The A-Train: On The Making, The Legend And The Future Of Aeris Williams

THE MAKING

Sitting in his office in the field house at West Point High School last week, Chris Chambless got a call from his wife – Aeris Williams had just walked in the door and Chambless had better finish work soon and come home to see him. The three-time State Championship-winning head coach compares his relationship with the former Green Wave star and current Mississippi State sophomore running back to that of a father and a son, saying his children even consider Williams to be a brother.

“To this day, when he comes in, it’s like he’s coming back into his own house, going to the refrigerator, getting something to drink, hugging everybody’s neck and throwing the ball with the kids.”

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU (Credit: Davey Miller)

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU
(Credit: Davey Miller)

With a quiet, unassuming and exceedingly loyal personality, Williams is loved deeply by those who he is close to, an emotion he returns many times over. A yes sir, no ma’am, please-and-thank-you kind of guy, you wouldn’t know just by talking to the humble and reserved kid from West Point that he was a budding star running back in the SEC.

You also wouldn’t know by watching him run up and down the field on Saturdays that he was never even supposed to be able to play football after an accident as a toddler. When his grandparents’ house caught on fire when he was two years old, Williams watched from the other side of the road, struggling to break free of his grandfather’s grip and join his mother in trying to do something for their burning home. He finally slipped through the hands of the man trying to protect him and sprinted onto the road, heading for his mom. He was too focused on reaching her to see the car hurtling down the street, and the driver was caught with too little time to stop or swerve.

The car slammed into Williams’s two-year-old body, sending him flying into the air and across the pavement. Discovering three broken bones in his legs, Williams’s mother was told her son would never be able to play sports.

Mark that doctor down as the first person to be wrong about Aeris Williams. The star running back never had it easy, and that’s what shaped him into the man he became.

“He has great character. He’s a hard worker. A great leader. All the attributes that make a good person, he has,” Chambless said. “Aeris, even on a bad day, he’ll try to lift someone else up. He wasn’t ever looking for somebody to lift him up. He was always trying to help somebody and he still does.”

Even now, Williams makes a point to go back and visit his old team, speaking with individuals and the entire group to offer encouragement, inspiration or a word of tough love, if it’s needed. He exchanges the same with Chambless, too, as he’s spent many nights sitting on the couch in his old coach’s living room just talking about life.

“He’s got a family here in West Point for life,” Chambless said.

The feeling, for Williams, is mutual.

“The city means a lot to me because they’re behind me, pushing me,” he said. “Every time I get on Facebook, it’s somebody telling me how proud they are. I just thank West Point … The city is behind me, I’m telling you.”

Credit: Davey Miller

Credit: Davey Miller

It’s in that city, raised by a loving mother and surrounded by a supportive community, that Williams developed the attributes responsible for his success now. It’s cliché and perhaps even boring to say Williams is a great running back because of his strong work ethic, but any who have been around him immediately point to his dedication as the reason for his success.

“As good of a player as he is,” WPHS offensive line coach Casey Welch said, “probably what people don’t see is that, with us, he was the hardest working guy. You would finish workouts and look up, and him and two or three other guys would be pulling tires without us even out there. He always wanted to do more. He was always going to go above and beyond what any coach asked him to do.”

In fact, it was moments like those, more than the impressive running ability he displayed in games, that made MSU head coach Dan Mullen so eager to recruit and sign Williams nearly three years ago.

“That was something that really separated him from a lot of people,” Mullen said. “The type of person he was off the field was really special.”

Team captain and senior wideout Fred Ross, as he nears the finish of his collegiate career, is the leading receiver in Mississippi State history, and within the program, he’s respected most for the extra work he puts into developing himself. Spending as many hours at the team’s facility as he does, no one is better placed than Ross to see who puts in additional time on their own and who doesn’t.

“I remember [Williams] came here his freshman year and he worked so hard,” Ross said. “I work out a lot, just by myself … but every time time I’m out there, Aeris is out there. I could be walking into the facility to get some clothes out of my locker to go work out, and Aeris will already be out there in the sand pit working hard.”

Williams was never supposed to be able to do any of this, and that’s why he’s so dedicated to doing as much as he can.

THE LEGEND

Anyone who was in West Point, Mississippi during a certain time had an Aeris Williams moment at some point. Granted, there aren’t that many people in the small east Mississippi town compared to the homes of many of the game’s legends, but in their corner of the Golden Triangle, West Point High School football is everything, and for a handful of years, Aeris Williams was West Point football.

Some saw it coming before he even finished middle school, while others had the realization later in his career, but everyone in the town, from the Mayor to the coaching staff and the newspapers to the fans, had their moment – their realization of just what it was that they were witnessing.

unnamed

Credit: Davey Miller

As great a person as he was off the field to those who took the time to get to know him, Williams’s immense talent between the lines was quickly realized by all who saw him, friend, foe or stranger.

