Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott learns price of being an SEC star
This story appears in the August 10, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On a warm Wednesday in April, the ping of aluminum bats echoes through the sleepy evening in Starkville. The Mississippi State women's softball team is playing, and in the bleachers at the cozy stadium professors grade papers between pitches while sorority girls in yoga pants tap on their laptops.
The Bulldogs' All-SEC quarterback, senior Dak Prescott, stands behind the outfield fence, his left shoulder wedged against the rightfield foul pole. Backup quarterback Damian Williams, a junior, covers Prescott's other side, creating a protective pocket. An inning after arriving, Prescott senses a crowd forming near him and knows what's going to happen next. In the throaty whisper of a National Geographic narrator, he relates the scene of predators moving in for the kill.
“They're gaining confidence,” he says, as the fans ease his way. “They're getting closer.” A pause. “They're either going to say, ‘I'm sorry, I know you get this a lot but’ or, ‘I hate to bother you but....’”
The students, mostly female, buy time and build courage by refreshing Facebook and staring with practiced nonchalance at their phones. But before anyone musters the nerve to ask Prescott for a picture, the pack retreats. “Don't worry, they'll be back,” Prescott says. “They're just going to find their outgoing friend.”
Minutes later freshman Kaela Stevens emerges from another group of girls and pokes the 6'2", 230-pound Prescott in the ribs. “Hey, I know this is awkward, but I'm the girl that's been stalking you on Instagram,” she says. With a laugh and a smile, Prescott happily signs a football for the husband of Stevens's boss, a quest Stevens began in the comment section of a Prescott Instagram post. “When I say that I go to State,” she says, giggling, “people immediately say, ‘Do you know Dak?’”
By now, we all know Dak. He led the Bulldogs to the No. 1 ranking for five weeks in 2014 and transformed their hometown from an SEC punchline to a destination: Starkvegas. But with Prescott's success came life in the viewfinder of a cellphone camera lens (aka the fishbowl). Suddenly, he is the biggest thing in his remote college town—MSU's student body (20,000) nearly matches Starkville's population (24,000)—and a target of public attention almost everywhere else he goes.
This spring Prescott took only online classes and started calling his barber for 9 p.m. haircuts. His two older brothers sign autographs for fans. Prescott carefully avoids complaining about his new normal, but it's clear the life of a modern SEC star is more than touchdowns and standing ovations. “I wouldn't trade it for anything,” he says, then pauses to reconsider. “I guess. I don't know. That's a hard question. I guess I just want to be able to go to Walmart and not be bothered.”
Prescott's off-campus apartment is a ramshackle two-bedroom he pays $290 a month to share with Gus Walley, a junior tight end. Decorations include a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shower curtain and the head of an eight-point buck that Walley shot, the antlers of which hold his hat collection. While Prescott spends a lot more time at home than he used to, he's not wired for endless games of Call of Duty.
That means he is constantly searching for ways to be present but separate, social but guarded, to blend into a crowd without attracting one. He loves attending MSU sporting events, but he doesn't get there too early and often needs teammates to clear an exit through swarming crowds. Prescott abandoned eating in the student union after a trip to Panda Express this fall required Jason Bourne-like escape tactics.
He does still make the occasional trip out with his teammates, usually to Rick's Café, a cavernous off-campus bar that humbly refers to itself as “Probably the best bar in the world.” But discretion is necessary once Prescott steps in the door. “Maybe I can go to a bar and get sloppy drunk and have to get carried out,” says Williams. “But Dak, it's a whole different story. It's blowing up on a bigger stage.”
Prescott has 47,600 Twitter followers, 63,600 Instagram followers and countless tweets breathlessly tracking his movements. Students pretend to text as they not-so-surreptitiously snap pics. Snapchats with his fuzzy outline pop up on phones throughout campus. Soon after he broke up with his girlfriend, his friends spied someone snapping shots of him talking to another girl in a bar. He doesn't know if it ever hit social media, but the moment underscored his new reality. “I think, honestly, it's going to be hard to find a girl who likes me for who I am,” he says. “Are you talking to me because of me or because you want to get some spotlight?”
In late March, Prescott, two teammates and two other friends left the beach on spring break in Panama City, Fla., and went to an outdoor concert. Like normal college students, Prescott, 22, and his crew had a couple of drinks, their mindless fun interrupted by a handful of guys who exchanged words with the group. When the talk escalated, one of them recognized Dak and said, “I don't like you, Prescott. I'm not gonna fight you, I'm going to shoot you.”
