Belief is an immensely powerful thing. Specifically, the acts of being believed in and of believing in someone else can be the most influential of catalysts for change, for good, for redemption and for success.
If hope is a dangerous thing to lose, then it is an incredible thing to gain. Four and five years ago, Mississippi State had begun to build some hope, had started to convince others that they were worthy of being believed in. But it had been a struggle, and at the time, some who believed were starting to lose faith.
The majority of the 19 seniors who will play their last football game on Scott Field Saturday signed on to play for MSU during that time, before the team had ever been ranked No. 1 in the country, before the stadium had been expanded, before anyone outside of Starkville, Mississippi and Haughton, Louisiana knew who Dak Prescott was. For most of those young men, the recruiting pitch from Dan Mullen and his staff boiled down to that one powerful but completely intangible thing: just believe in us.
And they did. That was their only choice, really. The best tangible selling point back in 2011 and 2012 was a decades-old locker room in a building shared with a half-dozen other sports.
“That wasn’t too much of a pitch,” senior defensive end A. J. Jefferson joked this week. “’Come here, we’ve got a Gatorade machine!’”
But he, like many others, chose to believe in what MSU was doing and where it was going.
“On my official visit, it felt like a family here,” Jefferson continued. “Coach Mullen did tell us, you come here, you’re going to work hard and help build a championship team. I think that’s exactly what he’s done. I’m thankful for my development. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I would have developed as much, especially as a man, a football player and just as a person the way I did here.”
The emotions, memories and experiences are similar for Torrey Dale, one of Jefferson’s fellow senior defensive linemen. Dale moved from New Orleans to Starkville at 18 years old, unsure of himself and likely a little unsure of what he was doing, how he would figure out where classes were, how he would fit in.
Now, Dale is 23, he’s got a college education and he’s got friendships that will last as long as he’s alive.
“It means a lot,” Dale said of his time at MSU. “It’s one of the schools that gave me a chance to better myself in life, on the football field and in the classroom. It showed me that a lot of people believed in me, seeing something that maybe others didn’t see in me. It really pushed me to bring that out. I’m forever grateful to this place.”
That trust was mirrored on all sides. Those young men believed in MSU, and MSU believed in them. Likewise, MSU’s fans showed belief in all. When the first game was played in the expanded Davis Wade Stadium, MSU was completely unranked and was coming off a season in which it only made a bowl game and avoided a losing record by winning its last three games
And the game was a complete sellout. Just like it had been time and again for years leading up to that moment. Those who believed then, when the best was yet to come, were rewarded not just with a win that day, but with victories all season and with the fastest rise to No. 1 in the country that college football has ever seen.
People who believed in MSU were in the stands, on the field and along the sideline that day to watch unranked MSU play unranked Southern Miss. And because of the work put in by all, new heights were reached. It’s journeys like that one that seniors this week are looking back on.
Fred Ross was just starting his second year of college that day, and now, this week, the school’s all-time leading receiver is less than a month away from receiving his diploma, an achievement he says he is far more proud of than any of the many records he’s set.
“Mississippi State taught me how to be a man,” he said. “It went by so fast. I remember just getting on campus as a freshman and not knowing what I had going, not knowing where my classes were, when workout times were. I’ve been blessed just to make it here.”
Ross, like many of his senior cohorts, knows that when his name is called on Saturday night and he runs onto the field for the last time it will be a whirlwind of emotions, helmet in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other.
“I’m gonna be crying like a baby, I ain’t gonna lie,” he admitted. “I know I’ll see my mom out there and she’ll be crying and that’ll probably make me cry.”
These seniors have compiled quite the list of memories as they’ve felled both records and giants, often in the same game. They’ve played in front of the biggest crowd in the history of Mississippi State football at Davis Wade Stadium. They once leapt into the stands after beating Auburn, doing so with the knowledge that they had just become the best team in the country.
“Davis Wade was rockin’ that day,” Jefferson recalled.
They’ve won in blowouts and overtimes, while also losing heartbreakers along the way. They’ve become captains and leaders. They’ve gained weight and grown beards. Some have already graduated and one of them has even gotten married. As important as anything, they’ve helped usher in the new era of Mississippi State football, helping put the Bulldogs squarely in the national conversation time and again.
“Memories like that are things I’ll tell my kids about one day,” senior linebacker Richie Brown said.
They have a lifetime left in front of them to reminisce. But now, they’re down to just one more chance to make those memories on their home field.
Jefferson remembered this week the words of teary-eyed Preston Smith two years ago after he was honored on Senior Night.
“It’s gonna be the longest jog of your life running to your mama,” Smith told him then, tears in his eyes.
Two years later, Jefferson expects those words will ring true as he asks himself one final question.
“Where did the time go?”