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"He always had everyone's back." Former Missouri WR Greg Bracey on Gary Pinkel

Sarah Becking

Sunday, November 8, was the day after some of Missouri's players announced they were prepared to boycott in support of Jonathan Butler, and the day before Missouri president Tim Wolfe resigned, thereby ending the hunger strike. As Gary Pinkel tweeted out a team picture in support of his players, we arranged to speak with Greg Bracey, a former Mizzou wide receiver (2003-07) who had been outspoken in support of the players the night before. We spoke the next day.

For his career, Bracey caught six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns (his last against Ole Miss in 2007) while running track in the spring. The Milwaukee Vincent product chose Mizzou in December 2002 after official visits to Mizzou, Purdue, Vanderbilt, and Minnesota. He also listed offers from Northwestern and Wisconsin.

Before I could figure out what to do with the interview, it became rather outdated -- Pinkel announced that Friday that he was retiring to battle lymphoma. Since we talked not only about Bracey's experience as a student-athlete and former student-athlete in Columbia, but also about Pinkel himself, I felt this could still stand alone as an interesting Q&A in the aftermath of Pinkel's final (probably) game as Missouri's head coach. Enjoy.

Life as a student athlete in mid-Missouri

BC: So looking back on your college experience, it's been a little while, but not that long ... I wouldn't assume too much has changed since you graduated. What were some of the noteworthy things you can remember, just as a student? Things you tend to remember the most about your student experience?

GB: I remember the very first lecture hall I walked into. It's a shock where ... I went to a school that was maybe 2,000 students or so, and it was the opposite, where there weren't many white students in the school. I knew what I was getting into once I moved here, but it was still an initial shock. You're 18 years old. You've been going through two-a-days for three weeks or so, and you're around your team, and then you walk into a classroom, and it's like Remember the Titans or something like that, where all of a sudden now you're a part of the general student population. It was pretty interesting to try to get used to that at first.

BC: Even if it's not a bad experience, it's going to be a different experience.

GB: Definitely.

BC: So it's probably silly to put a percentage on it, but how often did you encounter something that was just ... for lack of a better word ... bad? Instead of being just different?

GB: There were definitely times when ... my favorite thing, honestly, would be test day. Especially those nighttime tests. For one, you're automatically assumed to be an athlete in most of the classes that you take. But you go to these night tests, and I would make it a point to go early and sit close to the first couple of rows there. And there would be kind of this halo of empty seats that would form around me. And I would think, 'You really honestly think I would try to cheat when I'm already sticking out like this? I'm going to try to look at your paper?'

"Bad" is a heck of a thing because it's just ... there were definitely experiences. Everyone knows or thinks you're an athlete for the most part. And you hang around other athletes. You've got athletic gear on. And you're probably walking with some sort of cockiness, you know.

When you're younger, you don't think of these things, but when you get older and step back and look, you think, 'Man, that was kind of interesting.'

BC: Since the point when you graduated, as you've gotten older and talked to people who were students both here and elsewhere, what kind of perspective have you gained since you left?

GB: After I graduated, I played for a couple of teams for a little while, then ended up moving back home, moving in with my parents for a little bit. That, in its own, was something completely different because you've had the run of your life for six years or so, and then all of a sudden you're back with your parents. They're pretty cool; my parents have never really been sticklers or smothered me, but it was different. So I was trying to find to do something.

(Getty Images)

I feel like one thing people tend to forget about is, when you're playing sports, it's such a year-round thing that there isn't a time for jobs, internships, or anything. So yeah, you can have this big, shiny degree and all of this stuff, but there's no work experience. I remember the very first actual job interview I went on, the interviewer, once he saw on there that I had played football -- I had put the teams I played for on there because I kinda needed to fill up space! -- I remember the interviewers then went on and asked me about 20 minutes of football questions. There were no more questions about the job.

It's almost weirder thinking about graduating eight years ago, the country's almost in more turmoil now than it was then. It's kinda sad. I've got a young child -- he's 11 years old -- and my biggest fear is what happens when someone calls him out of his name, and he asks me why this happens? I don't have a good reason to tell him why this happens. It's a heck of a thing! I'm 30 years old, and I went out to the bar this past summer. There's a guy who, you know, was drunk, and as I was trying to step into the bar, he wouldn't move out of the door frame. I said 'excuse me' a few times, and he still wouldn't move. So of course I moved him out of the way, and then he called me out of my name. It seems that when people don't really have anything to say, then they have to go with the bigotry or use some sort of racial epithet.

You get used to it. A lot of times, I don't even react to it because that's all that a person seems to have there. It's like calling a woman out of her name -- you don't have anything good to say, or you don't realize you've lost the situation.

BC: One of the things that's been most frustrating to me in terms of the coverage was how a professor told a reporter that the biggest victory so far was that no one rioted after President Wolfe released a statement [that Sunday] and didn't resign. That blew my mind a little bit because, who's going to cause trouble here -- the people who have been in tents and peacefully protesting, or the people driving by really slowly with the Dixie flags hanging outside their truck?