Jeremy Hicks, a childhood friend of Prescott's who runs a security company in the Shreveport, La., area called GotchaBack Security, stepped in and thought he defused the hostility. But a few minutes later the same men returned with a group of nearly 20 and surrounded Prescott and his friends in the parking lot. “I got a bullet with your name on it,” one man said to Prescott. The men jumped Prescott and his friends. One assailant cracked Prescott in the face with a Hennessy bottle, sending him tumbling to the pavement. Others attacked Hicks and junior defensive lineman Torrey Dale and pinned Williams to the ground, where he was pounded on repeatedly.
At one point Prescott leaned forward on his knees in the parking lot, his face looking down as he struggled to rise. An attacker lined up his right foot inches from Prescott's face and stomped him with the bottom of his sneaker. The force from the blow spun Prescott from a near crawling position to his backside. The men fled soon after, leaving Prescott bloody and so disoriented that he toppled over twice trying to get up. He finally stood, barefoot, wearing only a multicolored fluorescent bathing suit stained with blood.
A stranger in a white pickup truck gave Prescott and his crew a ride back to the condo where they were staying. Prescott says he's so thankful for the stranger's kindness that he prays for him often. As much as he needed to dress his wounds and wanted to avoid dealing with police, Prescott was grateful for another reason: “We knew people were taking pictures. We just needed to get out of there.”
Prescott decided to leave Panama City immediately. Hicks drove the nearly seven hours back to Starkville, with Prescott getting angry all over again as he watched videos of the beatdown on his iPhone. One of the assailants bragged about it on Twitter—“slumped over some Mississippi football players”—before deleting his account. After the videos went viral and the attack became a national story, Prescott tweeted that he was fine: “Ignorance happens! Be safe on spring break!” He spoke to both coach Dan Mullen and to athletic director Scott Stricklin, each of whom delivered a similar message: “You can't do normal things; you can't do what other students do.”
Prescott arrived at the emergency room in Starkville at 4 a.m. “The nurses had their backs turned. They didn't even want to look at me,” he says. “I guess they didn't want to see me like that.” Prescott ended up with five stitches near his eye and a chipped tooth that's noticeable every time he smiles. He was bruised, scratched up and in enough pain that he stayed in bed until 5 p.m. two days later. Prescott recovered fully, but the videos of the attack will live forever on the Internet. “It's the world we live in, and it's only going to get worse,” he says. “If I want to become a better player and more prestigious, it's only going to get worse. It's just part of it, just live with what I've been handed the best I can.”
Prescott declined to press charges, preferring to simply move on. Williams ended up much worse: The beating he took resulted in a pectoral injury that kept him out of spring practice and may cost him the job as backup quarterback. “You love to think they'll get theirs in another way,” Williams says. “As much as we would love to go wherever they go to school and return it, it will come around.”
Until Dak Prescott came along, naming the greatest player in Mississippi State history proved the SEC's least compelling bar debate. State has failed to produce an NFL Hall of Fame player, and its most successful alum is probably Kent Hull, the late All-Pro center for the Bills. That doesn't mean the Bulldogs have lacked for attention-getting characters.
If The Dukes of Hazzard ever had an SEC football spinoff, quarterback John Bond would have captured a lead role. In 1983 he set the SEC career rushing record for quarterbacks (broken in 2004 by Arkansas' Matt Jones), and he is Mississippi State's biggest star of the last generation. With his flowing mullet and penchant for beer, women and cars, Bond was made for simpler times, and he lived by a simple philosophy. “You knew the highway patrolmen and the secretaries,” he says, blue eyes twinkling, “and you'd be fine.”
The pilot episode could be set around the game against No. 1 Alabama in 1980. Two days before kickoff coach Emory Bellard promised that the Bulldogs wouldn't have to practice until Tuesday if they upset Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide. That night Bond got into a bar fight, which put him on a well-worn path to the home of trainer Straton Karatassos. Bond rang the bell well after midnight and guzzled milk from the fridge while Karatassos retrieved his medical gear. Bond needed to get stitches in his hand, but that would have kept him from playing against Bama. So Karatassos taped the cut and Bond continued to get ready for the game.
That chore included packing his bags for a long postvictory visit to a girlfriend at Georgia and having a team manager drive Bond's black Corvette to the game in Jackson, Miss., with instructions to leave it in the lot with a cooler full of Budweisers. “We're going to win Saturday,” Bond told him, “and I'm not coming back to Starkville.”
