In hindsight, I probably should've thought my New Years plans through a bit more.
At precisely 7:00am, my phone's alarm ushered me into the new year. Groggy and delirious, I gathered my things that had been strewn about the hotel room and made my way across the street to where my car was parked. The city of St. Louis was quiet, but I'm not sure why I expected anything else on the morning of New Year's Day. I threw my belongings in the back seat, hopped in the front, and started the arduous drive to Columbia.
Two cups of coffee and one 5-hour energy later, I turned onto Rosemary Lane. My younger brother was waiting for me at my apartment, where he had shacked up after ringing in the new year with some friends down the street. He added his hangover to mine and we sped off to our parents' place at the Lake of the Ozarks. My father would be the one driving to Dallas, so all I had to do was survive long enough to stumble into their car. A simple enough task, but at the time it felt like I was standing at the base of Mt. Everest. I soldiered through the rest of the drive and made it to my destination around 10:30. I shoveled some food into my mouth, grabbed the bag I had packed a few days before, hopped in the car, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the city of Dallas was peaking it's head over the horizon.
It was a new day. The hangover was gone, the sun was out, and I was on my way to the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center where AT&T would be serving us food and oversized shirts. The ballroom was large, with spherical chandeliers dotting the cieling and a wallpaper that gave the room a real "hotel hallway" feeling. We found our table and saw that both teams would be joining us for lunch and activities. After a brief introduction, Brad Sham (the voice of the Dallas Cowboys) announced that the Cotton Bowl had some awards to give out.
The award presentations were followed by a unique sort of door-prize drawing. Each team's starting quarterback was charged with pulling a creased slip of paper out of an opulent-looking chalice, and then tossing a game ball to the lucky fan whose name was written on the card.
Mizzou: 1, Oklahoma State: 0.
The rest of the Big Play Luncheon included highlight videos of each team's road to the Cotton Bowl and speeches by the coaches. Mike Gundy's talk was short. His overindulgence in the iced tea had put him in an uncomfortable situation that called for brevity of speech. Gary Pinkel suffered from no such ailment, but he also kept his thank-you's short. #SECSpeed and whatnot.
With all of the food gobbled up and the festivities concluded, we exited the convention center and headed for the nearest super-market. We needed supplies, for the next day was gameday and we had tailgating to do.
For most football fans, the tailgate is something special. For us, it's sacred. We've tailgated from the same spot in Lot J at every home game the Tigers have played in the last six years. The same group of people show up every week, and most of us were together in Dallas. We had to do it up right. That's why my initial reaction to being told the festivities would be held at the hotel was apprehension. We struggle to contain our group within three parking spots and the accompanying grassy area in Columbia, how would one measly room fit everyone? My father tried to ease my worries. He had seen the room, he said, and there wouldn't be any problems. Doubt still ran rampant through my mind even as we stepped out of the elevator into the top floor, but changed as soon as I walked into the room. Through a series of fortunate connections, we were able to secure the master suite for our tailgate. It was much nicer than any of us deserved, but we decided to stay there anyway.
We did the suite justice, tailgating throughout the morning and long into the afternoon, but it was soon time to make the pilgrimage to Jerry World. The lot of us filed onto a bus and strapped ourselves in for the short trip to Arlington. Stepping off the last step of the bus onto the AT&T Stadium pavement, I felt like Neil Armstrong planting the first permanent footprints on the Moon. I had entered a different world. A Texas-themed, blue and silver tinted world allegedly made from foreign steel because screw the Steelers.
The problem with being in a new and exciting place is that you have no idea where anything is. We were fortunate enough to obtain box seats from a native Dallas friend, but getting to them meant navigating through a series of stairs and tunnels that would confuse Indiana Jones. Getting lost in Jerry World can have its perks, though. I quickly realized that when meandering through the stadium's lower levels, you tend to run into some pretty neat people.
Not only was Bowen kind enough to pose for a picture, but he took the time to compliment my outfit. We can accurately claim that the bow-tie king is firmly a member of #TeamHotPants. After shaking myself out of the starstruck stupor our new chancellor put me in, I resumed my stumble through Jerry's tunnels. Soon, I was confronted by a door that told me it would take me to my destination. Opening it, I found myself in an open-air hallway leading out to the field. I stopped for a moment to admire the view, but before I could sufficiently take everything in I was tapped by a security official. Apparently I was holding something up.
Oops just cut off some randos trying to get on the field. pic.twitter.com/PoP9wZygHB— Jack Peglow (@ArmchairAnlyst) January 4, 2014
The usher wasn't the happiest person in the world when he saw me snap a quick photo, so I scooted off into the next tunnel. Luckily our box wasn't far ahead. After walking the circumference of the stadium, I was ready for a chair and a beer. I found both, and settled in to catch team warmups. In doing so, I unknowingly positioned myself perfectly to make a candid appearance in this Instagram clip that illustrates the location of my seats better than 1,000 words ever could.
Our seats were good, but they couldn't hold a candle to the game itself. The atmosphere was electric, and very pro-Mizzou. Big Oklahoma State plays garnered their fair share of cheers, but they were easily overwhelmed by the Missouri faithful. I didn't know it at the time, but this would end up being an indicator of the game's outcome.
The celebration was on.
Amidst the confusion, I found myself standing outside the doors to the Missouri locker room. We were obviously not supposed to be there, but just as security was about to shoo us away the players started filing in, led by none other than Mad Max Copeland himself.
Max just ran into the tunnel yelling "FREE HATS! FREE HATS!"
Max just ran into the tunnel yelling "FREE HATS! FREE HATS!"— Jack Peglow (@ArmchairAnlyst) January 4, 2014
He handed out big, sweaty bear-hugs to all the trespassers who asked for them, and then paused when he reached the locker room door. Turning to face the crowd, sensing the gravity of the moment. The last thing he said to us as a Missouri Tiger was, "I'LL SEE YOU ALL ON THE OTHER SIDE!"
Pinkel was next through the tunnel. He was less giving with his hugs, but he did take the time to chuckle at the abstract painting on my lower body. We were about to head for the exit, when I saw one last player jog into the tunnel.
Max's departure was special because of its humorous nature. Kony's was just as significant, but for completely different reasons. He shook just as many hands and dolled out just as many hugs, but it was his interaction with my father that will stick with me.
My dad graduated from the University of Missouri in 1982. He's one of the Truest Sons I know. He stood in the tunnel as one of the best football teams his alma mater had ever fielded walked into the locker room for the last time, but he wasn't asking for pictures or autographs or even hugs. As each Tiger walked by, he simply said, "Thank you." Most of them didn't hear him. Some would smile. Some even shook his hand. But when Kony Ealy heard that thank-you, he stopped dead in his tracks. He stood there for a moment, and then walked over to my dad. The future first-rounder shook my father's hand and smiled.
"No, thank YOU." He said. My dad explained that he was an alumnus, and told how proud he was to have a player like him representing the school that he loved so much. I've never seen a bigger smile then the one that sprawled across Ealy's face in that moment. He said that it was an honor to play in front of my dad, and then embraced him not like a player embracing a fan, but like someone who was genuinely moved by the events that had just transpired.
At this point, the players had all retreated to the locker room and security was starting to become irritated with our refusal to vacate the area. We corralled our group back onto the bus, made one last head-count to ensure that the gang was all there, and spurred our steed on towards home.
The 2013 Missouri Tigers football team took all of us on a ride that won't soon be forgotten, and with their Cotton Bowl victory they gave it an ending fit for a king. This was a season that I'll be reliving for years to come, and this trip was one I will always cherish. So thank you, Pinkel & Co.