After practice on Thursday, Mississippi State’s football players were asked to raise their hands if they wanted to go see the new Star Wars that night. Well over half of them looked as if they thought it was a stupid question, because of course they don’t want to go watch Star Wars. The rest of them looked as if they, too, thought it was a stupid question, because of course they want to go watch Star Wars.
“What kind of question is that?” senior offensive lineman Justin Malone asked later.
He fell in the smaller but certainly more excited category of those who have been anticipating this release for years. While the galactic opinions of the players were often less positive, the coaches on Mississippi State’s staff were quietly the most enthusiastic around. One coach, who preferred not to be named, was actually wearing a Star Wars T-shirt to practice Thursday underneath his MSU jacket.
A group of men mostly born in the 1970s when the Star Wars franchise exploded like Alderaan, MSU’s coaches grew up on the battle between Darth Vader and (spoiler!) his son Luke Skywalker.
In fact, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz may have George Lucas to thank for the success he’s had as a football coach. The original Star Wars in 1977 was the very first move Diaz ever saw in theaters, experienced at just four years old. By the time he was seven for Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the little boy in Florida was all-in, collecting the Star Wars action figures and re-living the biggest moments.
As his collection of action figures grew, Diaz eventually had enough to begin using them for his true passion – he lined them up and ran football plays using the characters of Star Wars, the very beginning of his coaching career. Know what they had started, his parents did not.
Of course, the obsession with football, rather than Star Wars, is what continued, and as action figure technology advanced, so too did the coaching technique of the young padawon learner.
“I used to play football with all the Star Wars guys,” Diaz began, “then the G.I. Joe’s came out. They had swivel arms and they could bend their knees, so they became the skill guys. Chewbacca had to play more on the offensive line.”
Diaz is far from the only coach to harbor a not-so-secret soft spot for Star Wars, though. Tight ends coach Scott Sallach, shortly after dodging around support beams while making lightsaber sounds in MSU’s football facility, confessed to an obsession he calls borderline unhealthy.
“If you knew…” he said before sharing the stories.
At five years old in 1977, Sallach clearly remembers seeing Star Wars: A New Hope at a drive-in theater, and the force has been strong in him ever since. When the digitally-remastered re-releases of Star Wars came out years later, an excited adult version of Sallach drove to New York City to see the first one, and while in the movie, his car was towed.
Undaunted, he returned to New York when Empire Strikes Back came out. On that occasion, his car was actually stolen completely. The sacrifices were steep, but it was worth it, he believes.
So here they all are now. Coaches who remember when the first one came out, alongside players born into a world where their fathers plopped them in front of a TV to watch Star Wars as soon as they considered their children old enough. The circumstances were different, but the similarities striking. Malone, a senior in college, first saw Star Wars at age four, just like his coaches did so many years before, each being raised by the Jedi on screen.
Together, they are able to welcome in the newest age of Star Wars, an awakening of far more than just the force. However, more than anything, they just hope it’s good.
“I’m a little worried,” Malone said, “but I’m very excited. I can’t wait.”
“I’m not going to get nervous about it, because I have more important things to get nervous about,” Diaz quipped when asked, “but it’ll still be fun to see.”