By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
Larry and Vicki Goddard each wore maroon Mississippi State sweatshirts as they carried bags into the family’s white 2006 Toyota Sequoia.
The couple’s 8-year-old son Caleb, similarly attired, also prepared the vehicle for its 10-hour trip to Jacksonville, hanging an MSU flag from each of its side windows and affixing an “M-State” magnet to its back door.
After all, the trio, along with Vicki’s parents, was on its way to see the Bulldogs play.
The Goddards hit the road Wednesday, joining thousands of other Mississippi State fans who will celebrate the beginning of the new year this afternoon by watching the Bulldogs challenge Michigan in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
Mississippi State officials said more than 14,000 tickets were sold to fans of the Maroon and White.
Many of those fans did some last-minute scrambling after the initial bowl projections predicted MSU would play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
In fact, Jared Wesson and Bailey Menetre had already made hotel reservations in Atlanta, and Brian Lewis had rented an RV with the expectation to drive with three other friends to Georgia’s capitol.
But they all changed their plans as soon as they learned that the Bulldogs would be making their first trip to the River City for a Bowl Game.
“We were expecting to go to Atlanta, but this is more exciting than Atlanta,” Larry Goddard said. “We’ve never been to Jacksonville. We’re looking forward to seeing the city and at least feeling like we’ve been to a beach.
“I don’t thaw out from November to April, so I want some Florida weather.”
Wesson, a former Mississippi State baseball player, left Tupelo early on Wednesday morning with three friends before meeting eight other buddies in Jacksonville.
Before he got there, however, he made a detour to spend a night with former MSU teammate Ryan Duffy, who is confined to a wheel chair after an August diving accident.
Duffy lives in Malabar, Fla., about a three-hour drive south of Jacksonville.
“His parents posted on CaringBridge that Mississippi State is coming to Jacksonville, and we’d love to see some of Ryan’s State buddies,” said Wesson, who roomed with Duffy when they both played at MSU.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson rented a bus to make the trip with nine family members and friends. Johnson, who regularly attends MSU games, said he quickly decided to travel to the bowl game.
“This is a step in your program that shows it is moving forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis left from Southaven in the rented RV with three other 23- or 24-year-olds who recently attended MSU together.
“It is a little more expensive than we were hoping in Atlanta, but it is mostly because of the gas and the RV,” said Lewis, 23, shortly before departing earlier this week. “Three dollars a gallon is killing us, but we are going to tough it out.
“How often do you get to say you went to a New Year’s Day bowl game? We’re fresh out of college. We’ll take a loaf of bread and some turkey, and we’ll be fine.”
Each of the MSU fans interviewed for this story is a season ticket holder and regular bowl attendee. All said they went to MSU’s last bowl appearance in 2007, when the Bulldogs beat Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
“The excitement level surrounding the football program right now is higher than I’ve ever seen it,” said Menetre, 29, who flew to Jacksonville with his wife, Gracie. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction of the program and wanted to be there to continue to support it and support coach (Dan) Mullen and the players.”
Goddard; who has also traveled to Southeastern Conference tournaments, a basketball Final Four and a baseball College World Series; said there is a special feeling about a bowl game.
“I guess it is just the hype that you’ve had a good year,” he said.
Melissa Knight, 32, made the trip from Tupelo with five other people. She said she’s looking forward to having fun at another Mississippi State game and ringing her cowbell so much it makes her arms sore.
“I don’t know what it is like to be a fan of any other team, but Mississippi State has struggled and to be able to go to a bowl game is twice as meaningful,” she said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.