Alabama, coming off two national titles and carrying a 28-game win streak, was a 20-point favorite, but Bond led his team to a historic 6–3 upset. After the game he honked his Corvette's horn as he peeled out of the parking lot, free until Tuesday. “Kent Hull had blood from his butt all the way down the inside of his pants,” Bond says of his center. “Everybody thought he was hurt. It was my hand, bleeding up on him.”
None of that became a story at the time. And when Bond got clocked over the head with a Jack Daniels bottle in the parking lot of a pizza shop while at State, only Karatassos found out. A few days later Bond and a few teammates tracked down the culprit at Bonnie and Clyde's, a bar in Columbus, Miss., to exact their revenge. Bond credits Prescott for having the maturity to not seek the same.
When Prescott hears the tales of Bond's adventures in college, his eyebrows spike. “I can't even imagine,” he says, shaking his head with a smile. When Bond hears how Prescott's every movement is chronicled on Twitter, he flashes that grin again and says, “I can't even imagine.”
The first time Prescott signed an autograph he was a senior at Haughton (La.) High. A seven-year-old wandered into the locker room before the game with a pen, and Prescott's hands shook and his heart skipped as he scribbled. “I guarantee,” he says, “I was way more nervous than him.”
Five years later, signatures and selfies have become a lifestyle. Prescott signs everything from checkbooks to kids' hands. He insists on personalizing items to ensure they don't get flipped on eBay. “I'll sit there and take pictures with kids for hours,” Prescott says. “When it gets weird is when grown men want to take a selfie.”
If Prescott is treated as some combination of Superman and the Pope, that's because in the context of Mississippi State football, he is. On Thanksgiving night in 2013, Prescott came off the bench in the fourth quarter against rival Ole Miss in Starkville and went 11 for 20 for 115 yards while leading two scoring drives in a 17–10 overtime classic. That night, as his family ate turkey dinner at the team hotel, fans interrupted them seeking autographs. When the Prescotts declined, the people lingered to wait them out. Soon after, the family experienced the sight of number 15 jerseys on people other than themselves. “We're going to have to share him,” says Valrie Gilbeaux, Prescott's aunt.
Prescott went from regional star to national sensation as the Bulldogs rose up the rankings last year. After Prescott bulldozed through LSU for 373 total yards, he returned from Baton Rouge a Heisman candidate. While he enjoyed the moment, Prescott found himself the unexpected center of attention. He began arriving at class the minute it began, sitting in back and ducking out the moment it ended. “I didn't want to go anywhere,” Prescott says.
After No. 3 Mississippi State beat up No. 2 Auburn 38–23 on Oct. 12 to earn the school's first No. 1 ranking, Prescott joined his family and friends for dinner at Lost Pizza in Starkville. Instead of enjoying the standing ovation from patrons when he walked in the door, Prescott worried he'd be greeted that way every time he ate out. After dinner, the staff wanted a picture with Prescott, and it drew so much attention they needed to sneak him out through the kitchen. “That night,” he says, “was the moment I was like, ‘This is going to get crazy’.”
Since then Prescott has encountered autograph seekers in the laundry room at the team's road hotel in Lexington, Ky., and been inundated with holiday-inspired requests. He typically tries to do what he can for friends, but countless numbers he didn't know began popping up on his cellphone. “Christmas time was rough,” he says. “Some [friends] didn't get texts responded to.”
Last fall, when Prescott bought his dog, Legend, in Aberdeen, Miss., off Craigslist, the seller brought his entire family to witness the transaction and get autographs and pictures. “Nieces, nephews, all of them!” Prescott says. When he drove home after the school year ended, he got pulled over for speeding between Natchitoches and Alexandria, La. The officer returned a few minutes later with a ticket for Prescott for not wearing his seat belt and a familiar request. “You have to let me take a picture,” he said. “I gotta show the guys I got Dak Prescott on the interstate.” So Prescott stood on I-49 with a policeman in his late 40s, smiling for a selfie as cars whizzed by. “It was a lot better,” Prescott says, “than a speeding ticket.”
The lowest point came during graduation (Prescott got a degree in educational psychology last December and is working on a master's in workforce educational leadership), when fans tried to push his grandparents aside so they could get a picture with him. “I actually had to say, ‘Ma'am, this is my family.’” Teammates could earn photography minors, they take so many pictures, with fans often just handing them cameras without asking, the expectation being that their only role is playing Prescott's paparazzi. Feeling how inundated Dak has been, Aunt Valrie made up a rule this fall: “I told him I would never ask him for an autograph again for anybody,” she says. “If I do, it's because drug lords have my children and it's the only way I can get them back.”