The exact timing of when those following his career discovered his ability varies from person to person, but the moment of his debut, his first call to action, goes back to his freshman year. Like most high schools, West Point had its varsity football team of 10th-12th graders, then also had a ninth grade team made up exclusively of freshmen that played a separate game against the ninth graders of the other schools every week. The physical difference between a freshman and a senior is much greater in high school than it is in college, and the separation gives the younger players a chance to play, something they would never be able to do if they were competing with the older kids.

Almost never, that is. In 2010, the Green Wave had an injury to their starting running back, a position where they were already thin, and they had to do something exceedingly rare at WPHS – they promoted a ninth grader to the varsity team mid-season.

Williams, of course, was that ninth grader. Playing against a strong Clarksdale team, he made his debut, running for over 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns as West Point eked out the victory and discovered a star had quietly been born.

“He did very well as a ninth grader against people his own age, but it’s hard to get them ready to play these guys two and three years older than they are,” Chambless explained. “We were able to squeak out a win, and it was because of him. I knew from that moment that we had somebody special.”

Following that first act, Williams’s legend grew as night by night over the next four years more and more people were witnesses to his talent.

Brandon Walker, in addition to his job as the managing editor of the West Point Daily Times Leader, was the substitute radio announcer for the team during Williams’ sophomore season. The Green Wave played Starkville High twice that year, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. During the regular season matchup, Walker had his Aeris Williams Moment.

“There was a run, at some point during the game,” Walker remembered, “that he broke through the line, ran over a linebacker, did a spin move on the first safety and hurdled the second safety. It was like one of those videos you would see on YouTube. It was just a highlight that happened in front of you. I remember in real time thinking, ‘I will never forget what just happened.’ That’s when I knew this guy was special.”

In the second game against Starkville that year, Robbie Robinson had his turn. The current Mayor of West Point, Robinson has seen a lot of Green Wave football in his lifetime. He knows as well as anyone what it means to say that Williams stands among the greats in the pantheon of West Point’s legends.

“We’ve had a lot of good football players,” he said. “I knew he was special when I saw the Starkville game, I believe when he was a sophomore. He caught a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone. It was a leaping, acrobatic catch and I said, ‘This kid’s special.’ Doggone, it turned out he sure was.”

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

The Mayor was right. The legend grew and grew, and to hear those in West Point talk about Williams now, his tale has seemingly reached Paul Bunyan status, those in his small town remembering his feats and accomplishments as some of the greatest they’ve ever seen, rendering those who watched often incapable of describing his performances with anything short of awe.

In a rivalry game against nearby New Hope one Friday night in 2013, Chambless and his Green Wave found themselves in an offensive battle of fairly epic proportions, with 126 total points being scored by the end of the game. Welch was the offensive line coach that year, Williams’ senior season. Like his head coach, Welch had known since that game against Clarksdale three years prior how special a talent they had, but if indeed any doubters still existed, Williams’s performance against New Hope shut the door on those who had yet to buy in.

“Aeris carried it nearly 30 times that night for just a ridiculous amount of yards. Never once asked to come out. I know he had to be dog tired, but he never wanted to come out. You couldn’t wear him down,” Welch remembered. “I wish I had the numbers in front of me.”

Williams, by then committed to play for Mississippi State in college, led West Point to a 76-50 win as he ran the ball 23 times for 227 yards and five touchdowns. And that wasn’t even his career high.

By the end of his playing days in West Point, Williams had amassed 3,994 total yards on the ground. Rushing for 1,607 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, he was named the Mississippi Association of Coaches 5A Offensive Player of the Year, was selected to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen, was picked the WCBI-TV Offensive Player of the Year, represented his state in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game and was a nominee for the Under Armour All-American Bowl.

Whatever he would go on to do after high school, his legacy in West Point was cemented.

THE FUTURE

His nickname is The A-Train. It’s a moniker he was given in high school, and one that’s perfectly fitting for the former West Point star. His touchdown celebration, while it seems innocuous enough if one doesn’t know what to look for, is what they call cranking the train. It’s a West Point thing, fans of the Green Wave will explain, and like the tracks running through town, it’s been around far longer than Aeris Williams.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-53-52-pmRaising one hand in the air and yanking the imaginary chain of an engine car’s horn is a sign that the train is rolling and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. When West Point gets going, so does the train, and during Williams’s four-year career, the train was a-rollin’ almost every Friday night.

“When I saw him start yanking that chain, cranking that train up,” Chambless said, “that’s one of the best feelings in the world as a coach on the sideline knowing you’ve got a guy that’s taking control.”

The celebration is one that Williams’s teammates at Mississippi State have picked up on, and when the sophomore tailback was running wild on Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl at the end of November, the MSU sideline could be seen on the TV broadcast cranking the train in celebration for each of Williams’s two touchdowns.

“We got a kick out of that as coaches at West Point,” said Welch, a former Mississippi State offensive lineman himself. “That made us feel good.”

