Outside The Helmet, December 24, 2007

Bully BarkLine, the radio show that is exclusively about Mississippi State athletics that airs every Tuesday night 7-8 at The Little Dooey in Starkville, has a feature called 'Outside The Helmet' which is produced each week by Bully BarkLine guest host Melissa Tomlinson. This past Tuesday, Melissa and I talked with the seniors on the football team.

Gene: What special memory do you have during the time you spent here?
Royce Blackledge - "I don't have any one special memory, but I have a lot of good memories here. And I've been around a lot of great guys. The class that I came in with - I think there are six of us left - we've been through a lot together. And we haven't won a lot of ballgames up until this year. So, it's important to me that we had a winning season this year and are getting to go to a bowl game."

Gabriel O'Neal - "I guess this season is - a lot of winning going on, everybody happy, first experience going to a bowl game. So, I guess the bowl game is going to be my favorite memory."

Tyler Threadgill - "I'm probably going to agree with Royce. With the six guys that are left over from the '03 signing class, we have seen a lot and seen a lot of our brethren leave. It's pretty special to know that, of that signing class, we stuck it out and went through the trials and tribulations."

Gene: What are you going to miss the most once you leave here?
Blackledge - "I don't know what I'm going to miss the most, but I can tell you that I'm not going to miss practice." [Everybody laughed at this comment.]

O'Neal - "Probably just hanging around with the guys, more off the field than on it, hanging around in the locker room."

Threadgill - "I'll probably miss hanging out at the hotel the night before the game, picking at the guys and just having fun with them."

Gene: Royce mentioned that he won't miss practices. Does winning make practice more fun, or at least somewhat fun?
Tony Burks - "(Laughed) It would seem like it would. I would say that some practices go by pretty good after a big win. And by us just coming out and practicing hard, having fun with each other, it makes practices go by better."

Melissa: Tell me what you've learned from the losses and how you have grown as a team from them?
Justin Williams - "You learn that everybody appreciates when you are winning, even the town. When you go into a store, they talk to you more. They tell you things like good luck with the bowl game."

Ben Shelton - "After going through all those losses, I think it just means that much more to you when you start winning. It just seems like everybody is feeling better about the team and with us and has more pride in the team."

Melissa: Looking back, when Coach Croom firt got here, did any of you doubt what Coach Croom was saying would actually happen?
Eric Butler - "I am one of the six that came in under Coach Sherrill, but I didn't let the consecutive losing seasons affect my decision to come here. But when Coach Croom came in, I kind of had a thought in my mind that he would get it turned around. I just didn't know how soon, but I'm happy it happened before I left."

Gene: What are you going to miss the most about the college life, not football, but the college life in general?
Dezmond Sherrod - "Just meeting a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds, from different areas. That makes you grow as a person."

Gene: We talked about what you can learn from losing, but what have you learned from the other seniors?
J.D. Hamilton - "I learned that you have to stay together when you are losing because when you are down these are the only guys who can hold you up. So, you become close to them."

Threadgill - "I was kind of like Eric when Coach Croom came, you wanted to believe. But all the negative things that happened - all the guys leaving, how we lost games such as losing to Maine - I think it's just human nature to doubt what we were trying to accomplish. But all these guys stayed. And, as we got older, we got into positions of responsibility and it was kind of up to us to get into the driver's seat and make it happen."

Gene: Tyler, when did you notice that the program was starting to turn around?
Threadgill - "I think a lot of our fans can identify with this, but I think it was when we played Georgia at Georgia. That was the first time you could see it in their faces, almost a feeling that they thought we didn't roll over. Like they thought we were in the game until the very end and that we could have easily beaten them. After that game, when we shook their hands, they said, 'great job, keep working.' There was definitely respect that, in some cases, we hadn't seen before."

Melissa: I've watched the transformation of this team from the time Coach Croom got here until where you guys are now and it has been unbelievable. And my hat is off to each of you. Tell me Lance, what has Coach Croom instilled in each of you that you will take with you when you leave here?
Lance Long - "There are a lot of things, but I think the one thing is being a winner. There was a night, right after FCA, he told us how he got the concept from Coach Bryant, how once he said you were a winner, then you knew you were doing your job and you were going to be successful. I really believe Coach Croom and all the other coaches were trying to make us winners and trying to make us believe. And that's another thing, too - believing. I know a lot of people didn't believe we could do it, but now we are starting to win. I always believed in Coach Croom, and I'm sure a lot of other people did, too, but if anybody had their doubts, they don't have any doubts now."

Melissa: Isn't winning a process? And don't you appreciate it more when you have had to go through all the hard times and losing?
Blackledge - "I think so because I know these guys here, we've had to work for everything that we have gotten. None of us came in with a winning season or ever having gone to a bowl game. So, that just makes this season that much sweeter."

Gene: Do you guys plan on giving to the Bulldog Club and attending games once you leave here?
Sherrod - "Yeah, once I become an official alumnus, I will always come back and support my team by contributing any way that I can and attending games."

O'Neal - "I love sports and love to watch football, yeah, I will come back and support them ... if they are winning (Gabe, who is the prankster among the seniors, said this with tongue in cheek)." [Everybody laughed at this last comment.]

