[Premium Article] Dressed in warmups is not All-American Mario Haggan's idea of a fun afternoon!

Mississippi State's imposing 6-3, 253-pound linebacker had rather be decked in pads and headgear and be on the field helping his team."> [Premium Article] Dressed in warmups is not All-American Mario Haggan's idea of a fun afternoon!

Mississippi State's imposing 6-3, 253-pound linebacker had rather be decked in pads and headgear and be on the field helping his team.">

Haggan, Bulldogs await Egg Bowl on ESPN

<img src="http://www.genespage.com/images/01players/football/2003/hagganm.jpg" align="left" width="120" height="159"> [Premium Article] Dressed in warmups is not All-American Mario Haggan's idea of a fun afternoon!<P> Mississippi State's imposing 6-3, 253-pound linebacker had rather be decked in pads and headgear and be on the field helping his team.

After missing the Bulldogs near breakthrough last week against the Arkansas Razorbacks on "Senior Day" in Starkville, Haggan can't wait to get back in the lineup against instate rival Ole Miss. The annual Egg Bowl unfolds Thanksgiving night before an anticipated full house joined by a national ESPN television audience. Kickoff is set for 6:45 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

In Haggan's analysis, the 2002 campaign is coming down to one final outing Thursday for the Maroon & White.

"This is Thanksgiving! It's Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State," said Haggan in the warmth of the indoors earlier this week before going out to practice in the winter elements on a cold, dreary, wet afternoon before the climatic game.

"We've had our struggles," Haggan said of the subpar records of both teams. "But it really doesn't matter what you've done in the past 10 or 11 games.

"Now, this is for all the marbles. It's for 365 days and it comes down to one night for us," added Haggan, one of the top tacklers in the SEC. For his career, the two-time All-SEC selection needs just six tackles to reach the 400 plateau, amazing when you count the time he's been on the sidelines with injuries.

Haggan has not only performed well on the football field, he's been a positive role model for our youth, often visiting elementary schools in the Starkville area to encourage the future stars of tomorrow to give it their best in academics as well as athletics.

"Mario (Haggan) has got a lot of things other than being a player," said longtime Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill.

"Naturally, being a linebacker, he fits the mold that we've had. He's going to have a lot of opportunities to play on Sundays. He'll probably have an opportunity to stand out perhaps more than the ones before.

"What separates him are the intangibles. He's a very mature young man in the way he acts and talks and the decisions that he makes," said Sherrill, dean of the SEC Coaches.

Mississippi State voted for captains recently and it was no surprise when the results were posted.

"The two guys that got it have given a lot to this football team - Cokey (Justin Griffith) and Mario (Haggan)," noted Sherrill. "They are very unselfish and will play where you ask them to play. Both of them have tremendous futures."

Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton said there's no two better representatives of the university than Mario and Justin in saluting the soon-to-be graduates.

"I can't think of anybody who could represent Mississippi State University any better than Justin Griffith and Mario Haggan," Templeton told the Starkville Quarterback Club during its weekly meeting before the annual Egg Bowl.

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn echoed those sentiments.

"I don't think I've met two finer young men than these two," said Dunn of the Bulldogs' talented and team-orientated duo. "They're wonderful young men besides being two really good football players."

Dunn's defenders rank sixth in total defense in the SEC and 26th nationally, giving up an average of 326.5 yards per game.

Dunn said it'll take more than an ankle injury to keep Haggan out of action, in what will be his final regular season appearance, Thanksgiving night against the Dogs' archrivals.

"This game means a lot to me," said Haggan, who along with Griffith, the Dogs' top ground gainer, have been selected to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl in January.

"I don't want to go out 0-for-everything in the SEC especially my senior year," added Haggan, a delightful young man with a winning articulate manner.

"If we can beat Ole Miss, I'll have a winning record against them and that means a lot. We've won two against them since I've been here. They won two years ago but we shouldn't have lost."

Mississippi State surprised the Rebels and quarterback Eli Manning last year, 36-28, with Kevin Fant at the QB helm for the Dogs. Ole Miss won the last game played in Oxford, 45-30, while Mississippi State prevailed, 23-20, in a dramatic comeback by the Dogs in Starkville in 1999. The Bulldogs are 7-4 against Ole Miss during the Sherrill era.

"I've lost to these guys (Ole Miss) one time and shouldn't have lost then," repeated Haggan, who has already eclipsed the century mark in tackles this season with 114 before being shelved for the Arkansas game in a tough, 26-19, setback.

"If we can beat these guys Thursday night, I'll have a winning record and I can always live with that.

"I've been blessed to do the things I have," he added. "I thank God for that.

"Many people don't know, but this team has kept fighting and kept fighting. We just haven't got things going on the right road. I'm proud of the way this team has responded to everything.

"We don't give up. We've been down, but we continue to fight," added Haggan, who has seen the Dogs (3-7, 0-7 SEC) fall by no more than 17 points in their last three outings while having their moments against Alabama (28-14), Tennessee (35-17) and Arkansas.

Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 SEC) has dropped five straight, including Saturday's 14-13 loss at LSU. Manning was injured in the third quarter but stayed in the game. The 6-5 junior has thrown for 2,881 yards and 18 TDs but had some swelling in his throwing arm. However, he is expected to play in the Egg Bowl.

Despite missing the Arkansas game with an ankle injury, Haggan said he's okay.

"My ankle is fine. I wouldn't miss this game for the world," said the Clarksdale native whose Delta home is roughly an hour's drive from Ole Miss.

Haggan will soon be an alumnus and soon to pass the torch on to someone else. In the meantime, that someone will have a special role to fill in the Mississippi State family.


Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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