How Starkville shaped me: Mississippi State's role in molding me into the quarterback and man I am today
Back when I was a senior in high school in Haughton, La., I had a chance to go to LSU. Everyone I grew up with adored LSU, including my mom. But I chose to come to Mississippi State because I wanted to start a new tradition instead of perpetuating an established one. Since I came here, my teammates and I have had a lot of success on the field, and that has given us a chance to uplift the school and the university.
In the past few years here, we've been able to transform the expectations around Mississippi State. And while people have given me credit for helping change the football culture, what they don't understand is how appreciative I am of my teammates, coaches, the university and the city of Starkville for the role they've played in changing me.
Saturday will be my last game at Davis-Wade Stadium, the last time I'll be able to play in front of my home fans. It's difficult to quantify how much the support of everyone here has meant to me. I came here as a 17-year-old in the spring of 2011, and so much has happened since. On the field, I went from an anonymous redshirt to a short-yardage specialist to a Heisman Trophy candidate. Off the field, I showed up as a wild kid and grew up. My mom and my grandfather both passed away while I was here. When my mom died from cancer two years ago during the season, I can't tell you how many messages I got on Twitter, Facebook, email and through handwritten letters to the football offices.
That outpouring of support really showed me that to the fans at Mississippi State, I'm not just a good player. I feel like part of their family because football means so much to them and they reached out to me in that way. It really comforted me. To thank everyone for the support, I came up with a saying: "We don't have fans, we have family." I think that sums up how I felt about everyone surrounding Mississippi State during the most traumatic time in my life.
A few weeks after my mom passed in November of 2013, I came back from an injury and entered the Egg Bowl in the second half against Ole Miss. I'll never forget the feeling when I walked back out on the field. As I walked into the Egg Bowl, the crowd stood up and clapped like they were enveloping me in a giant hug. I've never felt that way before, and I'm not sure I ever will again.
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When you go to school in a small town like Starkville, there's an intimacy with the fans that cannot be replicated elsewhere. I go to Umi, a Japanese restaurant, with my offensive linemen every Thursday. A couple of weeks ago, a mom pushed a little girl in a wheelchair up to me. I'm sitting at a tall table and the little girl grabs my hand and just starts talking to me. She was telling me about school and this and that. She didn't ask for a picture or anything, she just felt so comfortable talking to me. Like she knew me, and we'd been friends forever. That just made my day and shows how special our relationship with the fans is. All the time that I've been here, people have been reading about my story and feel like they really know me. That's a special feeling, something I'll always take with me.
There are going to be tears at some point. I'm not sure if they're going to come out on Saturday, when I walk with my family on the field for Senior Day, or if they're going to come at Senior Tackle, our last practice here before we leave for the bowl game. But they're going to come.
One of the things I'm most proud of is how we've changed the expectation of winning. When I first got here, we went 7–6 and played in the Music City Bowl. Our fans were there, it was sold out. Now, if we went to the Music City Bowl, our fans wouldn't be that excited about it. It would be a down year or whatever you want to call it. Really, there's just an expectation of winning that exists that didn't before. Going into the Alabama game two weeks ago, all of our fans thought we'd win. When I first got to campus, our fans wouldn't have been nearly as confident about us winning that game, even though we ultimately lost.
What I'm going to miss more than anything about Mississippi State is my teammates, obviously. They're honestly, truly my brothers. After everything I've been through, I wouldn't ask for better teammates to be there for me—after injuries, after my mom passing, after my grandpa passing, after getting assaulted on spring break. The teammates and the love we have for one another—that's what I'll miss the most.
Coach Dan Mullen deserves so much credit for what he has done here. I wouldn't dare for one second to want to play for another college coach. I'm so thankful for him giving me the opportunity to come play at Mississippi State. He and coach John Hevesy saw the talent in me before anyone else; they extended my first major Division I offer. They saw the passion that I play with, the heart all the way back to when I came to camp here. That's what led to them giving me that offer. That's something that I never wanted to get away from. That's who I am. Just for him to give me that opportunity was another reason that I just play with the passion and the effort I do.
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When I got here in the spring of 2011, I was naive. From an ego standpoint, I came in wanting to be the starting quarterback. That ended pretty quickly because I realized how much I needed to learn. Back in high school, we didn't even have to read anything (in our offense). I had to completely just sit down and learn this whole language of football. It's crazy how far I've come. I feel like I've gone from my freshman year learning a subject to a graduate level. I'm thankful that I've had coach Mullen the whole time. I'm thankful for coach Les Koenning, my initial quarterbacks coach who just made me work hard and stressed the importance of details—drop, step, stuff like that. And coach Brian Johnson, when he came in, has really touched it up.
After last season, I really wasn't tempted to go to the NFL. What drew me back—what really sealed it—was losing the Alabama game and then losing the Ole Miss game. Especially the Ole Miss game. Then we lost the Orange Bowl to Georgia Tech, and there was no way I could leave Starkville. This place has done so much for me and the school has been there for me. I couldn't leave after losing three of my last four games. There was no way.
Even though we lost to LSU early this year when we should have won and got knocked out of the SEC West race against Alabama, this year has been special for me. If we win the Ole Miss game, we'll be set up for a good bowl berth. That will cap off what has been a special career.
This place has changed me so much. I have faith more than ever. I feel like I can change anything, do anything. That's one of the reasons I came here. I guess it's really just sealed that. It's made that feeling 10-times stronger, just from the support, from the people believing in me, buying in and trusting in me and treating me as family. After everything I've been through in my five years, going from 17 to 22. It's just—I don't know how to explain it.
When I chose Mississippi State, of course I dreamed about being a big-time college football player. But I'm so grateful that actually became a reality—and it became a reality in a small town. This place. All I can really say is thank you to everyone for making Starkville feel like it's my home.
Dak Prescott is a senior quarterback for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs host rival Ole Miss in their regular-season finale on Nov. 28.