On the eve of Senior Night, my heart is full

Bill Carter

Celebrating the 15 seniors who turned this Missouri football season into one of the Tigers' greatest ever.

To me, extreme happiness and sadness are similar in a lot of ways. Your pulse is elevated a little bit, the subject of your emotion never leaves your peripheral vision, your eyes are a little more watery than normal, and your chest is so tight, so incapable of creating the space your heart and lungs think they need, that the only thing you think will alleviate it is to scream as loud as you can. Depending on what is going on in your life, it can be either the best or the worst feeling. But really, it feels almost the same.

When it comes to sports, this makes sense. That tight chest usually stems from anxiety, and in sports, great feelings are usually followed by the realization that a chance at a greater feeling isn't too far away. And of course, it's the same on the other end; no matter how bad things get for your team, it's not hard to figure out how things can get even worse. Regardless, you can't stop spinning your wheels about it, and screaming really does seem like a logical option.

A year ago, my chest was tight for the latter reason. I love my job; I love that I have gotten to know the traits of so many teams and fanbases. I take it seriously, I want to be the best in the world at it, and I love it. I am so thankful for it that I almost feel apologetic for having it. And if you ask College Football Writer Me about the 2012 season, I would tell you about how much fun it was. I would tell you about the inexplicable success of Johnny Manziel, and that incredible Georgia-Alabama finish, and the unexpected rise of Utah State and San Jose State, and Baylor's late surge. I would tell you about how amazing Bill Snyder is, and how I can't wait to see how this Chip Kelly thing will play out in the pros. I would regale you with fun, interesting moments and players.

But 2012 was like having a sparkling professional life and a dysfunctional home life. Missouri never totally leaves my consciousness, even when I'm talking about other teams, players, and coaches. (That I have a job where I can openly acknowledge this instead of tamping down biases is wonderful.) No matter how much I enjoyed college football as a whole, Missouri was struggling. The soccer team faded late. The volleyball team faded late. The football team fell apart, and while we thought it was mostly because of injuries (and not a new, tougher conference and being "ready" and whatever else national analysts were saying), we wouldn't know for sure until the next year. The basketball team never gelled like we thought it would. The baseball team couldn't score runs. The softball team was upset short of the World Series.

It wasn't a fun year to be a Missouri sports fan. When we say you should embrace the great times and milk them for all they're worth, it's because not all times are great. The 2012-13 year was proof of that.

A year later, my chest is tight for the right reason. A week ago, my eyes welled up watching a volleyball crowd chant "SEC! SEC" as the conference championship trophy was brought out. The Fightin' Kreklows are 34-0 -- 34-0! -- and will soon receive a very good NCAA tournament seed and an opportunity to deliver more hardware to a Hearnes Center that has hosted more than 7,000 fans twice in the last week. I adopted volleyball late, after I had already gone through my undergraduate years, but watching the program build and build, fall off a bit, then break through in a way I never expected, has been gratifying.

But football is always the first love for me. We are all different in this regard -- some love basketball, some baseball -- but football success is always the peak for me. I probably wouldn't be writing this post without football success.

*****

(Quotes and star ratings below pulled from the lovely PowerMizzou archive.)

Andrew Wilson

Three-star linebacker
Peculiar, Missouri
Committed: March 1, 2008

Wilson isn't the first Tiger linebacker in his family. His father, Jay was a linebacker for the Tigers and a four year letter winner between 1979-1983. For the younger Wilson, there may not have been a bigger thrill to him than to know he got to play the same position at the same school as his father.

"It means a lot to me that I get to play at the same place my dad did," said Wilson. "He was a linebacker himself so he's been a big help to me. He's like another coach on the sidelines and I can ask him about what I'm doing right and wrong at the position. He's very critical, but I like that because it can make me better. He and I both love having that linebacker mentality."

Brayden Burnett

Three-star defensive end
Southlake, Texas
Committed: June 15, 2008

"I had a good time at Colorado, but I fell in love at Missouri and I knew I was home. The Missouri coaching staff is full of good people and the team are a bunch of great guys. The program was the perfect fit for me and is exactly what I'm looking for. I love the campus and it's just everything I could have hoped for."

Justin Britt

Two-star offensive lineman
Lebanon, Missouri
Committed: June 16, 2008

"After I committed, Coach Pinkel took me to meet coach Yost and told him that I had committed," said Britt. "He was really excited for me and were just welcoming me to the team and making sure I wanted to jump on board so quickly. I told them I had no doubts about my decision. I told them I wasn't going to any more camps and I was totally focused on being a Tiger."

