A Play to Remember

It has been a week, but the state of Mississippi is still a buzz about last week's Battle for the Golden Egg between Mississippi State and Ole Miss. A tightly contested game came down to the final play. With Ole Miss' quarterback Bo Wallace racing towards the endzone, a diving Nickoe Whitley poked the ball loose resulting in a fumble that the victorious Bulldogs recovered for a touch back.

While that play has been replayed on DVRs and highlight shows across the state several times, the play almost never took place.

There were more than a few crossroads that came for Nickoe Whitley and Mississippi State during the talented safety's playing career.

His playing days in Starkville nearly ended before they ever began.

Whitley, then of Provine High School, committed to Mississippi State and head football coach Sylvester Croom over an offer from Ole Miss among others.

With his college sights set on Starkville, Whitley went to work to get Provine into the playoffs as a senior.

On the final play of the first half in rivalry game against Callaway High School, Whitley was hit low on the far sidelines.

His pain apparent, his future in question, Whitley writhed in pain as a hush came over the stadium.

After several minutes, Whitley was helped from the playing field and into the halftime locker room.

The second half action began without him. Midway through the third quarter, Whitley emerged with his knee heavily taped and packed with iced without his shoulder pads or helmet.

The MRI a few days later confirmed what was feared, a season ending ACL injury.

A few months later, Mississippi State football underwent a coaching change.

Out went Sylvester Croom and his staff and in came Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

Whitley's parents, Nickoe Sr. and Dedgra, were concerned about their son's standing with Mississippi State.

Would his scholarship be honored by the incoming coaching staff?

One of the first in person visits Mullen made once he was hired as the new Bulldog boss was to Jackson, Mississippi to see the Whitleys.

Dedgra Whitley remembers the anxiety she felt as that meeting approached.

"I remember sitting there and just praying to God that everything would work out," said the concerned mother. "This was all like a dream coming true for Nickoe and I was just so concerned about them changing coaches.

"All throughout the recruiting process, Nickoe always wanted to go to Mississippi State and we wanted him to go there.

"I was scared that Coach Mullen may not take a chance on a player with a knee injury especially since he didn't know us and he hadn't recruited Nickoe."

Dedgra's worries were put to rest very early on during her first meeting with Dan Mullen.

"I just felt okay as soon as he walked into the room. His whole demeanor just put me at ease.

"He came up and hugged me and I could just tell he meant what he said.

"We were sitting in Coach (Willie) Collins' office and a story came on TV about Coach Mullen and I just felt that was a sign that things were going to be okay.

"I remember all of that just like it was yesterday. I was just so relieved, because I knew Nickoe was going to get the chance to go to the school he really wanted to go to."

Whitley arrived on campus and quietly worked his way up the depth chart.

Soon the hard hitting safety became a fan favorite for his vicious hits and athletic all out efforts to corral interceptions.

Just as soon as #5 became a staple in the Bulldogs' secondary, he was again sidelined with an injury, this time it was trouble with an achilles.

"I remember sitting up in the stands and I didn't know where he was," said Dedgra. "I didn't even know he was injured.

"I wanted to know where he was and then one of the other parents saw him on the sidelines without his helmet or shoulder pads.

"He told me after the game that he felt a pop and I was so upset for my child.

"I know how hard he had to work the first time to come back from an injury and I was so worried about him.

"I knew he would recover physically, but I just didn't know what another injury like that would do to him mentally."

Whitley would return and he turned in a solid junior campaign despite not being 100% of his former self.

Set for a strong senior campaign, once again Whitley was bitten by the injury bug just as the 2013 season began.

"Nickoe is a tough guy and he is not going to really tell people when he is hurting," said Dedgra. "He got hurt back in the spring and he just worked his way through it.

"I know how much he loves the game and how much he loves his teammates and he wanted to be out there with them.

"Then he got hurt in the Oklahoma State game and he had a decision to make.

"He could keep playing and just try to play through the pain or he could think about his future first and then just have surgery and get ready for the NFL.

"It was an easy decision for Nickoe. He didn't want to end his senior year that way.

"He wanted to be out there with his teammates and get back to another bowl game."

Mississippi State's bowl hopes were on the ropes in Little Rock, Arkansas as the Razorbacks had pushed into the Bulldog redzone with just minutes to play.

With the game and season on the line, Whitley ripped the ball away from Arkansas freshman phenom Alex Collins to quell the Razorbacks' threat.

"I always send him text messages before the game to encourage him," said Dedgra. "One of the things I always send him is #GrabOne and that's for him to get an interception or to do something special.

"Even late in the game, I wasn't discouraged, but when he pulled that ball out I was so relieved.

"I was happy for Mississippi State, but I was so happy for Nickoe because of all he has had to overcome.

"I know how bad he wanted to win and he had a couple of games where he didn't play as well as he wanted to this year, so it was so great to see him make that play when the team really needed it."

Whitley still had some late game heroics left when arch-rival Ole Miss came to town.

In what can be called a dive of desperation, in the his final play in a Mississippi State uniform, Whitley forced a fumble to seal the Bulldog victory in one of the wildest finishes in Egg Bowl history.

