September 7, 2018 10:54:17 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The day after the first August evening free of football activities, Joel Baldwin got a text from Mississippi State's senior special teams advisor Chris Boniol, telling him to get to the complex at 3 p.m. before a 3:30 team meeting.
Baldwin did so with no idea of the reason. Boniol put Baldwin's mind at ease with a few minutes of football talk before telling him the real news: he was called to head coach Joe Moorhead's office for a meeting.
The next 10 minutes were the ruse of a lifetime, ending with a lifelong dream realized.
Moorhead played a prank on the long snapper from Tupelo and his family in awarding Baldwin a scholarship, the 85th and final scholarship allowed just as the fall semester was beginning. Baldwin and his mother, Renee, told The Dispatch the full story of Moorhead's trickery.
When Boniol told Joel Baldwin he had to meet the head coach, Baldwin admits he got nervous. He asked what this was about; Boniol told him not to worry, that Moorhead just wanted to talk to people. Baldwin believed him and made the trip down the hall to Moorhead's office, where he was met with a hand shake and a, "pretty intense," look on Moorhead's face.
Moorhead sat Baldwin down and reminded him how much the program talks about not making mistakes. Baldwin knows it well: he said Moorhead has brought to team meetings news stories of athletes getting in trouble to reinforce his point. Moorhead kept his poker face and continued on, saying on the team's first night of freedom Baldwin had to, "go do something like this." Baldwin noticed Moorhead was being vague.
"I knew I didn't do anything, but in the back of my head, I couldn't be 100 percent sure if someone said I did something," Baldwin said.
This is when Joel's parents, Morgan and Renee, get involved. Moorhead tells Joel this is a serious matter and he needs to get his parents on the phone.
Joel called his mother, to no avail: Renee said she was doing laundry. Morgan was in the other room and missed Joel's call, too. Joel was sitting in his head coach's office embarrassed -- of course he couldn't get either of his parents on the phone with the head coach staring him down.
Joel was about to call his sister to see if she happened to be with either of them. Renee was reaching for her phone to call Joel back when she heard Morgan's typical greeting for Joel from the other room: "Hey bud."
Joel's voice was not on the other end of that call; Moorhead's was.
"I heard (Morgan's) lowered voice, so I was like, 'Oh no, what is this?'" Renee Baldwin said.
Moorhead informed Morgan Baldwin that the previous night was the players' first of the preseason alone, that the coaches had talked to the team repeatedly about responsibility and there was an issue to talk about. Moorhead asked Morgan is he was sitting down.
Renee was shocked: she says of her son's character, "he goes to church sometimes when maybe I'm not there."
"I didn't know if I was more shocked or angry," Renee said.
Having gotten everyone sufficiently worked up, Moorhead put an end to this prank. Moorhead told Morgan Baldwin the issue was, "they're going to have to find a way to spend $25,000, because Joel's on scholarship."
"I was about to start crying in my head coach's office there for a second," Joel Baldwin said.
Once Moorhead offered his final congratulations to Joel, Baldwin left the office to call his parents again, reliving the dream that just came true. Renee said she thinks Joel's voice might have cracked.
"My son's dream was to play at Mississippi State. He wanted to play SEC football and he wanted to play at Mississippi State," Renee Baldwin said. "Getting that starting position was what he was about this year: he was a senior, this was his opportunity, this is where we were going. For him to get this next step and get this scholarship was so affirming.
"Joel is a story of perseverance, Joel is a story of doing the right things without having a clue if good things would come at the end of it."
At the team meeting a few minutes later, Moorhead informed the team of Baldwin's scholarship, setting off another mass celebration.
In a way, Baldwin's entire season will be a celebration. A celebration of the playing time he so coveted finally coming to fruition, a celebration of a football family -- Baldwin is the grandson of Kent Busbee, who played for Alabama in the 1960s, one of many football players on his mother's side -- adding another chapter. Joel Baldwin said he would have been perfectly happy for his final season at MSU without a scholarship; the people around him are looking forward to watching him enjoy it.
"He's a guy that's been in this program for a while, done a great job," special teams coordinator Joey Jones said. "Obviously being behind a NFL guy the last couple of years (Hunter Bradley), he's paid his dues. It's always great to see a guy, being a senior as he is, earn a scholarship and Coach Moorhead did a great thing to give him a scholarship.
"He's earned it."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson