A touch of maroon in the White House
For just a few moments, put aside all political leanings. Now, go watch White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany in action. When you do that, it won’t take you long to notice a few things. She’s tough. She’s prepared. She doesn’t back down. One might even say she’s a Bulldog when it comes to handling things thrown her way.
It’s not by accident. In fact, it’s in her blood.
McEnany, one of the faces of the country’s government since her appointment as press secretary last month, is the daughter of former Mississippi State defensive lineman Mike McEnany, who played with the Bulldogs from 1979 through 1982. Between that, and a mother who both Mike and Kayleigh describe as a Florida Gator, Kayleigh had little choice but to grow up with Southeastern Conference football near and dear to her. Daddy did his best to make sure Kayleigh slanted her attention towards MSU.
“She’s been to Mississippi State many times,” Mike said of Kayleigh. “I made her wear that maroon and white, even though her mama was a Gator and moms seem to have a pretty strong influence on kids. But she rang that cowbell and she’s worn that maroon and white and she knows how much I love Mississippi State. Because of that, she loves Mississippi State.”
Kayleigh doesn’t deny it either. Yes, these days she’s a bit busy to say the least as a primary spokesperson for the President Donald Trump administration, but while she fields questions from reporters on any number of topics, one has to wonder this. Does Kayleigh, at least every now and then, have to strain a little harder to hear what’s asked given the loud, clanging soundtrack of her youth?
“I grew up hearing cowbells,” Kayleigh said via text message on Saturday. “With a Dad as a Bulldog and a Mom as a Gator, SEC football was at the epicenter of my upbringing. I’ll never forget all of those memorable MSU bowl games that we traveled to in the Fall, and the so-called 'Snow Bowl' when I was just 12 years old. I stayed in the hotel and out of the snow, but I’ll never forget the palpable enthusiasm for MSU!”
Talk to Mike for only a few seconds and you’ll see why Mississippi State remains a part of Kayleigh. Mike is all Bulldog. He currently owns a roofing company in Florida, but get to chatting about the Bulldogs and it’s as though Mike is right back in Starkville. He literally says he can’t get being a Bulldog out of his head.
“I still have dreams all the time about going out on the football field and forgetting my helmet or going out on the field and not having my cleats and everybody is waiting on me to get my stuff together,” Mike said. “There are recurrent dreams like that all the time.”
Mike has a unique MSU story in that he was just a walk-on for the Bulldogs. No matter. He’d go on to parlay that into a career that still has him in the Mississippi State record books. He’s tied for fifth all-time in school history with 22 sacks. He’s also tied for fifth on the single-season sack list for recording 12 of them in 1981. To add to it all, Mike had the honor of being on the squad with one of the greatest wins in the history of Mississippi State athletics – the 1980 Bulldogs who defeated then-No. 1 Alabama.
“There are a lot of great memories,” Mike said. “I think it’s funny as you get older. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like the losses weigh on me a little bit more than (remembering the) victories. I think about some of the games we should have won but one thing didn’t go right or there was one little mistake here or there. You almost take the wins for granted and it’s like some of those losses just kill me.”
So with Mike’s love for Mississippi State, the obvious question is, was Kayleigh ever close to following in her father’s footsteps to Starkville? The answer to that is yes, Mike says. It was a possibility, but Kayleigh had aspirations that led her elsewhere. Given the heights she has risen to now, it certainly seems like she made a pretty good call for herself.
“She had an opportunity to go to Georgetown,” Mike said. “She always had an inkling for politics. When Georgetown gave her that opportunity, she went with a lesser dog. Georgetown is Bulldogs too you know, so she went with a lesser dog.”
Now, at just 32 years of age, Kayleigh stands as one of the nation’s most visible people. And like her dad on the gridiron, she doesn’t back down from anyone. Whether or not her politics are of your persuasion, it’s hard not to respect Kayleigh’s boldness as she often fires back at questions thrown her way like Mike used to fire off at the line of scrimmage. Mike says he just watches on in excitement as Kayleigh does her thing.
“Are you kidding me? I go crazy,” Mike said. “It’s like watching a football game. It’s so exciting. And she’s hitting an audience that guys like (conservative talk show hosts) Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, they can’t hit. They’re hitting their zealot. They’re hitting their fans. Nobody is going to listen to them except their fans. With Kayleigh, she gets an opportunity to talk to people that are diametrically opposed to everything she’s doing and saying and what she stands for. Instead of preaching to the choir, she’s preaching to a whole bunch of other folks.”
Mike says it’s no secret why Kayleigh is able to handle herself the way she does. It goes back to her mentality, the one forged in part by the daddy who turned himself from Mississippi State walk-on to a key member of his Bulldog teams.
“I was a walk-on and I love walk-ons,” Mike said. “Not just because I was one, but for whatever reason, they were overlooked by everybody else.
“That walk-on mentality was in me and it’s in Kayleigh. She’s a fighter. She comes out every day like this is her last day. She prepares. She’s very prepared and it’s not by accident because she knows hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. If nothing else, most of the time with walk-ons they have bigger hearts than they have skills. They make up for lack of skills with heart and effort. That’s just what she does.”
Unlike Mike, Kayleigh doesn’t get to hear cowbells ringing or even get consensus approval whenever she does what she does. In fact, it’s safe to say somewhere around half the country probably disagrees with her on a daily basis.
But there’s no denying, as Kayleigh continues to stand in front of cameras and field any number of questions on some of the country’s most pressing topics, those blue-collar characteristics she picked up from her dad keep shining through.
“She has that maroon and white bleeding through her, she does,” Mike said.