In high school, his parents explained to him, as gently as possible, that he was “getting pretty big” and might want to focus on football. Shortly after that speech, Beckwith suffered an arm injury which sidetracked his baseball career, so he followed their advice, going from camp to camp on the football recruiting circuit whenever and wherever he could, knowing that relatively few colleges were going to happen upon him at Benton Academy.
One of those stops included MSU, where a friend of Beckwith’s named Kaleb Eulls was committed to play as a four-star defensive lineman and a man he hadn’t yet met was unknowingly waiting to become his next coach: John Hevesy, the new offensive line coach under Dan Mullen.
“Coach Hevesy told me he thought I had a lot of potential,” Beckwith said. “He told me he didn’t have a scholarship to offer me, but that he would like for me to walk on.”
It was a reality Beckwith knew was coming, and one he was too stubborn to avoid. He flat out refused to go to junior college or a lower division of four-year football.
“I knew I could play in the SEC,” he said. “So I walked on here … Ever since then I have done everything [Hevesy] has told me to do and it has worked for me.”
So here he is, Ben Beckwith, the man who avoided the What-Ifs and Coulda-Beens of so many like him. He’s a fitting representative for this Mississippi State team, a brotherhood home to several with a similar story.
These Bulldogs have become one of the best in the country on the backs of people who had the same combination of confidence and stubbornness. They, as Beckwith said leading up to his final home game, have a point to prove.
“This whole team is made up of guys that came from nowhere, came from nothing, nobody really wanted them,” Beckwith said. “We were the last picks. We all have that resemblance to each other and connect on that level. We came into this together and want to make it better than it was when we came in.”
Ask any of them, and they’ll say the same. Their pride in where they are comes out of love for where they’ve been. For Beckwith, it’s Benton. It’s the woods. It’s the place that shaped him, molded him, chiseled him and prepared for him where he stands now.
“Coming up in Mississippi has made me who I am,” Beckwith now says. “It made me a hard working person. It made me want to strive to be better in life and better in everything I do.”
It’s that life experience that made it so easy to connect with his new teammates in Starkville, guys he practiced, played and hunted with the last five years.
“I still have a group chat that I have had with these guys for two or three years now. Mark Melichar, D.J. Looney, Addison and Cameron Lawrence, John McMillian and Zach Smith,” Beckwith says. “They took me under their wing … They are the reason I am who I am. They taught me the ropes and taught me to be tough. I love those guys. They will be people I talk to until the day I die. They are life long friends. Guys like that are the reason we are here today. They built up State into what it is now.”
They’re all connected for the same reason. They’re made from the same stuff, born of the same earth. The Lawrence brothers are from a place called Coldwater, Mississippi, population 1,700 and named so because of the Coldwater River which, yes, is a river of cold water. Mississippi has never been particularly subtle. But she’s always been honest, always been strong, whatever befalls her.
Coming from a place where everyone back home knows what you do one way or another, it’s lucky for Ben he’s done so well. Most of the time, anyway.
“Everyone keeps up with me and tells me how proud they are of me,” he said, “but when I got the personal foul the other night, everyone was telling me I had to watch it.”