STARKVILLE, Miss. – Dak Prescott is a heroic figure here, on his way to becoming the most popular and revered athlete in Mississippi State history.
He has put a mid-level football program on his back and carried it into terra incognita, the national top five. He has become the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in a matter of weeks, after being considered a non-factor at the beginning of the season. His leadership skills and competitiveness are Tebow-esque, as are his dual-threat playing style, his jersey number and his tutelage under Dan Mullen. If this current 5-0 season continues on the same path, he stands to be one of the transformative figures in the 21st century in college football. Handsome and charismatic, he projects an indestructible confidence that attracts followers within the locker room and from the outside as well.
Yet the guy in the superhero packaging is a mama's boy at heart, and that heart is still healing after losing his light and inspiration less than a year ago. Life is a thrill ride right now for Dakota "Dak" Prescott, but just getting to this point has been a difficult, and at times painful, journey.
The trailhead on Prescott's path to stardom is a trailer park in Princeton, La., a dot on the map in the northwest corner of the state, about 30 miles from Shreveport. Pine Creek Mobile Estates is where Dak Prescott grew up, the youngest of Peggy Prescott's three boys.
Peggy managed a truck stop – the I-220 Travel Plaza in Bossier City. Creature comforts at home were not abundant, but love and structure were.
"There were some hard times, no doubt about it," Dak told Yahoo Sports last week during an interview at the Mississippi State football complex. "But we had a great upbringing. We knew exactly right from wrong."
The Prescott boys grew up playing football, and most of the kids in the neighborhood were the age of Dak's older brothers. He tagged along and played right with them. Brother Jace taught Dak how to throw a football, but none of the boys took it easy on the little guy.
"There were not many people my age," he said. "I played football with my brothers, and it wasn't touch football. It was tackle."
Toughened by competition with his brothers, Dak always found a soft landing at home. He shared a bedroom with Peggy. The two were very close, even by mother-son standards, and she occasionally favored her baby.
"My mom spoiled me a little bit because I was youngest," Dak admitted with a smile. "With a little bit of whining, I could get something – but not for nothing. Usually as a pat on the back for hard work."
Peggy was a football fan whose voice could be heard from the stands at youth-league games, and she offered some unsparing critiques to her kids when they did not play well. But she also was protective. When recruiters came to visit Dak at Haughton High School or at home, she cut through all the flattery to ask one standard question: "Why should I let my 17-year-old son go to your school?"
Mississippi State offered compelling answers. It accentuated a family-style atmosphere that appealed to Dak and Peggy alike. The Bulldogs staff recruited mama hard.
But truth be told, the other offers weren't terribly attractive. Dak was lightly regarded and lightly recruited coming out of his junior year.
He said Mississippi State was the first school to offer a scholarship that summer. The others: nearby Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, McNeese State, Memphis, North Texas, Northwestern State and TCU. The Horned Frogs were the only program that offered anything near the level of program and prestige as Mississippi State.
In July 2010, Dak declared that he was ready to commit to the Bulldogs and Mullen. Peggy offered her input.
"My mom said, 'If you're committing, you're going to commit. Bottom line.' "
She wasn't a fan of the college football fad of de-committing. She wanted her son to make one decision.
That figured to be the end of the story, and Dak prepared to graduate from high school early and enroll in January 2011 at Mississippi State. But after a standout senior season, here came in-state power LSU to dangle an offer.
Dak took a visit in December but stuck with the Bulldogs.
"I already had built relationships here with the coaches," he said. "I wanted to stay true to my word."
The next hurdle was learning how to actually play quarterback. Dak had simply been an athlete with the ball in his hands in high school; in the SEC it was going to take more than that to succeed.
"I came from not knowing the difference between cover-3 and man," he said. "I came from not reading anything. I was playing high school ball on pure athleticism. Now I can check our offense and get us in the right play. It took a good, solid year to grasp that."
By his sophomore year, Dak was polished enough to take over as starting quarterback. But at the same time, the mama's boy lost his anchor.
Stricken with colon cancer, Peggy Prescott's health took a sharp turn for the worse in the latter half of 2013. She spent a lot of time in a wheelchair as the disease ravaged her.
"Last year was not easy at all," Dak said. "Seeing how the pain was, the toll on her body."
On Nov. 2, the day after Dak threw three interceptions and fumbled in a 34-16 loss to South Carolina, State's coaches called him to the football complex and told him his mom had died. He flew home, but came back to Starkville that Wednesday after the funeral.
Football was his refuge. The family atmosphere Mississippi State offered was more than just a sales job. For Dak, it was real.
"On those hard days, I tried to get [to the football facility] as soon as I could, because I knew these people around me would make me laugh," Dak said. "I know how I got by: my teammates, my coaches. They did a great job of lifting me."
And in the end, he lifted them.
After suffering a shoulder injury that caused him to miss games against Alabama and Arkansas, Prescott started the Egg Bowl showdown with Mississippi on the bench. Finally, trailing in the fourth quarter, Mullen turned to him and asked him if he could play.
"I'm ready," was the reply.
"The second we put him on the field," Mullen said, "I felt like we were going to win the game."
Dak led a 59-yard drive for the tying field. And in overtime, he powered in for the winning touchdown that sent the Bulldogs to a bowl game. That was the beginning of the legend, and since then it has grown exponentially.
Mississippi State welcomes No. 2-ranked Auburn to town Saturday – its third straight game against a top-10 opponent. The one player who figures to be most responsible for the outcome is Dak Prescott. He's become a superhero on the field but still a mama's boy off it, a young man who misses his best friend.
But before she passed, Peggy knew beyond a doubt that her baby was where he belonged. He takes that comfort with him every time he steps on the field.
"Mom," he said, "trusted me being here."