With 191 yards on 25 carries, that Egg Bowl performance was the cap of a breakout stretch for Williams at MSU. It took two-and-a-half years of patiently waiting, working and preparing, a timespan Williams says now he very much needed, even if it was frustrating at the time.

Just as it had been so many years before as a ninth grader at West Point, Williams’s opportunity at MSU came when the starting running back in front of him got hurt. After getting no more than five carries in each of the first five games of the 2016 season, Williams got his shot in game six when he ran the ball 21 times against BYU, totaling a solid but not overly-noteworthy 82 yards. A few weeks later, Williams broke out.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-54-53-pmAgainst what was then a Top-10 Texas A&M team, MSU coach Dan Mullen decided to give Williams the rock as many times as it took. His reward was watching the redshirt sophomore romp on the Aggie defense, racking up 140 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries.

Despite a limited role for half of the year, Williams ended up the team’s second leading rusher, his 656 yards more than doubling the total of the next-closest running back, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and found the endzone four times.

It took a little while, but now Williams is one of MSU’s brightest young stars and is all but cemented as the running back of the not-so-distant future for the Bulldogs.

“It was just a process,” he said, again declining to give himself too much credit.

He wasn’t lying, of course. It was a process, and one that included Williams having to learn just how much he didn’t know. In his words, he had to find himself as a football player.

“He would call and talk about struggling with pass protection and things like that,” Welch said. “The advanced offense that colleges run compared to us in high school – we weren’t a zone team. We were a block-down, kick-out where he knew what hole to hit as soon as we snapped the ball. I think it took him a little while to develop that patience.

“At that level,” he continued, “everybody who plays was the man on their high school team. We were just trying to talk to him and tell him, ‘Your time is coming. Just continue to work hard and be patient and do everything the coaches ask you to do.’”

So, he did exactly that. While he redshirted in 2014, as he saw exceedingly little time as a freshman in 2015, and as he waited on his chance as a sophomore in 2016, Williams was working on whatever his coaches gave him. He was developing his vision. He was memorizing the plays. Perhaps most importantly, he was learning how to block.

“When you get to the college level, it’s more than just running the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to block. I love blocking for my teammates because they love blocking for me … In high school, I didn’t do a lot of blocking, so I had to find myself there. With my cuts, I had to learn to keep my head up and have vision. You just have to find yourself. Once you find yourself and get that confidence, there ain’t no stopping you, I promise.”

Williams, quite clearly, has found himself, and with that self-discovery has come the quiet confidence of a force that considers itself to be unstoppable. The A-Train is back on the tracks.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-55-56-pmTalking to him now, one thing is clear: Aeris Williams doesn’t think things. He knows them. In interviews with reporters – when he can be coaxed into speaking publicly, that is – his answers to questions come in clearly declarative form. He speaks what he believes to be absolute truth and delivers his truths in an exceedingly matter-of-fact manner – even if it’s not about football or his faith or his family.

Why are you so confident in everything you say, he was asked?

“Because I’m not lying to you,” he quickly responded with a disbelieving chuckle, drawing laughs from the room of reporters surrounding him.

Among the topics he confidently expressed his feelings on, Williams discussed the future of MSU’s offense, and its backfield specifically, at length – a conversation coming as MSU neared the end of preparation for its bowl game in St. Petersburg.

While Williams was steadily working his way onto the field this fall, his quarterback and fellow sophomore Nick Fitzgerald led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, setting the classmates up as one of the conference’s and even the country’s most dynamic duos and dangerous running threats for the foreseeable future.

“Our years here,” Williams began in earnest, “I promise, for Mississippi State, the running game is looking great. I promise it’s bright for the future.”

In Starkville and to the Bulldogs who cheer for him, Williams’s legacy has just begun to be written. In West Point and to those in the city that raised him, his status as legend is already assured.

“To all of us here in West Point to see him have the year he had is very exciting for us,” Chambless said, “but at the same time, we’re his biggest fans no matter what. If he doesn’t step on the field, we’re his biggest fans and he knows that.”

However, Mayor Robinson added, “I think his career is just beginning.”

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SEC Commish Sankey Speaks At MSU Graduation, Offers Advice And Shares Experiences

If Greg Sankey ever pens a book on his professional successes, this story – the one he shared as the guest speaker at Mississippi State University’s commencement Friday night – is likely to be his first chapter. It may even be the title of the book: ‘The Restroom Near Gate A-26.’ Should make for a snazzy cover.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-21-amNow the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Sankey was the Commissioner of the Southland Conference back in 1997, and it was then, at the restroom near gate A-26 in the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, that his life was turned around. In fact, it was quite literally knocked over.

The last thing Sankey remembers was becoming a bit lightheaded while in the restroom. His next memory is waking up on the floor of that restroom. The 32-year-old husband, father and Commissioner had an atrial fibrillation. After a handful of tests and visits with doctors, the reason for Sankey’s sudden collapse was clear.