"I just feel honored to be his mother and I am just grateful to God that he gave Nickoe that opportunity," said Dedgra. "When I think about all of the things he went through, it all just came through as joy in that final moment.

"I had walked down from where I was sitting to the field level and I had never done that before.

"When I saw that ball pop out, all I could do was just jump.

"I know a parent shouldn't be doing this, but I jumped that fence and I went and found my child.

"I can't even put into words how that felt. I was just so happy for Nickoe and for Coach Mullen.

"People don't realize how hard these coaches and players have worked to get to this point and it's been a tough season this year.

"It's just an emotional feeling to get that Golden Egg back and get back to another bowl game."

The post game celebration for the Whitley family continued long into the night.

"When we got home, we stayed up all night and watched ESPN and watched everything we could about the game," said Dedgra.

"Nickoe has never been a talker. He has always been a person of action and he just doesn't talk much.

"He has never been one to talk about things that he's done or things like that. He just let his actions speak for him.

"When we were sitting there watching the highlights from the game, he just had a look of pride on his face.

"He didn't have to say it, but I knew he was proud to be able to make that play for the team."

The family learned a little bit later, that Nickoe had made a special dedication that hit very close to home.

"My brother never got to see Nickoe play," said Dedgra. "He died before Nickoe went to Mississippi State.

"After the game, there was this envelope. I opened it and read it.

"Nickoe had dedicated the game to his uncle. because he never got to see him play.

"It makes me so proud that he was playing that game for his uncle and that my brother was on his mind."

Nickoe's parents, Nickoe Sr. and Dedgra are both college graduates. Nickoe Jr. will graduate this spring with a masters degree in workforce educational leadership.

"You always want your child to exceed what you are able to do," said Dedgra. "He got his bachelor's degree early and he could have moved on and graduated, but he wanted to come back for the team and play one more year.

"He has worked hard and is going to get his masters while on scholarship and that makes me so proud to know how hard he has worked.

"People don't understand how tough the schedules are for these student athletes and I think it says a lot about him to be able to get two degrees with all he has to do."

With the Bulldogs' bowl hopes secured, though their holiday destination is still unknown, Whitley elected to get that surgery he needed to repair his ailing knee.

"They say that the surgery went okay and was just an in and out procedure," said Nickoe Sr. "He is in a pretty good mood compared to how he was the first time coming out of high school.

"He was so scared back then that he wouldn't get to play football again.

"He doesn't feel that way now, because he knows he can come back and play again.

"He will do all of the things he needs to do off the field to get back on it."

Some would say that life has not always been fair to Nickoe Whitley, but when the game was on the line Whitley stepped up and made a play that Bulldog fans will remember for years.

"I am a big believer in the fact that everything happens for a reason," said Nickoe Sr. "Coach Mullen believed in Nickoe and we owe him and Coach Tony Hughes so much.

"Nickoe just has a strong will to win and I believe that and his hard work and dedication came into play in these past few games.

"I was so excited after the Egg Bowl that I didn't even realize Nickoe had knocked the ball out.

"I didn't know until I saw him running around the field with the Golden Egg.

"I looked down at my phone and I had over 50 text messages.

"I am just so proud of him. I still don't think it's sunk in with us all yet.

"Every day people are calling me and stopping me and telling me how proud that are and saying Nickoe made that play to win the game."

While there are no former Bulldogs, just former players, Whitley has worn the Maroon and White for the final time.

"Nickoe has been playing hurt since the last play of the first half of the Oklahoma State game," said Nickoe Sr. "He just didn't want to end his career at Mississippi State like that.

"People just don't know what all he had to work through this year.

"He got frustrated when he couldn't do some of the things he wanted to do, but he stuck it out.

"He played for his school, for the fans and for the team.

"It paid off for him in the end. I feel like he played some of the best games of his career these past few weeks.

"His coaches know what all he went through and I know Nickoe wouldn't want people to know that he was hurt, because he is not one to make excuses.

"He just wanted to go make plays and help the team get that Egg back and get to another bowl game.

"He wanted to do what he could for Coach Mullen and Coach Hughes."

Five years ago, Dan Mullen had to make a decision about the direction of his football program and about the future of a young man from Jackson battling his way back from injury.

They say hindsight is always 20/20, but that decision appears to have paid dividends for Mullen and Mississippi State as Nickoe Whitley saved the Bulldogs season not once, but twice.

"Coach Mullen didn't have to take a chance on Nickoe," said Dedgra. "I think now he is real grateful that he did.

"I know how much Nickoe loves Coach Mullen and how grateful he is for the opportunity that he gave him to come to Mississippi State.

"Coach Mullen went out on a limb for Nickoe and I think it was very noble for him to honor his scholarship knowing that he was hurt.

"I feel like Nickoe gave him the best thank you he could, by helping the team end the season the way that it did.

"I know in those final seconds of that game that Nickoe was doing all he could do to say thank you to Coach Mullen and to his teammates for all they have done for him."

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