GB: And that's another thing about it. A lot of people have these anonymous apps -- and I feel like I'm dating myself here -- where as long as you have, say, a Mizzou e-mail address or something, you can post anonymous things on here. They call people all these terrible names. They're their classmates! Everybody has student IDs. It doesn't matter how they got here, who's paying for it or whatever is going on. And they can talk about how blacks are here on scholarship and everything, well, your parents are paying for your school! You're kind of on scholarship too! It's not out of your pocket either.

BC: So these things have come to a bubble over this last year or two for pretty obvious reasons. But there have always been random incidents here every few years -- the cotton ball incident at the Black Culture Center, all those things that would randomly bubble to the surface, then disappear again.

We can obviously point to Ferguson and things that have been brought to the surface more recently, but it's been there. In this atmosphere, what do you think can happen to make this a positive experience, a positive conversation?

GB: Honestly, just listen. This young man went on a hunger strike. There's no way that's something I'd have even thought about or attempted. Giving that up, risking your life or your health for something you believe in ... it got to that point.

It's true that this got more attention because the football team got involved, but you also have the letters from the English department [taking the no-confidence vote in R. Bowen Loftin], you've got the grad students walking out. This isn't an isolated event. It's kind of commendable to see this many people standing up for something.

There will always be people who disagree, and it's been another one of those eye-opener events when it comes to people you've been friends with, people you knew from school. To see the things they've been saying and think, 'Man, you're missing the point of all this. This isn't just about a couple of events that have happened in the last few months.' People want to be heard, and I feel like, living here off and on for the last 12 years, there really hasn't been a lot that's changed when it comes to having many minority voices on campus.

The MSA president is black and gay, and that's another thing where strangers don't seem to recognize other people's power sometimes. When he said he got the drink thrown on him and got called these names when he was holding hands with his boyfriend, they had no idea that that young man was probably the MSA president, that he had the power that he has to speak out about this. It's just amazing that people do things without worrying about any pushback.

BC: When you think you're going to get away with something, you're probably more likely to try it. That was probably a little bit of surprise.

It's probably a sign of progress that Payton Head was elected MSA president, that he was named Homecoming King. It's obvious that a large portion of the student population isn't involved here. But that sometimes makes the angry people angrier.

The power of a football team

So the football team getting involved certainly hit the fast-forward button on everything.

GB: Absolutely.

BC: How surprised were you to hear that members of the football team were getting involved?

GB: I was very surprised. I was out to get some food, and a buddy of mine sent me a text. I asked him what he was talking about, and it was funny -- he's white, and he put some things in quotation marks to make sure I knew it wasn't him saying it. So then I see what happened, and it was shocking. People have been asking me if this is something that we would have done back in that year where we were really good.

It's hard to imagine because the [national] climate wasn't as bad as it is right now. But we're in the 'keyboard generation' now, and I'm a part of it, but I remember when there wasn't a World Wide Web. Everyone's so used to saying things behind the keyboard with no real repercussions. So then they go in public and say them, and it's like they don't realize, 'Oh man, I'm actually talking to a human being, and something bad could actually happen!'

I commend those young men strong and through. I'd been sending texts back to my dad and brother, and my dad ... you know ... he knows what's going on in Boone County. When I originally sent him the news, he was saying 'Do you really think this is going to happen? That they're going to push him out?' I said, hey, they say they have the backing of the coaching staff. And you know that you can't mess with the money.

The football program is the biggest thing on campus. Right now they're not having the best season they can, but that's a lot of money to be lost for something like this. You play this game from when you're right or nine years old, and you maybe have these aspirations of playing in the NFL. You do this every single day. There's not a lot of time that goes by when you're not actually doing anything football-related while you're in school. So to then say you're going to boycott that and maybe miss a game? Think about how many guys on this team are probably from Kansas City or that Kansas area there, who don't get to play in Arrowhead like we used to. That's absolutely huge to say that you're willing to boycott.

Waking up on Sunday morning after everything went down and seeing that picture of Coach Pinkel with the team, it was kind of a realization that this is something that's going on.

[We originally asked him if he'd be interested in writing something to post on RMN before changing course.]

I started writing on Sunday, and realized, man, I'm four pages deep! It almost seemed like a relief, kind of spilling things out on how I felt and what life was like in general around here. I realized it had become kind of redundant, but ... this is a huge thing.

BC: So as far as Pinkel goes, someone could easily say, well, of course he had to stand with his team. The opposite could kill recruiting and this and that. But it still felt like it made a difference doing the way he did it with the team picture, getting out in front of it, not just getting hounded by press until he said something. Is that what you expected from him?

GB: I mean, he always had everyone's back. As long as you don't just blatantly disrespect the program, Coach Pinkel and everyone else on the staff has your back. Look at the current situation with Maty, where, yeah, a lot of people know what's going on and everything, but no one has come out and said, 'This is what's happening.' No one throws you under the bus.