“I was not living well,” he told the crowd Friday night.

In short, he was over-working himself and stretching himself far too thin, metaphorically, while he was very literally letting his body fall completely out of shape and good health.

In the months following that realization, Sankey began a search for truth that shaped the rest of his life. He met with professional after professional, friend after friend, authority after authority, and he asked them all the same questions about trying to find a balance between work and family.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-00-amNothing clicked. But then Sankey happened across a book appropriately titled, ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted’ by John Ortberg. A few chapters in, the man in search of answers read the two sentences that form the heart of his message today.

“A balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote our lives,” Sankey quoted the book as saying. “The problem with that goal is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too slight.”

Sankey’s prepared speech continued, “You see, balance implies we are two-dimensional, trying to balance work and family. Or pick two other aspects of your life and think about finding equilibrium between the two.

“But the reality I learned in the Atlanta airport is what Ortberg wrote is exactly right: a balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote my life. Instead, each of us has to recognize our multi-faceted existence.

“For me, I’m a son, a husband, a father. Some of you have watched the officiating in a game and wondered, who is the Commissioner? Well, that’s me. I’m also a friend, a neighbor, a person focused on how faith informs his life. I serve on the board of a non-profit organization working to provide fresh water to people around the globe.

“That’s eight different roles, and I’m just getting started. Balance, from my perspective, is best left to a seesaw on the playground. What then became important is what I valued, and how the values informed the principles by which I live.”

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-07-00-amSankey was speaking to all 1,370 December graduates of MSU on Friday night, and despite his background, his only references to sports were a couple jokes about cowbells I his intro and his self-deprecating crack about officiating. However, a few dozen of those 1,370 were student-athletes at Mississippi State, young men and women who were earning the degrees he was congratulating them on by virtue of the conference he runs.

Those people, perhaps better than many, understood the stress and the need for balance Sankey spoke so passionately about. They relate to the difficulties of trying to balance so many areas of their life at once. They know what it is to spend the same day trying to learn the diagram of a cell and the nuances of a cover two defense.

They know how many different worlds one must live in, trying to earn the approval of coaches, of teachers, of friends and maybe even of that cute guy or girl in their chemistry lab. If there’s time, of course.

They know the pressure of keeping their grades up not just so that they can play their sport, but so they can make their parents proud, so that many of them can be the first in their family to get a college education, so they can get a job when they graduate and so they can prove to themselves that they’re good enough, that they can do it.

This weekend, they did do it. They walked across the stage, they shook the President’s hand and they were given a diploma that’s technically just a piece of paper in a nice leather binder but is symbolic of the time and effort put in to reaching that place and realizing that life achievement.

As students in caps and gowns were walking onto the floor of Humphrey Coliseum as part of the processional Friday night, other students in helmets and shoulder pads were right across the street at MSU’s football facility preparing for State’s bowl game later this month. Head coach Dan Mullen’s team is 5-7, owners of a record not typically seen in the postseason. But for the same reason that 17 of his players were missing from practice to graduate, all 100-some-odd members of his team get to spend a week at the beach in late December.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-02-amBecause MSU’s APR (Academic Progress Rate) was so high, MSU was one of a select few teams rewarded with the chance to continue their season.

“It teaches young people a lesson in life that football isn’t all we’re here for,” Mullen said. “We’re going to a bowl game because of academics, because of the work our guys have done … We’re getting to go to a bowl game because we had 17 guys graduate today. It’s one of the great lessons that guys in our program will learn in their entire career here. It was academics, it was off-the-field that got them rewarded with this trip this year.”

Their success is exemplary of the standard Sankey charged all 1,370 graduates to strive for – prioritize your life, live by your principles, and most importantly, make good decisions.

The Commissioner pulled out a laminated card on Friday night as he neared the end of his speech. Smaller than a playing card, he showed it to the audience, then read its contents. It’s a simple list of 10 components which guide his decision-making and, thus, guide his life.

  1. Live honorably
  2. Live a quiet life
  3. Live within my means
  4. Laugh often
  5. Make each day a masterpiece
  6. Mind my own business
  7. Be diligent in my work
  8. Associate with people who make me better and return the favor
  9. Order my life to limit exposure to temptation
  10. Be open to the needs of others

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-37-amIt’s easy for him to rattle off a list – with explanations for each provided – but Sankey knows there is great difficulty in applying any lesson to an indivudal life as it comes in everyday situations. And no matter how hard anyone tries, all are likely to have their own Restroom Near Gate A-26 moment at some point.

“But that’s the great thing about life,” Sankey told the coliseum full of new graduates. “It ought to scare you a little bit. Maybe every day. That’s how you make the masterpiece.”

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Cohen Shares Excitement For Bowl, Pride In Academic Success

Stay in school, kids. It pays to have good grades.