Marvin Foster

Two-star defensive tackle
Fort Worth, Texas
Committed: June 25, 2008

"I talked with Coach Kuligowski and Coach Steckel quite a bit over the weekend," said Foster. "They were easy to talk with and we had a good time. I like how coach Pinkel took the time to talk one on one with mom and I. We talked about what might happen to me after I get into the program. He did a great job of putting mom at ease and helping her feel comfortable with me going there."

Jaleel Clark

Three-star receiver
Allentown, Pennsylvania
Committed: August 10, 2008

"The whole environment about Missouri just made me feel comfortable," said Clark. "Coach Steckel's a great guy and a great coach. He said that if I came down there, I'd be part of his family. It was a great place to be and the team's awesome. I love the offense and can't wait to get down there. It's a family atmosphere and it's just one of those places you want to be. It seems like another home to me already."

Matt White

Two-star cornerback
Dallas, Texas
Committed: January 17, 2009

Steckel on Matt White: "I knew about Matt, he wasn't high on our radar from the standpoint of we were recruiting some other people. The thing about Matt, I think he's going to be a huge sleeper and why do I say that? Because he just turned 17 years old. He just turned 17. I know I'm getting old, but he looks like he's 12. He'll probably kill me if I say that. He's got huge hands, he's got great ball skills. You watch him make a play in his highlight film, he makes one of those Chase Coffman catches, he just one hands it for an interception...We knew about him and I went back into his school, we watched his old video again and he said, 'Think about it, this guy should be a junior right now.' So we brought it back to the staff and we went through our evaluation system and everybody kind of liked him."

Donovan Bonner

Two-star safety
Dallas, Texas
Committed: January 19, 2009

"At Missouri, I liked the players and the team atmosphere," he said. "I liked the school, the campus and coach Pinkel is a good guy." […]

Bonner had been committed to Colorado State prior to his visit to Mizzou. He said he will likely remain at safety in college, probably in a role similar to what William Moore played for the Tigers this past season.

Michael Sam

Two-star defensive end
Hitchcock, Texas
Committed: January 31, 2009

"I talked to coach Pinkel and he told me he really liked me on tape," Sam said on Saturday night. "He said I had good size and all that stuff, then he told me that they wanted to give me an offer. I accepted it on the spot."

L'Damian Washington

Two-star receiver
Shreveport, Louisiana
Committed: January 31, 2009

"Coach Hill was a great coach the whole time he was recruiting me. All the coaches are very good," Washington said. "And the players, they're more like a family than just teammates. Plus, the spread, any receiver would like to play in the spread offense. It's just a great fit for me."

James Franklin

Four-star quarterback
Corinth, Texas
Committed: March 14, 2009

"I visited Baylor before I went to Columbia," Franklin said. "And they offered me recently. It seems like I've been getting more interest from other schools after I committed to Missouri, too. But I made a commitment and a promise to Coach Pinkel, and I'm going to stick with it and keep my word.

"You can get 50 scholarship offers, but you're just going to go to one school. That's how I look at it."

E.J. Gaines

Three-star cornerback
Independence, Missouri
Committed: July 27, 2009

And, while Hill did accept his commitment at the time, he also toldd the 5-foot-10, 175-pound cornerback that he needed to make the commitment official by informing head coach Gary Pinkel. Unfortunately, Pinkel was out of the office at the time, and has been on vacations and trips off and on throughout the past month.

Gaines knew this, but, after a few weeks, he said he started to worry.

"Yeah, I got a little nervous, especially in the last week," Gaines said through a laugh.

Randy Ponder

Three-star cornerback
Edmond, Oklahoma
Committed: Summer 2009?

"In life, there’s a lot of things that are not going to go according to your plans or the way you thought they should have gone," Long said. "He thought things would be different and he felt like he could play, but there are a lot of things in life that won’t go your way and you don’t just run away. I said, ‘I didn’t raise you that way, and this is all part of growing up.’" [...]

"Basically, my back was against the wall," he said. "I just had to come out swinging. I wanted a scholarship, so I just had to go out there and get it."

At the end of the 2011 season, Pinkel sat down with Ponder again. He had earned a scholarship.

"It was an answered prayer, so we screamed and just thanked God," Long said.

Max Copeland

No-star offensive lineman
Billings, Montana
Committed: Birth?

The night before Max Copeland left Billings, Mont., for the great unknown fate of becoming an undersized walk-on offensive lineman at Missouri, he had one message for his mother.

"Mom, this isn’t about me playing football," Joanne Copeland recalled in a phone interview. "It’s about me showing not to myself but to anybody else out there who was told they aren’t good enough and will never make it. It’s about showing them that you still don’t stop trying."

Eric Waters

Three-star tight end
Mansfield, Texas
Committed (again): September 20, 2009

In March, Mansfield (TX) tight end Eric Waters committed to Missouri shortly after receiving an offer, without stepping foot on campus. In the next few weeks, he said he second-guessed himself and de-committed, stating he wanted to keep his options open.

