Every Saturday, the last person to talk to Mississippi State’s football team before they board buses bound for whatever stadium they’re playing in that week, is Nick Savage. In the early afternoon of October 28 in College Station, Texas, Savage was, as usual, meeting with the entire team in the ballroom of their hotel before they played their first road game in a month.
Each week, MSU’s strength coach gives them a different a different pep talk, or “pump-up” speech, as Savage calls it. Knowing that the last two road games had both been hard losses, Savage came up with a speech he believed would help unify his team while back on the road playing against a ranked Texas A&M team in of the country’s most unique college football environments.
Pacing back and forth in front of offense, defense and special teams, Savage held up a chain. Not a small chain. Not the kind used for locking up a storage shed with a push mover and hedge clippers. Savage had a long, thick, industrial size and strength chain hanging from his hands.
“This chain represents us,” he told them. “We are forged from our training, our attitude and our approach every single day. Other teams work hard, but no one has done what we have. Our chain is unbreakable.
“The chain represents our bond with each other,” he continued. “Our family. Our brotherhood.”
The Bulldogs went on to win that game 35-14, dominating the Aggies in stunning fashion, overpowering their foes on both lines of scrimmage and appearing impervious to the screams, chants and pleas of the tens of thousands of A&M fans rallied against them from start to finish.
The chain, as Savage promised, held strong that day, and from there he was ready to move on from the linked metal to whatever piece of motivation he would offer the next Saturday. But then one of the players asked Savage during a workout a couple days later if they were going to keep the chain around. The strength coach laughed it off at first, but by the time the number of players asking about the chain reached double-digits, he realized it might just be a good idea.
“Let’s do it,” head coach Dan Mullen said when Savage asked about breaking the chain out again the following week.
And so The Chain has become a part of what MSU does every week, one player picked every week to carry it onto the field, a symbol of the team’s hard work, a reminder that they are only as strong as they are united.
On Saturday, on the road again for the first time since A&M, the Bulldogs found themselves in need of that reminder. On a cold, windy, gray and occasionally wet afternoon in northwest Arkansas, MSU was at one point down by 14 to the Razorbacks of Arkansas. A series of errors, oddities and missed opportunities continued throughout the game and strained the Bulldogs to a point where most teams would have broken and given in. But MSU had a reminder to not give up.
“That’s what the chain is all about,” Reggie Todd said. “Don’t let go.”
It was Todd, a freshman receiver, who ended up scoring the game-tying touchdown with 3:57 left in the game. He had pleaded with Mullen and junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald for them to call his number. “I’ll be open,” was the unspoken promise, “and I’ll make the play.” The 37-yard touchdown was no surprise to him, to Fitzgerald, to Mullen, to Savage or to anyone else on the sideline where defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was holding the chain in the air.
After that score, it was Simmons’s turn as he and the defense not only needed a stop, but required a stop if their team was going to have a chance to win in regulation.
“That’s something our defense has to do. Can’t fold when adversity hits. That’s how our defense rolls,” the sophomore defensive lineman said as he recalled looking to the sideline and seeing left tackle Martinas Rankin holding the chain. “When you see that chain, you don’t want to be the weak link.”
The defense, as those who watched the game know, held strong. As a result, Fitzgerald and the offense had a shot to go get the win. After a game in which the typically unstoppable group had struggled, there was a chance to atone for it all in one drive. When Fitzgerald stepped back onto the field, he envisioned himself not as one person out of 11 on his offense, but as the driving force of 11 permanent links in a single chain.
“I saw it in his eyes that he wasn’t fixing to lose that game,” Simmons said.
Nine plays, 44 yards and 2:44 later, a sprinting Deddrick Thomas fell into the endzone with the ball in his hands, a six-yard pass squeezed into the tightest of windows by Fitzgerald.
The final 17 seconds passed and, with a final score of 28-21, the Bulldogs rushed to the visiting fan section of Razorback Stadium, chain and victory in hand.
“There was never a doubt that we were going to win,” Fitzgerald said.
The story of the chain symbolizes MSU’s strength, of course, as well as its resilience in situations such as those, being down 14 in a dreary road game. However, its truest representation is that of the team’s personality, unity and bond as teammates. Talent does not equal strength, nor does pride in oneself guarantee success for those around you.
Fitzgerald has spoken openly about the divide MSU had in 2016, his first as the starting quarterback. Not that they didn’t like each other, but there were factions on the team, and Savage’s chain would not likely have been so galvanizing a symbol 12 prior. In 2017, however, the linked metal has served as a perfect example of what it is that makes this team so strong. It’s not just Fitzgerald and Simmons. It’s not just good running or great pass rush. It’s been 11 men playing as one, 100-plus men training as one, to forge a bond that no one person or team can break.
“It’s a really good representation of our mentality around here,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s win. “Last year, we weren’t as close in our bond. We didn’t have that camaraderie. This year, it’s a lot different. We have a group of guys that loves one another, busts our butts for each other. We’re grinding, blood, sweat and tears, for each other, and we all know that. We know the guy standing next to us is going to do everything they can to make sure we win.
“It’s a trust thing,” Fitzgerald finished. “You draw strength from numbers. You draw strength from people who you know have your back. No matter what happens, they’re gonna be there, pick you up, dust you off and hoist you high for the win.”
And on Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, that’s what MSU did.
After the game, Dan Mullen’s son Canon was sitting outside the locker room waiting on his dad when he heard someone nearby wondering aloud about this chain they kept seeing MSU’s players carry around.
“The chain,” Canon asked? Well,” he explained with the clear simplicity only a child can offer, “you can’t break the chain.”