Or, at the very least, it can get you a trip to south Florida in late December, which is also good.

unnamedThat’s why Mississippi State’s football team, despite its 5-7 record in 2016, is playing in the St. Petersbug Bowl in sunny St. Pete, Florida on December 26. Those following MSU are likely aware by this point not just of the bowl destination itself, but the fact that MSU has the opportunity to go because it had one of the top APR scores in the country, second-highest among five-win teams and third behind 6-6 Army selected under the same criteria.

APR, which stands for Academic Progress Rate, is basically how the NCAA measures graduation rates for its schools and student-athletes. Basically, the more players schools sign that end up graduating and staying in school with a healthy GPA, the better the APR score.

In this endeavor, MSU’s football program has succeeded greatly in the last eight years under head coach Dan Mullen, as not only have the overwhelming majority of his signees earned their degrees, but an impressive number have graduated early and many have even earned Masters degrees in their field of choice. In fact, over half a dozen of Mullen’s players will graduate between now and the date of bowl.

The week leading up to MSU’s Egg Bowl win, when the Bulldogs still sat at four wins, Mullen knew the team would be in good position if they could pull off the rivalry win, thanks to years of dedication to academics as a priority.

“I think it’s a tremendous credit to Coach Mullen,” MSU Athletic Director John Cohen said Sunday after the selection was announced. “Obviously, all of our folks in academic support do a great job, and our compliance people do a great job. All of that has to work in concert, and the most important thing is you’ve got to get the right kids who believe in progressing toward a degree and who want to get a college degree. All that has to happen. Coach Mullen has recruited the right kids and they have the right support staff.”

Cohen, recently named to his new position as Athletic Director, has shown a similar dedication to the academic side of being a student-athlete. As head coach of MSU’s baseball team, his program set and then broke many records for team GPA under his watch. A former student-athlete himself (who earned both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, to boot), Cohen entered the coaching world and now enters the administrative world as someone with both an appreciation and understanding for the demands put on student-athletes and the fact that most of them will, as they say, go pro in something other than sports.

“We want all of our kids to have opportunities in their sports, and we want them to have tremendous opportunities outside their sport,” Cohen said. “You’re not going to have tremendous opportunities unless you work in the classroom. Our kids have a lot heaped on their shoulders, but the fact that they’re supported so well by so many groups of people, to me, makes all the difference in the world.”

As for MSU’s football program itself, this invitation marks the seventh-straight year for the Bulldogs to go bowling, extending the current program record. State is also one of only five SEC schools to go to a bowl game every year this decade, one of those being Texas A&M who started the decade in the Big XII.

Mullen has talked often in the past about the importance of bowl games in the matters of perception, preparation and development, and he believes the stretch of appearances now shows the consistency they’ve developed.

“There’s no doubt that Coach Mullen is a winner,” Cohen said, “and that he has put a process in place to allow us to be exceptional in every phase of our program. He’s created a culture at Mississippi State that’s really been fun to watch.”

For ticket information, visit www.hailstate.com/tickets

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Future Bulldog Pros Prepare For Windfalls Of Cash

Somewhere near 98 percent of NCAA student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports, or so we’re told. But what about the small percentage of college students who do end up making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in the NFL, NBA or MLB within a few years of finishing school?

On the one hand, heck yeah – money, fame, success at the highest level. On the other hand, an alarming percentage of professional athletes are broke within a few years of the end of their careers, and the majority of their careers last no more than a few years anyway. The average NFL career, for example, is 3.5 years, and that’s if you make an active roster.

unnamedGoing from a broke or at the very least not-particularly-wealthy college student to a professional athlete with access to large sums of money over the course of a few weeks is exciting, but also exceedingly dangerous. Money goes quickly when lifestyles change so dramatically, and the number of people asking for that money – agents, runners, lawyers and investment seekers, to say nothing of friends and family – adds up in a hurry.

Being prepared for the relative insanity of becoming a professional athlete is an important thing for that small percentage of college students to do, but it’s not one they’ll often think about or even know what to do about. This week, Mississippi State had its draft-eligible players from the baseball and football teams (the basketball team had a game that night) meet with a man named Eric Smith to prepare for exactly those situations.

Smith is what’s called a financial literacy coach working with The EKS Group, an LLC helping college student-athletes and NFL and NBA and MLB rookies who are making or about to make that transition. A 28-year former banker, Smith has met with over 20,000 student-athletes in his present line of work and is well-versed in the potential pitfalls as well as the financial possibilities of such a change in lifestyle and income.

“You better be ready when the money gets here,” he told the room on Monday night. “We’re here to talk about the reality of the next step, not to give you a glossed-over picture … People have this incredible opportunity, and when it’s over, they don’t have anything to show for it.”

Smith had the potential millionaires in the room go through a number of exercises, including asking them to makes lists of the first things they want to buy, their financial goals and what they see as potential threats to their financial success. He shared 10 tips for how the wealthy become wealthy, and 10 more for how the wealthy become poor.

