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|A month before Mississippi State's regular-season finale against Ole Miss, quarterback Dak Prescott lost his biggest fan, his mother.|
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Somewhere removed from the crush of fans at Davis Wade Stadium sat an unopened letter addressed to Peggy Prescott from her son, Dakota, better known to those around Starkville as Dak, Mississippi State's charismatic leader at quarterback.
The letter, penned before the team's Thanksgiving Day showdown against Ole Miss, was an idea of Dan Mullen's. He wanted to make sure the Egg Bowl was personal, so he asked his players to dedicate the game to someone special.
But for Prescott, it was never not personal. There was never a doubt for whom he was playing.
"She hated Ole Miss just as much as I did," Dak told reporters after leading a comeback win in which he scored the game's final touchdown in overtime. "Her favorite time of the season was going to a bowl game, so there's no better feeling than to go to a bowl game for her."
Choked up, Mullen would credit the outcome to "divine intervention."
State beat Ole Miss 17-10 that frigid night, but Peggy wasn't there to celebrate. A month earlier she succumbed to a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer and died at the age of 52. The last picture of Peggy on Dak's Twitter profile is of the two bending over to show off their bald heads -- one shaved by choice and the other slick from chemotherapy.
& @StephenGilbeaux RT @PrescottTp: Bald crew with mom, @JaceP62 and @15_DakP pic.twitter.com/TUc2xQom9x— Dak Prescott (@15_DakP) May 28, 2013
Peggy left behind three sons, of which Dak was the youngest. She was his biggest fan, his toughest critic and his best friend. The two shared the same bedroom until he left for State, brother Tad explained. Tad and Jace, the eldest, got two of the three bedrooms in the house while Dak grew up in mom's room. When his brothers left for college, Dak simply stayed with mom rather than move down the hall.
"He'll kill me when I tell you this, but ... they were that close," Tad said. "Even when he was in college, they spoke every day."
Everything Dak is comes as a credit to Peggy, who raised her three sons as a single mother while managing a truck stop in Louisiana. She taught them hard work and the meaning of family. State treated them like family, so that's where Dak went. Tad can remember her tears of joy when Dak committed to play in the SEC, telling anyone who'd listen: "'My baby is going to play Between the Hedges! My baby gets to play in The Swamp!"
Peggy loved football, and she wasn't a passive observer of the game.
"My mom wasn't an average woman," Tad said. Her first and only tattoo would be of a football with the number three written inside it for her three sons. Neither Tad nor Dak could ever recall her missing a game from Pop Warner to high school to college. "With the cannon going off on the football field and people yelling, you could still hear my mom's sharp whistle over everybody. She was not the mom that sat under a blanket and kept her mouth shut the entire game. You could hear her screaming, 'Hit him!'"
If Dak fumbled or threw an interception, he'd get an earful on the ride home. And when she felt the team wasn't playing up to par, so did the coaches.
"She'd let you know if she thought we should be doing something different," said Rodney Guin, Dak's former coach at Haughton High, who laughed thinking back on a time he bumped into Peggy around town the week after a loss and she couldn't help but offer some unsolicited advice about the team's offensive coordinator. "I said, 'Well, we'll see what we can do about that.'
"She didn't mind telling it like it was."
Dak didn't find out she had cancer until the start of last season and even then, "You couldn't tell she had anything wrong with her. She was a warrior."
When my mom passed, football was my getaway. It allowed me to get that off my mind and just be me and have fun.” -- Dak Prescott
"The second year is when it came along and she lost her hair," he said. "Then she'd start coming to the games and was weak. The Oklahoma State game, she could only walk so far and then we'd have to get somebody to bring her. It started catching up with her. I remember after a game that she was vomiting for no reason. There was nothing she could do about it, nothing. We couldn't help her or anything."
Losing her still hasn't sunk in. It was only Oct. 26 that Dak went home to attend a benefit for her. The next Sunday the coaches and their wives gathered at the Mississippi State football offices so they could be there while Dak got the call saying his mother had passed away. The team got him on a flight home and on Wednesday after the funeral services he was back at practice.
"His mom would have been pretty ticked off if he wasn't on that practice field getting ready to play," Mullen said. "She loved football and loved her son and loved her son playing football. And when you have that combination of things, it's just something where he was ready to go."
"That's one thing I told him when all that happened, 'Your mom raised you up to be like a warrior, so that's what she expects you to be even during this time,'" Guin said. "So I knew he was going to rebound."
Tyler Russell started at quarterback that Saturday at South Carolina, but Dak quickly showed he had the hotter hand and ended up taking most of the snaps. He'd start the next weekend and throw two touchdowns before injuring his shoulder in an accident Mullen called a "one-in-a-million thing."
Most shoulder stingers deaden one nerve, but Dak had multiple nerves go out in his arm. Mullen compared it to a concussion where getting one puts you out for a week but getting multiple concussions in a short span can have you out indefinitely and even threaten your career.
Suddenly the one safe haven in Dak's life -- football -- wasn't there. He didn't know if his arm would get better tomorrow, a year from now, or not at all.
"When my mom passed, football was my getaway," Dak said. "It allowed me to get that off my mind and just be me and have fun. But that being taken away because of my shoulder injury hurt. Not being able to get out there and get free from my thoughts was difficult."
Mullen didn't expect Dak back until at least the bowl game, if State even got that far. It would take back-to-back wins to reach the postseason and while freshman Damian Williams played well in his absence, Dak was missed.
|Dak Prescott (middle) lived in his mother's room while his older brothers, Tad (left) and Jace (right) took the other two rooms.|
Dak took "mental reps" and kept his head in the game leading into the Egg Bowl. Williams started, but Dak was cleared to play at the last minute. Mullen was hesitant, though, fearful that reaggravating the injury early and having Dak go down would crush the team's spirits.
Instead, he waited until the fourth quarter to try for a storybook ending.
When Williams threw an interception with State down 10-7, Mullen turned and asked Dak if he could go. "I'm ready," Dak said. The defense held and forced a punt.
"Once his foot stepped on the field you just felt the demeanor change on our sideline and in the stadium as a whole," Mullen said. "It was just like, 'Uh-oh, here we go.'
"We drive down, kicked a field goal, stopped them, drove down again and missed a field goal, stopped them, scored a touchdown, created the turnover to win. It was a huge momentum swing. Everybody just knew he'd will us to win."
Davis Wade Stadium became a party and somewhere in the crowd, Dak celebrated.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "It was like it didn't happen."
Williams, whom Dak calls his son, is still in shock. Between Dak's mother's passing and the injury, it's a wonder he set foot on the field at all.
"Dak's a one-of-a-kind type of guy," Williams said. "He responded in a way that no other person could have."
The pain of his mother's loss hasn't subsided, but football has helped him manage. As State heads into the Liberty Bowl on Thursday against Rice, he's excited about what the future holds. Fans have felt the shift in momentum, too, rallying around their charismatic and athletic quarterback as next season he figures to be the clear-cut starter on a team many hope will compete for an SEC title.
With Dak, Mullen knows he's found the right leader on offense. He called Dak, "The ultimate 'it' guy" when it came to the intangibles of the game, harkening back to another No. 15 -- one he helped coach to a Heisman Trophy while at Florida in 2007.
And like Tim Tebow, Dak has that certain drive inside him. He knows exactly who he's playing for.
"I'm going to live the rest of my life dedicating it to my mom," Dak said. "She's the reason I am the way I am in every aspect of my life. Everything I do is for her."