Whoever it was that spoke to [ESPN's] Brett McMurphy yesterday [the anonymous teammate saying that plenty of players were against the strike], Mike Scherer immediately comes out and says that that doesn't sound like anyone in the locker room. And that's true. A lot of people have been asking about the picture in general, and ... you've got to understand that they really preach that this is a family environment, you know, and you protect and take care of your family.

You go to media day, and GP tells you 'I'm not going to talk about that,' and I bet that's absolutely frustrating. But you've kinda got to respect it because if it was your kid, you wouldn't want the surrogate parent to be putting everything out there. A kid gets arrested -- hell, I got in trouble here at one point [he was suspended for the 2008 Cotton Bowl] -- and they're going to protect you as much as they can as long as you don't embarrass the program.

And even then, once it's done for, there's not going to be any bashing on you. Like what happened with Dorial [Green-Beckham] -- once he transferred, the only thing you heard was positive things: 'Hope he does well' and this and that. You don't get too far with the bashing.

People are saying he needs to lose his job and everything. Do people not understand that, if he doesn't do what he did, how many people would honestly want to send their black or Hispanic kid to come and play for him when this is an issue at hand and there's no one standing up for them? The coach distances himself from it. I wouldn't want to send my child to be around someone like that.

BC: It seemed like ... he had to do something, but he did it well.

GB: Exactly.

BC: So ... football players, in part, just got a university president to resign. That leaves out a ton of context, but it's a true statement. So you've got that, and you've got a push for unionization in some schools. The cost-of-attendance stipend just went through, and people are still fighting for more from a compensation standpoint.

It feels to me like this is something that immensely helps that cause. 'We are obviously more than just students, and we deserve to have a bigger share of the pie here.' What are your general feelings about the compensation angle, what that would do for college football, for improving players' lives in general?

GB: I grew up with a dual-family income. Both of my parents worked. I honestly never wanted for much. I didn't ask for much, but I knew if I needed something, I could ask my parents for help, especially since I got to go to school for free.

But at the end of the day, what ends up happening is, I would pay my rent and pay a couple of bills, and now you have $100, and it is the third or the fourth of the month. People always say, 'Well you've got that dining hall.' That's true, but only dinner was being served there at the time. So that money didn't go as far as people think. I was lucky enough that, if I needed something I could ask, but I realized that wasn't something I wanted to do all the time. I don't want to feel like I'm asking for handouts from my parents. But it absolutely would help players' morale.

And not many really think that these guys should have $5000 or $6000 a month. That's insane. But we talk about all this money here -- they would have had to pay $1,000,000 [to cancel the BYU game], plus attorney fees and whatever else -- everyone's in college, so you know there's money around. And we know where it's going. The free gear? Those things are great, but free gear's not going to get you a meal.

BC: I had a friend who played for Oklahoma, and he said one of the other problems that people didn't realize was ... holidays ... you're in town, and everything's closed.

GB: Bingo. Small things like that or, heck, I remember when we went to El Paso [for the Sun Bowl in 2006], and Christmas Day, waking up, and I've got a three-year old son, and here we are, getting up to go to some high school to have practice. Practice ends, it's around noon, it's Christmas, and we're kinda hungry, and ... not even making it sound completely bad because we were going to some steakhouse or something that night ... for the rest of the day, you're just trying to find something to do.

I remember a bunch of us walked around, and a Sonic happened to be open. We walk through the Sonic, and lo and behold, we saw a bunch of Oregon State players there, too. We all just sat there and talked for maybe two or three hours. We were all going through the same thing.

It turns you off toward holidays a little bit!

Something bigger than football

GB: You come to college and you want to grow up and learn and become a man, and this is something that these young men stood up for. I saw the tweets where they said they never thought they'd have a chance to be part of something like this, and they're absolutely right! There's no way that these kids who were born in the mid-'90s thought that this something they might be a part of, and that their voice would have a part in that. But here we are. And you've got people who are saying "Go catch a football."

I remember asking just a few people when the news broke, asking 'Why are you so upset?' And my presence, it is what it is, and they couldn't come up with something to say beyond what they obviously really wanted to say. And I just thought, if you can't really say what's on your mind, then we probably shouldn't have this conversation. If you can't say it, then what's the point of even trying to talk about it?

BC: If you can't say it in front of somebody, then it probably shouldn't be said.

GB: That's it. Don't throw the rock and then hide your hand.

A pre-YouTube sensation

BC: So ... one of our commenters was in the Dorm Linebacker video way back when, so you've always been a Rock M favorite for that.

GB: [laughs]

BC: That thing is still on YouTube, by the way!

GB: It gets me every so often. Funny part about that is, originally Jason Ray was going to do it because he lived in the dorms with the guy. But then he ended up messing his shoulder up, so he told the guy 'I think I've got somebody else who might do a better job of it than me. That's not really my thing anyway.'

BC: I was about to say, from what I remember about Jason Ray, that didn't strike me as him.

(Sarah Becking)