He offered advice on selecting agents, financial advisers, insurance plans, banks and the like. He advised on how best to prevent identify threat, low credit scores and being taken advantage of.

Without giving away his entire presentation, Smith had MSU’s future pros prepared for long-term financial success in a little under an hour-and-a-half.

Mississippi State has been in the business of putting a great many players into the pros lately. With programs like this, MSU is also making sure their young men are prepared for success beyond just their fields of play. As Smith’s presentation so eloquently puts it, “broke ain’t sexy.”

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Dominant Egg Bowl Win Establishes New Faces And Stars Of MSU’s Present and Future

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.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-09-23-pmAnd 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.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-15-29-pmShe 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.

“What’s that?”

“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.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-14-13-pmAnd 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.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-11-11-pmIt 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.”

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-13-16-pmIt 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.”

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MSU Video Department Makes History With SEC Network Broadcast

In technical terms, Mississippi State’s video department had its landmark first linear broadcast on Wednesday.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

In every-man speak, MSU’s video department made history through the magic of fiber and expensive equipment on Wednesday night when the MSU-Ole Miss volleyball game was broadcast nationwide on the SEC Network using only the resources on campus already.

To break that down a bit further, ESPN showed up with nothing but the on-air play-by-play announcers for the game and some of their own personnel to supervise this first national broadcast coming straight out of Starkville. There was no TV truck – previously the only way such a broadcast could be done – no extra equipment, no anything. And any cable or satellite subscriber across America could turn on their television and see a thrilling come-from-behind win for MSU’s volleyball team over its in-state rival.

Broadcasts like this were one of the long-term dreams when the SEC Network was conceived a few years ago, though the realistic expectation was that few schools would have the resources necessary to accomplish these goals. The advantages for ESPN are obvious – they save money by not having to send a truck, not having to send teams of cameramen, producers and the like. Their talent can just show up while MSU takes care of the rest

The boost for MSU – beyond the national exposure for its various programs – is the opportunity to make money as ESPN pays the school for some of the savings they get in the deal. Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to work on big-time broadcasts and get incredible experience without leaving their campus.

Plus, it’s really cool.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Nights like Wednesday were possible for MSU because of the deep investment the athletic department made in its video and broadcast capabilities when planning for the SEC Network. This eventuality was one that those in charge, like Senior Associate A.D. Scott Wetherbee, knew was a possibility early on. In the preliminary stages, MSU’s staff decided to make it a goal.

When that decision was made, MSU’s control room for such broadcasts was still a slightly upgraded version of the room they built to run the Sony Jumbotron at the football stadium when it was installed decades ago. When that initial control room was built, it wasn’t even HD, though it of course got the HD upgrade when the new video boards were built at Davis Wade Stadium.

Now, in the bowels of the expanded north endzone of the stadium, MSU has fleshed out an immensely impressive broadcast hub complete with control room, engineering room and even a replay room, with a second control room on the way soon.

 Photo by Kelly Price


Photo by Kelly Price

Bennie Ashford is the Assistant A.D. for Video Operations, and this new facility is very much his baby. An expensive, high definition and technologically advanced baby, sure, but a baby nonetheless. His smile Wednesday night was evidence of not only the work put in, but the quality of the product going through fiber from MSU’s volleyball court to Davis Wade Stadium to SEC Network headquarters in Charlotte and then out into the world, with not even a second of visible delay.

“I’m a Mississippi State guy, and I know that we don’t always have the financial resources that some do,” Ashford said. “But this is on par with the absolute best.”

Excitement for the night in the control room, while much quieter than the crowd for the game they were broadcasting, was still palpable. MSU staff and ESPN staff shared in the anticipation, running myriad machines and screens and cameras as the countdown began. ESPN sent one of their best producers down to run the show as a means of marking the occasion. With seconds left on the clock before the show began, she happily offered encouragement to the entire team of students and professionals about to make quiet history in a dark room in MSU’s football stadium.

“Have a good show everybody – have fun!”

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Looking Back Through A Career Of Highs and Emotions For MSU’s 19 Seniors

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.

unnamedThe 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.”

unnamed-2That 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.

unnamed-1They’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?”

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South Region Champs, MSU Cross Country Looks Ahead To NCAA Championships

Maybe I’m just stupid. In fact, that’s almost definitely the case. I’ve just never been sure how to write about cross country as a sport. Forget writing a story for a minute, I haven’t even been sure what to ask in an interview.

“So, y’all try to run fast?”

“Yep.”

“Um, for a long time?”

“That’s the idea.”

I mean, I guess I could ask about the difficulty of drinking water while running at the same time. That’s a thing, right? Seems hard. I know some people who can barely walk and chew at the same time.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-44-14-amMy ignorance aside, obviously there is more to being an effective distance runner than strong calves and the ability to multi-task. I’m not so dumb as to think that anybody could wake up and do the things those runners do just by hopping on a treadmill.

