By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Starkville, Miss. – It only took an hour into our Thursday drive from Birmingham to Starkville to notice. Once it became visible, the message continued on as we neared the campus of Mississippi State University. It was short and simple, a reminder to residents of the state of Mississippi, in case they were unsure. Next to a billboard sized picture of head coach Dan Mullen, the text read “This Is Our State”.
With that as the backdrop we arrived in Starkville, ready to embark on the first ever in “Life in the SEC” “work” trips.
When we (we being Sean Cartell and myself) got word that the SEC Digital Network was hitting the road this week, we weren’t sure what to make of the journey. The “goal” of any endeavor like this is to showcase the Southeastern Conference, bringing fans that aren’t familiar with the league’s most treasured traditions into the scene at the institutional level.
In what we hope is the start of many treks to our member schools, we quickly transitioned to covering the university in its simplest form. We decided to live a day in the life of a Mississippi State Bulldog.
So that’s what we did. From the moment we touched down, to the last seconds we spent in the press box at Davis Wade, we walked in the life of a student in Starkville. Ate the food, toured the campus and mingled locally, all in an attempt to show you what happens on these special nights in the fall.
What did we find out? No one is more excited about the Mississippi State athletic program than the town that houses them. The people, the students and the faculty have all embraced the “Bulldog” way of life, forming a seamless connection between people from all walks of life to the MSU athletics teams that represent them. You could hear the excitement from everyone.
Let me recap the day for you.
1:00 pm: Time To Eat
We began our journey at the most discussed part of our pre-planning, a good “local” spot for lunch. After an extensive Twitter campaign and debate session, Sean and myself landed at “The Grill”, a warehouse like eatery just blocks from campus.
Known for their variety of quality food choices, we found ourselves immersed in a deep menu that was difficult to finalize. After being thoroughly prepped by our Starkville friends, we ordered pepper jack cheese sticks to hold us over.
From there, we talked culinary strategy, before I settled on a rib eye sandwich as my main plate for the session (I’m a steak guy, had to stick to my guns). Sean went a more “traditional” route, picking a chicken finger plate for his entrée (much to the ire of frequent grill attendee and SEC staff member Chuck Dunlap).
The meal itself was great, with the ambiance even better. What doesn’t seem like a large place brims with openness, as we viewed the entire establishment from our seats on the second level. Sean and I joked that we were seated away from the commoners due to our celebrity, but the true reason was the packed house that had already filled up the bottom floor.
Having to make sure we had an entire meal for the accuracy of this report (or so I sold to myself), we topped it all off with some Maroon cake. This name isn’t made up, as the color of the delicacy matched its moniker, all the way down to the whipped cream “M” on the bottom (see picture). The velvet pastry was delicious, and we left “The Grill” about five pounds heavier than we showed up.
2:30 pm: A Volleyball Chat
After our fulfilling lunch, we headed back to campus. Having parked at the media lot, which is near the home side of Davis Wade stadium, we proceeded to head back up to “Hump” for our next scheduled session.
Thanks to the help of the Mississippi State sports information staff (they were helpful all day, I’ll touch on that later), we were able to secure some time to interview head volleyball coach Jenny Hazlewood. Hazlewood, a former Bulldog player, is in her third season at the helm of the MSU program. After a short walk up to the Coliseum, we found our way down to Hazelwood’s office for the chat.
Upon walking in, we were greeted by not just one former State athlete, but two. Hazelwood was in her office alongside her husband, former Bulldog kicker Brian Hazelwood. This sense of home would be a theme throughout our conversation with the MSU coach.
I shouldn’t say our conversation, as I merely observed as Sean and Jenny began their discussion. Centered on this year’s team and Hazelwood’s tenure in Starkville, the interview gave us plenty of insight into the day-to-day workings of the club.
Hazlewood’s love for Mississippi State is clear, and I got a great sense of her deep passion for the program as a whole the more I heard her talk. She spoke of the MSU family, the support she gets from the staff (she gushed about Dan Mullen’s help a lot) and how it all buys into the town’s affection.
30 minutes later, we bid farewell to Hazlewood as we made our way out of the basketball arena. Despite being offered a ride back to the football field by the MSU coach, we declined and decided to hit the campus by foot as we waited for the football game to begin.
4:00 pm: The Junction
I am not going to lie. Going into our trip to Mississippi State, I had no idea what to expect in terms of game day experience. I haven’t been to many of our SEC schools during football, so I had no real reference point as to what the scene would be like. I went in with an open mind, prepared to just allow the swarm of fans to shower over me. Now having gone through it, I can say I was truly impressed. The “Junction” didn’t disappoint.
As was described to me by several MSU fans, the “Junction” consists of a swath of land behind the giant replay scoreboard side of the stadium. Now, that wasn’t the only place you saw Bulldog tents posted, but that became the central focus as game time neared. About a six block radius according to what I saw, MSU (and some brave LSU) fans congregated for pregame festivities. I saw bean bags, heard cowbells and smelled grills preparing meat of all kinds.
This was the best part of the day for me, even though we simply wandered around for two hours with no real plans. The sight itself was fun to behold, and almost made you nostalgic for your college days. The attire was similar among students, with the main staple of fashion being a cowbell stuck in your back pocket.
From a size perspective, I’m sure some schools are bigger. From a fan perspective, I’m sure some schools are larger. But for atmosphere on this night, I haven’t seen anyone capture it better. I reserve the right to change my mind, but any true SEC fan should list the “Junction” in any mention of the league’s top pregame setups. It was the highlight of my day.
7:00 pm: Game Time
Having walked the equivalent of a marathon already, we made our way back to the outskirts of Davis Wade. With media passes in hand (thanks MSU) we approached the back side of the stadium, waiting for the elevator to take us to our home during the game.
Times like these are fun, because you never know who you will run into. As we stood in line, I noticed a man in a full suit just in front of me. As the man turned his head, I got a good glimpse of a familiar face. ESPN’s Reece Davis, who is a fixture in the Worldwide Leader’s coverage of college football, occupied the line spot right ahead of me.
After cracking a joke with him (that’s always been my way of breaking the ice) we spent the elevator ride talking game strategy, and he even shared some nice comments about the SEC Digital Network. Good times all around.
Once we reached the press box level, I ran into even more familiar faces. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, SEC “Traditions” writer Ron Higgins
and others were already circulating, catching up with each other as the clock neared the start.
Our view was pretty good (again thanks MSU), we got ready for the night’s activities. We did some more tweeting, set up our live chat and assumed our seats as the teams headed out on the field.
It was a defensive struggle, as I used more baseball terms than football to describe the score. After a tough battle, LSU edged out ahead, picking up a hard fought 19-6 win over the home squad.
We thanked our many new friends on Twitter and I finished up the chat and Sean headed to the press conference.
As I sat there, mostly alone in the press box, I took one more glance at the field below. In what had been an amazing day full of stories to tell, I found myself thinking of just one. “People have to come here,” I thought, certain that the experience I had just gone through needed to be witnessed by other SEC fans.
So I started writing.