A small group was walking up the steps to Mississippi State’s football facility, two cameramen, a reporter, a media relations representative and a few family members all focused on the person in the front wearing the maroon No. 15 Mississippi State uniform.
On the inside, a young man watched and waited, knowing he was moments away from meeting someone special.
“Oh, man,” he said to no one in particular as the group outside neared the glass doors. “I’m going to have to try not to cry.”
In walked the center of attention in the No. 15 uniform – Campbell Dale, a five-year-old MSU fan battling cancer and visiting through Make-A-Wish. Up stepped the man inside so anxious to meet Campbell – Dak Prescott, MSU’s star quarterback who had a signed football ready to give to Campbell.
“I like your jersey,” Dak told Campbell as he handed him the ball.
A week later, Dak found himself in the same lobby as he walked in to go to the locker room and change for practice, stopped briefly by an older man who saw Dak’s face and immediately asked for a picture.
Weeks before, Dak was at Wal-Mart, stopped on as many aisles as he turned down for similar picture and autograph requests, Wonderbread and milk cartons serving as the backdrop.
“If that’s what it takes to go get groceries, I guess I’ve got to do it,” Dak joked.
That’s the balance for him, though. In many instances, with children like Campbell and others, Dak is the one who feels lucky to have the interaction.
In many more and mostly unplanned instances, he’s the one who has more to give. None of those pictures have become his twitter or facebook profile picture, though the internet is littered with hundreds – if not pushing thousands – of MSU fans who feature their face next to Dak’s in their picture of choice.
But, when people aren’t distracted by his face, his No. 15 jersey or the football he’s throwing and carrying up and down fields across the southeast, they can see similar mementos of special interactions adorning his arms. Rubber bracelets, wristbands and the like cover his wrists at most times, nearly all of which were given to him by children he’s met over his career at MSU. He can tell you the stories, if you ask, what their names are, where they’re from and what fight it is in life he’s encouraged them to continue battling.
That’s what’s important to him about his new and quickly-found fame. That’s what mattered as he rocketed from new and unknown starter to Heisman favorite, seemingly in a matter of weeks.
He’ll stop and take pictures with anyone who asks, provided he has the time, and sometime he even pauses for a snapshot when he doesn’t have the time. Though, by the latter portion of the season last year, it became necessary for Dak and his family to take a van after home games from the locker room to wherever he or they were parked. Otherwise he wouldn’t see them (or his bed) until the wee hours of the night.
If it ever gets annoying to him, he generally doesn’t let it show. He knows the moments are special to those who ask for them.
“People are going to want pictures, people are going to want autographs, stuff like that,” he said. “I just do what I can while getting my business done and try to handle it the best I can with a smile on my face.”
There’s a difference, though, between the adults hovering outside his locker room and the kids who find their way to Dak. Big or small, boy or girl, healthy or not, the children are what matter to Dak, even if it does sound like a rehearsed answer at a beauty pageant.
He was a kid once, and part of him still is. It’s why he cherishes the chance in the summer to go the Manning passing Academy and work with high school quarterbacks, middle school hopefuls and elementary kids who just need an excuse to run around outside.
“If I was a kid in that situation and I had a chance to see a college athlete or a role model and shake their hand and get their picture, it would have meant the world to me at that time,” he said. “For me to be on the other side of it, to give a smile or a high five or take a picture with somebody, that’s so effortless and it goes a long way.”
In an offseason of both highs and lows, the biggest smile captured on Dak’s face the last eight months came from his time in his home state of Louisiana, teaching kids how to play football.
Archie Manning, despite being a former Ole Miss quarterback himself, related the trouble he had in not respecting the young quarterback helping lead the camp when he talked with Head-to-Head Radio just before the season began.
“You’re my favorite,” he recalled telling Dak.
“You can’t tell anybody that,” Dak responded.
It’s not hard to guess that Dak had the same big smile on his face.