Luckily, Mississippi State sort of forced me into learning the details, thanks to their women’s team winning the NCAA South Region for the first time in program history. Actually, it was the first time any school from Mississippi won it. Led by South Region Coach of the Year Houston Franks and National Champion Rhianwedd Price, MSU’s cross country program has been exceedingly successful over recent years.

The group is off to the NCAA Championships this weekend, and before they went, they held a press conference on Tuesday to discuss their victory. I had a few variations of, “So, y’all are good, huh?” tucked away and ready to go, but fortunately, Franks opened up a new world of information as he answered one of the other reporters’ questions.

“We take a very scientific approach to training,” he said. “We focus a lot on the physiological aspect.”

At the risk of getting an answer that went completely over my head, I asked him for more information on that scientific and physiological approach. In the upset of the day, I actually understood his response. Big picture, Franks coaches his runners in two main areas: the mental and the physical.

The focus, in this instance, is the physical, which again breaks down into two areas. First, there’s the aerobic side, which is exercise that requires oxygen and relates to endurance. Second, there’s the anaerobic side, which is exercise that does not require oxygen and relates to speed. There is far more nuance than that, but that’s the gist of things. To be at their best, MSU’s runners need to excel and be properly trained in both areas. That’s where Franks comes in, helping to get them there in each.

The difference is that aerobic exercise takes, according to most research, as many as six months of training to reach its upper limit. Anaerobic, on the other hand, takes 2-3 months. The challenge for Franks and his team is finding a way to have both of those areas hit their sweet spot at the same time, and to have that time be when it is needed the most.

“You’re always trying to get those two things to peak at the right times to where you’re at your best in those two physiological peaks you’re looking for,” he said. “We’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time of the year. In every sport, no matter what you play, you want to be at your best in championship season.”

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-43-52-amIn fact, while MSU has run well all year, Franks said the South Region Championship was the first “great” run his team had this season. Just two weeks prior, his team was disappointed in a fourth place finish at the SEC Championships. The fact that such a mark was disappointing shows just how far this program has come in a few short years.

Under Franks, the team has been on an upward trend for a while, but in the last couple years, they’ve taken things to a new level with their team and individual accomplishments. When asked what led to the unprecedented success, Price actually turned and opened her arms high and low to present her head coach the way Vanna White might present a brand new car to a potential Wheel of Fortune winner.

The development, she believes, can be credited largely to Franks.

“First coming in here, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said as she espoused the virtues of the man who had been named Coach of the Year just moments before arrival to the press conference. “He massively deserves it.”

The margins of victory and defeat are incredibly thin in cross country, a sport measured by tenths of seconds where the difference between first place and 30th place is just a notch above negligible. But through patience and a proven approach, Mississippi State’s cross country program has made those moves.

“The years we were going in the right direction, we maybe weren’t even getting the results, but we knew it was coming, and now we’re getting to reap the benefits of it,” Franks said. “But quite honestly, we haven’t reached the end game. We’re not where we want to be yet. We want to keep climbing and we want to be perennially a national contender.

“We’ve proven we can do it. Now we’ve got to prove we can do it over and over and over again.”

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Schaefer Embraces Greatest Challenge With Veteran-Laden Bulldogs

Vic Schaefer is in a unique situation as the basketball season begins today – unique for his time as Mississippi State’s head coach, anyway. He’s got, by most any measure, the best and most experienced team of his tenure with the Bulldogs, featuring four seniors and four juniors and a handful of players who have earned various All-SEC honors.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-15-amAnd that luxury creates his greatest challenge. The same young women who led MSU to the Sweet Sixteen last year, the ones who were behind the best season in school history, are the same ones Schaefer is depending on to out-perform themselves. When he arrived in Starkville, there was nowhere to go but up as year-by-year he added talent in droves and depended on young players to compete beyond their years.

Now, with MSU picked No. 2 in the SEC and considered one of the top programs in the country, Schaefer and his players alike know how easy it would be to slip and how equally difficult it will be to climb the last rung of that ladder.

“We can go down or we can go up,” senior guard Dominique Dillingham said. “It’s like Coach Schaefer says – we only have one spot to go up, but we have a lot of room to go down. We have a lot of people coming back, so it’s up to us if we’re going to do better than last year. In order for us to do better than last year, we’re going to have to do more than what we did.”

It was one of the hardest moments of Schaefer’s career, but MSU’s loss to UCONN in the Sweet Sixteen has proved to at least have a silver lining in the strong motivation it offers. Both because of the sting of that loss and because of the knowledge that individual and team development is the only way they can improve, MSU’s players spent their full offseason doing everything they could to get better.

