After tightening the laces on your cleats, you sit back and rest up against the wall of your locker. You take it in one last time before you take the field with your brothers, the novelty of being in an NFL locker room has worn off and the realization that you’re playing in the biggest game of your life to date sets in. All those extra trips your mom made to get you to practice, all the sacrifice in high school, being in the weight room in college when your friends are out partying. It’s all worth it because of today. You listen to the coach as he says his last words before gametime and it’s time to go.
You get up and follow a line out of the door of the locker room, a mob of black, gold, and white shuffles through a double doorway in front of you and the coaches (who look more nervous than the players) push their way out behind you. All of the speculation and preparation is over, the time has come to meet this team of destiny everyone has been talking about. You’re walking on hard cement in the hall on your way to the field, so the sound of your cleats on the floor sounds like fallen acorns crunching under your weight. This routine, although it has become part of every fall weekend, feels different this time for some reason. This game isn’t just another football game, it means something more. It means something to you personally as if it were a reward for the work you put it. It means something to your school because it has restored pride to a damaged reputation. You have your helmet in your right hand and you look at the Tiger logo on the side of it one more time before jamming it onto your head and picking up the pace as your team begins to feel that familiar adrenaline rush. You’ve ran out of a tunnel what feels like a thousand times in your life and the feeling never gets old. In that moment, you’re the center of the universe. This time though, will be even more special.
You can hear the faint bump of the bass as the loudspeakers in the stadium play a familiar song. You can hear the crowd begin to buzz as they watch the clock count down to game time. Your heart begins to beat so hard you can feel it through your shoulderpads. The music gets louder, the crowd’s intensity rises. The team stops in front of you and you can see the light from the field. There’s a mixture of "MIZ-ZOU" and "WAR EAGLE" chants ringing out from the opening that stands before you. You close your eyes and hear the voices of the critics ringing in your head. "They’ll never win ten games in the SEC." "They’re soft, if they want to compete in the SEC they’ll need to toughen up." "Yeah, but that haven’t really beat anyone yet." That’s all over now. That talk doesn’t mean a damn thing at this point, because that talk doesn’t win championships. The green field that stands before you is where this gets settled, not the TV screen in your living room. A smile cracks on your face as you open your eyes and feel your muscles tense up. All of a sudden the group in front of you rushes forward, and the crowd noise hits a fever pitch. You race out of the tunnel, and the rhythmic pulsating of the band plays in your ears as the fans block out any other possible noise. Camera lights flash around you like fireworks and you know that at this moment, on this day, America is watching you. As the crowd claps along to your school’s fight song, all of the worries you had about this day disappear. You’ve learned to stop worrying about the outcome of a game before you actually play it because that’s how you’ve continued to prove the doubters wrong. This wasn’t about winning or losing anyway, this was about the opportunity to compete with the best of the best. You breathe the air of the Atlantadome deep through your nose and release it through your mouth as you make your way to the sideline.
You realize that this is a day that will stay with you for the rest of your life and no matter what happens out on the field today, you’ve earned the right to have this memory. This season is full of memories already. Rising from being an unranked blip on the radar to being a top five national title contender. Beating Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss. The crushing loss to South Carolina in overtime. You're better for all of that having happened and you carry it with you. Before all of that even, you suffered through a season of heartbreak and injury, of people questioning your manhood. When it felt like your team could fall apart at any minute, you didn’t let that happen. You didn’t hear the questions and roll over, you heard them and worked harder. This is what makes you a Missouri Tiger. That’s why the days of curses, fear, doom, and gloom are over. No more living in the past. No more Fifth Downs, no more Flea Kickers. You were a part of building a bright future for your school. You brought respect back to your team. This is a new era, this is the SEC, and you helped create a new generation of Mizzou Football.
Let’s do this.