By Jeff Roberson
Although it’s been a few years since he played here, there are some vivid moments I recall about covering Stephen Head.
He was here for Eli Manning’s last two seasons of football and the following year. It made such an easy comparison to call Head the Eli Manning of the baseball program. I even went so far, when he would launch one out of the park or close a game for a victory or start a game on the mound and keep the opponents’ bats quiet inning after inning, as to call him “Mr. Stephen Head” on message board posts during games.
That was fitting. He was that good. It felt right to do that.
My first encounter with Stephen, who became the only three-time All-American in program history, was to interview him after a recruiting trip to Oxford. He and future teammate Brian Pettway, high school players at the time, visited the same weekend in 2001. When Mike Bianco and Dan McDonnell were done with their recruiting pitch, it was all over. And I had two commitment stories to write after they got home that night.
Players like Head and Pettway, the Henry brothers – Justin and Jordan, Seth Smith, Matt Tolbert, Eric Fowler, Will Kline, all of them Mississippians, and all of them, and more, had an early hand in the upward trajectory of the Bianco program.
But none were more important to where the program was going than Stephen Head.
My longest-lasting memory of Head continues to be from the 2004 season, his sophomore year, in a three-game series at Mississippi State. Ole Miss, like most teams, had struggled to win many series in recent years at Dudy Noble Field.
Two years before, in 2002, in a gut-wrenching finish to the season, Ole Miss went to Starkville needing only one win to get into the SEC Tournament field the following week. The Bulldogs had to win all three games to make it – and they did.
I left Oxford for game three of the 2004 series all alone in my vehicle, on the most beautiful Sunday morning, windows down, music on the radio, and driving down through the countryside from Lafayette County through Pontotoc and Chickasaw, kind of sneaking in the back way to Starkville, past ponds and pastures, and local folks heading into houses of worship as I headed toward MSU’s temple of baseball.
But I was confident what was about to happen over the next several hours. Because Stephen Head was starting for the Rebels.
The two rivals had split games one and two Friday and Saturday. I’d made both games, driving down and back those 180 or so roundtrip miles, others also in the car with me. On Sunday morning, this time by myself, I absolutely positively knew Ole Miss would win game three.
Recently I researched through some old stories. Here’s what I wrote a few months later about Mr. Stephen Head. Remember and enjoy, if you were with us back then. If not, here’s a little insight for you from preseason 2005.
There was no greater example of what Stephen Head means to the team and program than the Sunday deciding game at Mississippi State last spring (2004). The Rebels had won Friday, the Bulldogs Saturday.
Head was on the mound for the finale. Case closed. Game. Set. Match.
He went nine innings, allowing two earned runs on five hits with a walk and eight strikeouts. Oh yeah, he also got two hits and drove in a run to help his own cause as the Rebels won the series with a 4-2 victory.
That day was about Ole Miss and about the team. But it was also very much about Stephen Head.
“That was one of the best games,” Head said. “I honestly didn’t have juice in the tank that day. But I wouldn’t come out.
“Coach Bianco came out there in the seventh inning. I had walked a guy and hit a guy to start the inning. I was done. He asked me if I was alright. I told him I was done but I was going to finish.”
Done but was going to finish. That’s him. And you knew he and his head coach both knew he would complete the task at hand.
“I was physically and mentally worn out. But I finished the inning. And when I went back out there and got that first strikeout in the eighth, I knew I was going to finish the game. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just a mentality from then on. I just lock in and go.”
Vintage Stephen Head. How he lifts them. How he even picks himself up and pushes through.
It’s why when he gave up a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament last May (2004), everyone was so shocked. Even Head admitted after the loss that it hadn’t happened to him before.
But nobody’s ever said he was perfect.