They broke down their own film, pinpointed any weaknesses or struggles and dedicated the summer to fixing them. Dillingham put up hundreds of shots every day in an effort to better her field goal percentage. Players worked on help defense, blocking out, ball handling, the works. Whatever was needed, they dedicated the time to fixing it.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-26-15-amSenior forward Breanna Richardson had the question of improvement posed to her shortly before the season began. How does a team full of the same people get better than it was a year ago?

“Just get in the gym,” she said. “I know it’s simple, but just get in the gym, work on your weaknesses and they become strengths before you know it.”

For Schaefer, however, the ability of his team to improve is contingent on more than just skills development. His biggest concern and his greatest hope are the same – team development.

“Talent doesn’t win alone,” he explained. “The chemistry piece, the leadership piece is where our next step needs to be. We’re certainly a very talented basketball team, but that’s not enough to win.”

That’s where players like Dillingham and Richardson and the other veterans become important, particularly junior point guard Morgan William. Finally back to full health, William has quickly found herself as one of the most experienced players on the team, and with her position, she’s one of the first to be looked to for leadership and guidance.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-11-25-48-amVocal leadership isn’t necessarily a natural trait for William, but it’s something the point guard has worked on in the offseason. She’s started to talk more, taken on the role of being a leader. Specifically, she’s taken on the responsibility of calling plays while bringing the ball up the floor, making an effort to call out the sets earlier and earlier in the play clock as she gains the experience.

“I’ve gotta be a coach on the floor,” she said.

2016-17 will be the most talented and experienced team Schaefer has had at MSU. They aren’t where he wants them to be just yet, and Schaefer knows surpassing their previous highs will be a great challenge, but there remains an emphasis on the great part of things.

After all, this exactly where Schaefer wanted to be.

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Weatherspoon Brothers Pair Talents, Competitions At MSU

Like a joke-loving dad who would never embarrass his kids on purpose but relishes holding the possibility over their heads, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland confessed the contents of his phone to reporters on Wednesday. Somewhere deep in that camera roll, Howland has that most embarrassing of artifacts – baby pictures. Specifically, he’s got pictures of one of his veteran players, Quinndary Weatherspoon, with one of his newest players in signee Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s little brother.

quinndary_vandyIt was a big deal when the first Weatherspoon signed with MSU as a four-star guard and debuted last year, Howland’s first at MSU. It was an equally grand moment when the second Weatherspoon in as many years signed with MSU, this one also a four-star guard, the top-rated player in Mississippi, one of the best 35 players in the country and the No. 5 point guard in America in this class.

Nick is just a tad higher rated than Quinndary was out of high school, but to hear big brother tell the story, Q has always been a little ahead on the court. Asked when Nick got old enough to compete against or possibly beat his brother in basketball, Quinndary was clear that such a moment has yet to occur.

“He still hasn’t caught up to me, I don’t believe,” Quinndary joked.

Kidding from both Quinndary and Howland aside, each is thrilled to add a second Weatherspoon to the roster next year.

“I’m excited that I get to play with him again,” Quinndary told reporters. “I really enjoyed us playing together in high school. We had a lot of fun growing up playing together.”

They started playing together late in elementary school when the two brothers would go out in the backyard to shoot around, play one-on-one or delve into whatever competition they could muster with just the two of them. By the time they were both in middle school, Quinndary and Nick had taken their game to local gyms, not only playing against older boys, but typically beating them, too.

It may have been disappointing at the time for those high schoolers to lose to a pair of middle school brothers, but they’ll likely feel better in a few years when there’s a strong chance of both Weatherspoons being professional basketball players. Who knows, maybe they’ll even play on the same pro team together.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see either brother in the NBA, particularly as Howland and Quinndary both compared Nick to one of the greatest basketball players in the world. And it just so happens that the player in question, Russell Westbrook, also played for Howland in college.

“Watching him a year ago,” Howland said of Nick, “he played out in Vegas and he was just phenomenal. He made his team so much better, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s the only player I have ever watched where he reminded me of Russell Westbrook.’ That is the ultimate compliment that I can pay a player, and it’s because of his motor. What makes Russell Westbrook special is what makes Nick special; competitive, toughness, desire to win and playing both ends of the floor. I can’t pay a young man a higher compliment.”

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-46-20-amQuinndary, likely unaware that Howland had made the same comparison just a few minutes before, confirmed the similarities.

“His game is very aggressive,” Quinndary explained. “I describe him as a young Russell Westbrook. He gets after each and every play and he’s going to get after it each and every game.”

Of course, Quinndary was quick to remind, just because Nick reminds him of the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer, doesn’t mean that he’s better than big brother. They haven’t played one-on-one in a few years, and the next time they share a court, they’ll likely be wearing the same maroon and white jerseys with “WEATHERSPOON” across the back. But Quinndary hasn’t lost confidence. His supposedly unblemished record has seen to that.

“I won all of them,” Quinndary said of their one-on-one battles. “I never lost.”

Perhaps little brother will get his chance at redemption – and rebuttal – next year.

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