STARKVILLE, Miss. - Regular life as a college athlete, if there is such a thing, can certainly vary from player to player and sport to sport, but when any student-athlete goes to bed, eats out or takes an exciting new someone on a date, they do it as a college student with a major, including homework and classes. Outside of running and working every morning or afternoon on a field or court, they feel no different, in their own minds, than any of the other 18-22 year olds in the desks and classrooms next to them.
But certain things are expected of SEC athletes, especially when given a scholarship to pay for those classes and meals. They must behave themselves appropriately in public, maintain a reasonable GPA and present themselves as model citizens and students.
The charge, however, isn’t all about doing or not doing.
Whichever sport they may play, when someone pulls a Mississippi State jersey over their head, they become something else.
You experience it best when you’re a kid, though you hardly realize it, when every player you see from walk-on snapper to starting quarterback becomes a hero. Somewhere in your mind, you place the people in those jerseys on a separate plane, considering them grown men who are invincible and capable of anything, only to eventually grow up and realize they’re like anyone else, college kids who happen to undertake the large task of playing a sport.
Late last week, MSU’s football team, along with a few cheerleaders and pom squad dancers, underwent the transformation as they visited the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson.
The Bulldogs have done it every summer for some time now and they will continue to do so. Not for themselves or for the publicity, but for the ailing kids whose month is made by visits from these other-worldly heroes who want nothing more than to meet them, talk to them and maybe play a few games with them.
DeAsia and Will are two of the pre-teen patients under the hospital’s care and the pair spends much of their time together as each has similar needs, both requiring frequent supervision, bound to their wheelchairs with limited personal mobility.
One of the four groups from the MSU contingent met them in the hallway of their floor.
After greetings and introductions, running back Josh Robinson asked DeAsia if she was going start cheering for them.
“I’m not a sporty girl,” she replied with a smile.
Robinson laughed and told her, “Well you can still cheer for us!”
DeAsia paused for a second to think about it.
“What’s your name?”
“We’re the Mississippi State Bulldogs,” Robinson said, pointing to his jersey. “Here’s a dog bone so you can remember, we’re the Dawgs.”
DeAsia let him place the rubber bone in her wheelchair then looked at the rest of the group.
“I’ve never watched football on TV, but I’ll watch you. When do you play?”
“We play 13 times a year,” Robinson told her. “But we practice every day.”
“Do any of you ever get hurt?” she asked.
“All the time,” Robinson answered honestly. “But we go to the doctor and they make us better. Just like you.”
William, it turns out, knew plenty about football and wouldn’t rest until he had talked to everyone and found out what position they played.
Though when he got to punter Baker Swedenburg, he paused for a moment, then asked, “What’s wrong with your feet? They’re nasty.”
Swedenburg laughed and replied, “Punter problems.”
The rest of the afternoon, for that group, was spent in the game room chatting, playing games and singing (Will’s favorite is Luther Vandross).
Either because quarterback Tyler Russell was too embarrassed to sing anything else or because DeAsia wanted to see the cheerleaders perform, the group of seven sang the MSU fight song for the two patients.
“It is cooler when 60,000 people do it,” linebacker Richie Brown told her. “I promise.”
A couple hours later and after a visit from Dan and Megan Mullen, an attendant let the room know it was time to leave.
“Alright, well when are you coming back to see us?” DeAsia asked.
In that moment more than any, the gravity of her and Will’s situation hit. Their floor, the ward they lived in, was long-term care, described to the players before entrance as a step below ICU for those who resided on a “more permanent basis.”
There was no pretending everything was fine and she would be going home soon. The casual tone of DeAsia’s innocent question was as jarring as the reality behind it.
“Maybe we can come again after the season,” Brown told her. “If we don’t have time, we’ll definitely be back to see you next summer.”
“OK,” she replied. “Thank you, boys. I’ll be watching you every Saturday.”
The happiness DeAsia and Will felt after the visit was a stark contrast from the heavy hearts of those who visited them.
But for Will the football fan and DeAsia the girl who had never seen a game before, the college students had become heroes, larger-than-life figures when they first walked down the hall in their Maroon and White jerseys.
It didn’t matter where they went, what position they played or even if they were any good.
With the same childlike wonder any their age would have, DeAsia and Will started in awe of the seemingly-immortal warriors, ending the day with new friends, a half-dozen college kids.