Missouri never left his mind.

"It was like a hunger, a craving," the 6-foot-4, 215-pound athlete said. "I couldn't stop thinking about them. I had to see it for myself."

Marcus Lucas

Four-star receiver
Liberty, Missouri
Committed: December 19, 2009

Hill on Lucas: "He's very talented. I think when you compare him to the three good receivers out of Kansas City this year, they're all good in their own ways. But he's got size, he's got playmaking ability. He goes up after the football. Some guys, that are 6-4 or 6-5, don't like guys around their knees or lower extremities, but he's not scared to do some things. He's very competitive, and the best players compete when they're out there. "

*****

On Saturday night, 15 scholarship seniors (and three walk-ons: Michael Brennan, Tyler Davis, and Kyle Peasel) will suit up for Missouri for the last time. According to Rivals, two were four-star prospects, six were three-stars, six were two-stars, and one was no-stars. Average stars per recruit: 2.53. Among 2013 recruiting classes, that would have been the 71st-highest average, a throwaway class, the sign of a doomed program.

Sure enough, these 15 seniors played a pretty heavy role in the season that was supposed to doom Missouri for the foreseeable future. Nine were starters on the 2012 team that introduced itself to the SEC by going 5-7.

Heading into the 2013 season, this senior class was to be the leadership for a program that either ended Gary Pinkel's tenure or barely kept it on life support. Instead, this group did exactly what its head coach did: work. Put in the hours. Do whatever you can to get better, to rally, to set an example, to turn the program around. It began late in the final game of 2012 and kept going.

We know that, if Mizzou undergoes a serious rebound in the offseason, that rebound will take place with these players leading the way in the locker room, in the weight room, and on the practice field. And though their first test was mostly meaningless -- that's the only way to describe a "comeback" attempt that began with their team down, 42-0 -- they still passed it to some degree.

There was L'Damian Washington, catching a 74-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.

There was E.J. Gaines, breaking up a rather tacky throwback pass to Johnny Manziel in the third quarter (because Mizzou clearly hadn't already provided him with plenty of Heisman highlights in the first half), then intercepting Manziel later in the quarter. […]

There was Michael Sam, continuing to chase Manziel, mostly in vain (if you look back at Manziel's best plays of the night -- and I don't recommend you do -- you'll see Sam coming this close on basically every play), when general decorum and stupid pride would have allowed him to stop a couple of hours earlier.

There was Andrew Wilson, joining in on tackle after tackle.

There was Marcus Lucas, atoning for an early fumble and taking shots over the middle (and holding onto the ball).

This team has issues moving forward. Clearly. […] But through all of the unknowns ahead, we know who the leaders of the team will be. And they at least showed us something last night, even when they had a pretty good excuse for not doing so. Things did not work out the way this year's seniors thought it would, and there's nothing saying it will be different next year, but if you're looking for any sort of bright spots on the morning after Mizzou's season ended really, really early, there you go.

There is minimal shame in living up to minimal expectations. There are worse fates in the world than going 6-6, hugging your sobbing coach on Senior Night, remembering back when you were contributing to teams that won 18 games in 2010-11, and moving on to the next stage in your life. But this group decided to change everything instead.

From the starting quarterback to a backup defensive tackle, from a four-star receiver to a walk-on cornerback, all 15 of these players had a part to play in both the success and makeup of this team. The set of underclassmen Mizzou will return in 2014 and beyond is exciting, but it's hard to picture this season going like it did without any of these 15 players. They brought passion and personality, tenacity and heart. They brought Michael Sam's sack dance, and L'Damian Washington's impossibly long touchdowns, and James Franklin's emoticons, and Max Copeland's heavy metal. They brought Matt White's touchdown saving tackles, and E.J. Gaines' interceptions, and Randy Ponder's ruthless hits. They brought Justin Britt's oblivion blocks, and Eric Waters' drum majoring, and Marvin Foster's wide eyes. They brought the steadiness of Marcus Lucas and Jaleel Clark, and the Twitter personality of Donovan Bonner, and the Southlake legacy of Brayden Burnett. And they brought the hits of Andrew Wilson, and the hits of Andrew Wilson, and the hits of Andrew Wilson. They turned a season of tough questions into a season of brilliant answers.

At this point, the seniors have done their jobs. On Saturday night, we will simply find out what fate has in store for the final chapter. May they make more plays and win three more games; even if they don't, their legacy is set. They will forever be the class that made Missouri legitimate in the SEC. Never again can someone ask if Missouri belongs here. The Tigers do. These seniors leave Mizzou having left no doubt.

To these seniors, and this incredible team, I simply say this: Thank you. My heart is full, my chest is tight, and I will scream at the top of my lungs for you on Saturday evening.

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