I don’t know his name. I don’t know how old he is. I don’t know what he does, how long he’s been married or how he became a fan.
In fact, I don’t even know what he looks like. I never saw him myself. I just know he was there.
I know he was sitting in section S of the stadium. I know he was wearing a maroon pullover. I know that when it got cold in the second half, his wife helped drape a Mississippi State blanket over him, tucking it around his body and the wheelchair he was bound to.
And I don’t know why, but I know Saturday night’s Egg Bowl was the first Mississippi State game that lifelong Bulldog fan had ever seen in person, the first State game he’d ever attended. I know he was overjoyed to watch his team win back the Golden Egg. I know his biggest smile came when sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald sprinted 61 yards straight down the middle of the field in the third quarter for the touchdown that sealed the victory. That one made him particularly happy.
I don’t know all of the people who made up the largest crowd in the 113-year history of the rivalry, but I know one to whom MSU’s win was among the most meaningful and joyful in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg.
“Nothing’s impossible. Improbable, maybe, but never impossible.”
Megan Mullen was drowning in hugs and smiles before the game even ended. Standing near the endzone while she waited on her husband to complete the victory a little further down the sidelines, she was getting swept up with the realizations the day had provided. After such a hard year, after two rough losses in this game the previous two seasons, after a news cycle full of harsh words, cutting criticism and often hurtful questions, redemption was coming for the Mullens, for Mississippi State, for a program desperately in need of something to finally go their way this year.
She felt all of that. But she also knew she had witnessed something special beyond just single-game domination of a rival.
“You know what’s incredible?” she asked.
“That young man was asked to come in here and replace Dak Prescott and have to try and play in his shadow,” she said with an eye toward Nick Fitzgerald. “And look at him now.”
It wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly improbable. A converted wide receiver and option quarterback whose next biggest offer out of high school was Middle Tennessee State was given the unenviable task of following the greatest act MSU football had ever seen.
“Dak Prescott really was Mississippi State football for a long time,” Fitzgerald said after the win. “To be the guy who came in after him, obviously you knew everything you did was going to be compared to him. Every mistake and every triumph was gonna be compared to what he did.”
On Saturday night, The Guy Replacing Dak Prescott officially became Nick Fitzgerald.
“I think, all year, too many people worried about who he’s not instead of who he is,” Dan Mullen said. “He’s a pretty darn good quarterback.”
Nick is not Dak. In fact, you can see that very clearly when you look in a game program and see his name listed above his predecessor’s in a few spots of the records section. Most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game: Nick Fitzgerald, set September 10 then broken again November 26. First quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season: Nick Fitzgerald, 2016. The most rushing yards by any player of any position in any one game in school history: Nick Fitzgerald, 258 yards, Saturday afternoon.
“He’s fast,” Mullen said with a laugh. “I think everybody saw that.”
And he can pass, too, totaling 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns in what amounts to 11 games of action in his sophomore season. Since being named the full-time starter in week two, Fitzgerald has had at least one touchdown pass of 30-plus yards in 10 of those 11 games, many of them with more than one.
Saturday’s 55-20 Egg Bowl win wasn’t just the return of the Golden Egg to Starkville, it was the christening of MSU’s new star, of the new face of the program. It was the death of The Replacement and the birth of Nick Fitzgerald, QB1, Big Man on Campus, The Guy.
In Oxford, as MSU took back it’s prized trophy, it also took back the spotlight. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald having to play in the shadow of a Maroon and White giant. The whole team had to do it. For a few of the seniors, they were effectively playing in their own shadow. This was a roster haunted by its recent success, unable to go a day without hearing about 2014 or Dak Prescott or the Orange Bowl or Preston Smith or De’Runnya Wilson or Benardrick McKinney or the No. 1 team in the country.
They were the replacements. They were chicken salad for lunch the day after the best dinner of your life. They practically had no hope. The “Mississippi State” written across the chest of their jerseys was a name others had built and they were now expected to maintain.
It took three months and 12 games, but these Bulldogs finally made the name their own. Aeris Williams and Leo Lewis aren’t the next Josh Robinson and McKinney. They’re the first Aeris Williams, the first Leo Lewis. The transformation is apparent throughout the young roster, one that started the year immensely inexperienced and finished it battle-tested and commercially approved.
“The kids stuck together,” Mullen said, emotions overflowing in his post-win press conference euphoria. “It shows someone’s character. This team never gave in throughout the course of the year.”
It took a great many hard moments to get there, but the 113th Battle for the Golden Egg was the coming out party for the new Bulldogs and their young stars. Emblematic of his team – and it is his team now – Nick Fitzgerald became Nick Fitzgerald at the end of his obstacle-strewn first season as Mississippi State’s quarterback.
“To end it on something as high as this, an Egg Bowl win, is phenomenal,” he said, later turning an eye to what lies ahead. “The future’s bright.”