Seconds before Prescott walks into a conference room in the Mississippi State athletic department this April, he flashes a nervous smile and makes a quick confession. “I've got butterflies,” he says.
The State women's golf team is expecting a rote compliance meeting, but instead it gets a surprise motivational speaker before heading to the SEC championship. Prescott grew up more country than country club, but he speaks for nearly five minutes. “Have a great game,” he says with a half smile, “if that's what you call it.”
The heart of Prescott's speech encourages the golfers to capture the moment and seize the campus's palpable momentum. The recent success of football and women's basketball (round of 32) and the hiring of former UCLA coach Ben Howland in men's basketball represent a zenith for the school's athletic department. The influx of SEC revenue—$31.2 million annually per school—has spurred $135 million in new and updated athletic facilities over the last five years and helped hire and keep coaches like Mullen, who is in his seventh season after coming from Florida, where he was the offensive coordinator on the 2006 and '08 national championship teams. The success has also led to a perception overhaul, as the school witnessed a 17% rise in student applications and licensing royalties that jumped 60% last year alone.
Prescott is the face of all that investment and growth, a transformational figure that brought an unprecedented spotlight to the school. Last fall he set school records for passing yards (3,449), total offense (4,435), passing touchdowns (27) and total TDs; he completed 61.6% of his throws and rushed for 986 yards, then spent his off-season obliging as many off-field requests as he could, everything from reading to elementary school students to visiting kids with cancer at Camp Rising Sun in Columbus. “Being in the spotlight and people constantly feeling like they have to have a piece of you, or say hi to you, that can be taxing,” says Stricklin. “Dak is exceptional at that part of it, at understanding the mantle that he gets to carry.”
Prescott plans to coach after his professional playing days are over, though his goals have evolved from being a high school coach and math teacher to working in the college game. This future is easy to imagine as he stands before the MSU golfers, at ease while stressing the team's opportunity to become the school's first national champion. “When you make the hard and pressure stuff fun, when you can change that and make it the part you get excited for, you feel at ease, you feel confident,” he says. “Let that aspect just set in and you stoke it and just play your game and be as calm as ever, embrace it.”
The team thanked Prescott with rousing applause. One of the team members, junior Ji Eun Baik, was so overcome by the moment she burst into tears.
Not long after sunrise one May morning Dak Prescott and his uncle Phillip Ebarb launch a 15-foot flat-bottom aluminum boat into the Sabine River in Port of Orange, Texas. They buzz 15 minutes out to the place where the Sabine's fresh water meets the salt water of the Intercostal Waterway. They drop anchor at a familiar spot, where the brackish mix offers potential and great variety, everything from catfish and perch to trout and drum. Prescott baits his hook with shrimp and whizzes a sidearm cast—“like Vince Young's delivery,” he says, laughing—that plops softly in the water.
Dak's family roots are dug in Vinton, La., hard on the Texas border and far from the SEC's bright lights. Vinton calls itself the Gateway to Cajun Country, and it's where Prescott learned to suck the juices from the body of a crawfish after ripping off its tail. While in Vinton, Prescott enjoys a slower life and all the tastes of home. His grandmothers spoil him, as his Momo (Theodoria Taylor) made crab stew and his Mammie (Margaret Ebarb) sent him off with her famous chocolate cake.
Prescott's rise to stardom runs parallel to some difficult personal years for his family. His mother, Peggy, died of colon cancer in 2013, and her father, Glyndell (Paw Paw) Ebarb, died in April after a yearlong decline due to Alzheimer's. Dak's fishing trips with Uncle Phil have helped the healing, especially because Dak knows the lessons he's learning have been passed down from Paw Paw.
An hour into the trip, no fish are biting. Prescott, who is Caucasian, African-American and Native American, dabs some water on his neck and says he's going to tap into his Indian pheromone in honor of Paw Paw, who belonged to the Choctaw-Apache Tribe. On cue, a croaker jumps at the end of his line. He reels it in slowly before releasing it. “I told you,” he says, “the pheromone.”
They laugh in the quiet of the still morning, then go back to their fishing, with only the whizzing casts cutting the silence.
“Can't get any pictures and autographs out here,” says Dak.
“That's what we like about it,” Uncle Phil says.