Melissa: What's it going to be like when you walk out onto the Liberty Bowl field knowing that will be your last college game?
Williams - "It's kind of going to be like how Senior Day was - that was our last game in that stadium. Every time I passed the stadium, I'm like, 'I'm not going to play there again.' I was telling Dez when we were riding to the house the other day that every time I see it I can see myself on the field, I can hear my name being called, my number being called, making a play. And it's not going to happen again. It's going to be the same way at the Liberty Bowl. It's going to be real emotional."

Jason Husband - "I'm going to think about what all we went through since we first came in - me, Eric, Dez, Threadgill, Royce, Avery - just the bond we had together, the family that we built together, being a part of the change that Coach Croom has brought here."

Shelton - "I'm kind of anxious because you will have that feeling that you are never going to play college football again. It's going to be kind of a letdown, but it's going to be so exciting just to be out there and go through that experience. It'll be something you can talk about the rest of your life."

Gene: Have the five seniors that have been here with you from the beginning become your best friends?
Husband - "Yeah, they have become very close friends. Me and Threadgill used to stay across the hall from each other as freshmen. And me, Eric and Dez would hang out. And I've known Royce a long time. They've become closer to you than your friends in high school."

Gene: Very few people get to experience what you guys got to experience - playing SEC football. What's it's like to go out on a college football field and play in front of 55,000 to 100,000 people?
Shelton - "It's intense. You hear the roar of the crowd the entire game. And it's big-time college football. There's nothing like it. I really can't put it into words."

Melissa: If Coach Croom was standing here with us, what is the one thing that each of you would like to say to him?
Long - "The one thing I would like to say to Coach Croom is thank you - thank you for everything that you have done for us. Thank you for the opportunity to come here as a walk-on. And a thank you to the coaching staff, too."

Burks - "It would be the same thing as Lance said, thank you. He gave me an opportunity to come up here and play. He saw something in me."

Butler - "I'm going to say thank you. Even though I wasn't recruited by him, he still gave me an opportunity to prove what I can do like the rest of the guys. And I want to thank my coaches, Coach McCorvey and Coach Stringer, for helping me play up to the best of my ability my senior year. It's been one of the best years since I've been here."

O'Neal - "Just thanks. I've been through a lot since I've been here, a lot of injuries, I've had two different coaches since I've been here, but they stuck with me through all my injuries. I appreciate him for everything he's done for me. He's helped me become a man off the field as well as on the field. He let you know that things in life aren't always going to go right, but that you have to continue to fight through them and they will work out."

Sherrod - "I would just like to thank Coach Croom for believing in me and my teammates, particularly me and Eric when he first came. We were redshirt freshmen at the time and he could probably have gone out and got a junior college tight end with a little more experience. But he believed in us and believed we could get the job done. And, because of that, we became the players that we are today and leaders that we are. And he taught us a lot of things, not about football but about life. He taught us to overcome the struggles and how to become winners in life."

Blackledge - "I thank him for everything that he has done for me. We've been through a lot. And because of that, he has helped me become a better man and make better decisions on and off the field. Those are things we can use for the rest of our lives. That's probably the biggest thing I can thank him for."

Hamilton - "I want to say thank you to him for giving me the opportunity to play SEC football. And for helping me develop into a man on and off the field. He is a great man. After my father passed, he reminded me a lot of my father. He stayed on me hard. So, I just want to say thank you."

Threadgill - "I want to say thank you, like everybody else. It's been like a roller coaster ride - there have been the lowest valleys at time and there have been the highest peaks at time. We beat Florida and lost to Maine in the same season. Every year it seemed to be like that. This year, we have kind of even it up and become more consistent. And like Royce said, he's done a lot for a lot of people off the field, and made them the kind of person they should be. You can't take a day off. Sometimes, when you don't feel so good, you still have to go to class. Sometimes, when you don't feel like you want to practice, you have to do it because you are going to have to do it later in life with your job."

Shelton - "It's like everybody else, I just want to say thank you for giving me the chance to play football here. It was a great opportunity; I had a lot of fun. He's a great man, a great coach, a great inspiration. He teaches, day-in and day-out, us values to help us mature and be men - things we can carry on for the rest of our lives."

Williams - "I want to say thank you to him because I learned more about life than football. You can relate life through football when you have a coach like Coach Croom. You learn not to let things stress you out because bad things happen in life just like they do in football. And you learn how to overcome those things. You have to have mental toughness. He always teaches that. When I first came here that's all he talked about - mental toughness. I didn't understand that at first. Nobody on the team understood that at first. That's why we would lose games by three points. Now, we don't."

Husband - "I want to say thank God for bringing a man like him to our program and to our school. He showed true leadership and brought the spirit back to the school and program. He showed the team that if we would believe everybody else would believe. And that's school spirit. That's what you want from your team and your university. You want school pride and school spirt. You thank him for that."

Gene: Is one of the things he taught you the fact that even the smallest of details is important?
Williams - "He did teach me that, but it took me too long to learn it. But I realize it now. And that's good because I realize that everything is so important. I used to be a fan, too. And I thought you could just go out there and do it. But it doesn't work like that when you get to this level. In high school you are bigger and faster than everybody. But here, you have to do the small things that give you an advantage. You can carry that over to everyday life."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at swindoll@genespage.com.

Gene's Page Top Stories