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My 5 favorite unsung Missouri Tigers of the last 20 years

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The keys to making this list, apparently: making huge, timely plays and being from Oklahoma.

Missouri v Georgia
Randy Ponder (7) and Andrew Wilson (48)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As Pete Scantlebury settles in, I’m getting ready to head out the RMN door. So consider this a valedictory series of sorts. I’ve been in Columbia for just over 20 years and just over 20 football seasons. Time to list some of my favorite things from that time. So far we’ve looked at quarterbacks, Faurot Field crowds, tight ends, road performances, linebackers, and running backs. Now let’s reminisce about random names we haven’t heard in a while.

To stand out as “unsung” to me, you had to contribute and make an impact in one way or another, but you also had to not stand out so much that you earned all-conference consideration or something like that. It is extremely eye-of-the-beholder stuff.

5. Randy Ponder, CB (2010-13)

Steck
Randy Ponder and Dave Steckel
Bill Carter (Rock M Nation)

A former walk-on from Edmond (Okla.), Ponder made his plays count. He had four career interceptions, but one played a huge role in a comeback win over Texas A&M in 2011, one helped to ice the amazing win over Georgia in 2013, and one turned an Ole Miss scoring opportunity into a Mizzou scoring opportunity early in the Tigers’ late-2013 must-win game against the Rebels in Oxford. (The other was against Syracuse in 2012, a game about which we do not speak.)

A good team needs Do Everything The Right Way guys. I think Mizzou fans (myself included at times) always wanted someone with a better recruiting résumé to usurp Ponder in the starting lineup, just because of upside. But the joke was on us: Ponder ended up a starter on a top-five team.

4. Greg Bracey, WR (2004-07)

BraceyFranklin-Becking
Greg Bracey (85) and Will Franklin (2)
Sarah Becking

Bracey was the ultimate what-if athlete. Blessed with both track star speed and personality, he was someone Mizzou fans pined to see in a major role for years as a “stretch the field” guy. And like Ponder, made every play count. He caught only six balls for 122 yards in his four-year career, but I can immediately recall two of them — one was a bomb on the first possession of the Oklahoma game in 2006, and one was a bomb early in the second half against Ole Miss in 2007.

The dude was also fun as hell. Doing this in the early days of YouTube is one way to always be remembered:

3. Julian Jones, DB (1997-2000)

Julian Jones
Julian Jones

Jones made an NFL practice squad for a while and might have almost been too good/successful to make this list. But I’ll make whatever necessary exceptions because he was always a personal favorite of mine, basically from the moment I watched him return two punts for touchdowns against my high school team in 1995. I swear, he also had 200 receiving yards and six interceptions in that game. Give or take.

Jones was quiet, reserved, and by far the best athlete on the field. I was so excited when I found out he would be attending my school so I could root for him instead of against him.

Jones is another guy who made his plays count. He played an increasingly important role on the 1997 bowl team as a redshirt freshman (his hands were inches from the football when Shevin Wiggins kicked it on the Flea Kicker), and with a blocked punt, an interception, a big kick return, and 10 solo tackles, he was the MVP of the Insight.com Bowl in 1998, Missouri’s first bowl win in 17 years. He never quite broke through as an all-conference caliber defender, but hey, that would have disqualified him from this list. Who wants that?

2. J.D. McCoy, TE (2000-03)

Illinois v Missouri
J.D. McCoy (89) and Brad Smith (16)
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Hmm. It appears one way to make this list is to be from Oklahoma. (McCoy was from Moore.) I’m a homer.

Another is to sacrifice a knee ligament for a win.

In 2003, Missouri was desperately trying to escape another bowl drought. The Tigers had fallen apart after 1998, and while 2002 was a thrilling season, with wins over Illinois and Texas A&M and the amazing near-upset of Oklahoma, it was still only a 5-7 campaign.

The 2003 Tigers ended up breaking through with eight wins, the classic win over Nebraska, etc. But you could legitimately say that the entire season plays out differently if Mizzou doesn’t come back to beat Middle Tennessee in September. And they don’t come back to beat MTSU without McCoy.

As far as I can tell, footage of the game doesn’t exist on YouTube, but hey, that means I can embellish. I don’t really think I have to, though. McCoy caught two passes that day; one was a 17-yard score early in the ballgame, and the other was a season-saver.

MTSU broke out a hurry-up-and-wait, no-huddle attack (they would go no-huddle, then look to the sideline for the play based on Mizzou’s alignment) that would become commonplace a few years later but was new and completely befuddling to the Tiger defense. The Blue Raiders went on a 24-7 run in the middle of the game and led 34-26 in the dying minutes of regulation. On fourth-and-2 from the 35 on Mizzou’s final possession, Brad Smith rolled to his right and threw a horrible, short pass to McCoy, who as far as I remember had to slow down dramatically and reach behind him to either make a one-handed grab or a mostly one-handed grab while getting hit at the knees by a defender. It looked like both knees hyperextended as much as a knee can hyperextend. We immediately assumed his career was over. It looked awful.

A. He held onto the damn ball, and Mizzou went on to score, make the two-point conversion, and win in overtime.

B. He missed one game.

That’ll damn sure get you on this list no matter where you’re from.

1. Al Sterling, LB (1996-98)

YouTube

Here’s what I remember about Al Sterling:

  1. He was listed at 5’8, 246 pounds. FIVE-FOOT-EIGHT, TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY-SIX POUNDS. Some guy named Barry Odom roomed with him on road games and talked about all the nicknames teammates had for him. And he was a three-year letterman and, if I recall correctly, two-year (or one and a half) starter! As a 5’8, 246-pound linebacker! Imagine current freshman receiver Dominic Gicinto. Now make him an inch smaller. Now add SEVENTY-SIX POUNDS to him. And make him a play-maker. I mean...
  2. He wore No. 48, which is maybe the best possible number for a linebacker. Something about those high-40s and early-50s makes me happy. Old school.
  3. When defensive end Justin Smith was enjoying a breakout freshman season in 1998 and earned the nickname of “Godzilla,” one of the local papers wrote a story about it. They interviewed Sterling, who was positively befuddled by the name, saying “He’s not ugly! He’s not bumpy!”
  4. He came within millimeters of making a diving interception to seal the 1997 Nebraska game on the final possession. For about five seconds, we celebrated like he had. The fact that three different officials immediately swooped in to make the “incomplete” sign makes me figure he probably didn’t catch it. But when I see the replay I make sure not to watch too closely — part of me likes to still believe he caught it and Mizzou was screwed.

I mean, if you’ve got to remember four things about a guy, that’s pretty much perfect for a list like this, isn’t it?