We maybe should have seen it coming, those of us who track the team regularly. This team was shaped by it, in so many ways. It’s what they were built on at one level.
The thing that fuels so many of Mississippi State’s players and turned them into in men is the same thing that ended their season and ripped away their bid for the greatest season in school history: loss.
Look anywhere and it’s what you see. Elite athletes driven by memories, living with ghosts.
Dak Prescott writes M.O.M. on his tape every game. It originally meant Mind Over Matter, but it long ago became a reminder and a dedication to mom, the mother he loved and eventually lost to cancer just over a year ago. Prescott’s wrists are covered in rubber bracelets, mementos of support for those he has met who are battling to win the same fight his mom couldn’t.
Josh Robinson ran for his grandmother every game, the woman who raised him when he was orphaned in middle school, and the woman he lost when he was in high school. The college dorms and apartments he lived in at MSU were palaces compared to the times when he lived out of his car.
In one week this season, three members of the team laid family members to rest.
Jameon Lewis lost his brother to a shooting soon after the season began, and lost much of the season itself to injury sustained on the field.
Richie Brown lost his home in high school to Hurricane Katrina.
And injuries, man. Dez Harris missed most of his senior season of high school, redshirted his first year at MSU, finally made it on the field this year, then blew out his knee halfway through. Damien Robinson, in line to start, finally, in his fifth year in the program, broke his leg weeks before the season began.
But none of those players are defined by their losses, simply shaped by them, made stronger. Prescott broke records week-after-week, pointing to the sky after all 53 touchdowns he scored in 2014. Harris led cheers on sidelines and workouts in weight rooms as he fought through his pain.
Whatever loss they’ve had, as individuals and players, has been channeled to passion.
Heck, just look at MSU’s football program in the years before Dan Mullen ever got to campus. There were wins in there, but it sure felt like nothing but loss. When MSU was picked for the Orange Bowl this season, it was their first appearance since the 1940 season.
“I think everybody doubted that we could build a program that could come back here,” Mullen said Wednesday night, remembering the reaction when he took the job in 2009.
His team had just lost the Orange Bowl, their return after 70 some-odd years, but he knew how much it meant for MSU to be there. His team entered the game with a chance to get the most wins in a season in school history and the highest rank to finish a season.
But they didn’t do either of those things. They lost. Like they have before, and as they likely will again. But it won’t define them. It will just shape them.
Said Prescott, “We did a lot of things that have never been done … Set a new standard.”
Prescott had the greatest season in history for an MSU quarterback by nearly all applicable numbers. At their height, State beat three-straight Top-10 opponents, all of them SEC West opponents.
They didn’t win all the games. And if they could switch the three teams they lost to with three others, they’d likely take that offer on at least a couple. But MSU built something this year, something lasting, something that had been in the works since 2009. A foundation has been built, precedent has been set and expectations have risen. It happened fast, too. MSU wasn’t even ranked when they the first polls came out. They still weren’t ranked when they arrived Baton Rouge in week three. But they went on to spend five weeks as the No. 1 team in the country, finishing the regular season at No. 7 and being selected for the Orange Bowl.
Sure, the season ended on a bad note, an at-times-embarrassing loss as the only game on TV on New Year’s Eve. It hurts. That much was evident in the faces of players after the game. But there’s only shame in stumbling if you don’t get back up.
No loss yet has kept any of these young men on the mat, nor will a single game define a program or tear down its foundation. Not now.
“We’ve set a new standard at Mississippi State,” Mullen said just moments after 2015 began, “and really set a new standard for the future.”