Tomorrow our family gets on a plane and travels to Atlanta to watch my beloved Missouri Tigers play in the Southeastern Conference championship game in football. Much is being written this week about what a journey this is for the Missouri athletic program. There’s the completely shocking second season success in the SEC. There’s Henry Josey’s journey from breakout sophomore Big 12 running back to catastrophic knee injury to blazing through Aggie defenders on his way to sealing Mizzou’s first SEC East division championship. There is the slow but steady journey of this long-suffering Mizzou football program, this “sleeping giant” as Osborne put it, from decades of obscurity and heartbreak to now, with Gary Pinkel tying Don Faurot at 101 wins and promising “it gets better.”
All of that and more are stories for sportswriters this week. Mine is the story of a fan who has been on this journey from a distance but who can hardly breathe with excitement and anxiety and hope and fear and expectation and gratitude for this beautiful, unexpected season. My journey starts on a farm in rural Missouri on Saturday afternoons with touch football in the yard with Dad, my uncle, siblings and cousins, with a grandfather who watched while keeping the radio tuned into the Mizzou game. It seems Mizzou never won but there was always hope. There were also conversations at Grandpa’s “tractor store” (the family business) about the game with farmers on Monday, breaking down what Coach Powers or Widenhofer or Stull were doing right or wrong and whether the players were going to come through and what recruits were in the pipeline. I never went to any Mizzou games as a kid but the games and program were background music for my family life, whether by radio, TV or newspaper. It was part of being a citizen of this state, and my grandparents certainly taught me to love our beautiful state when they took me and my brother Matt on a mini-tour of it when I was nine. As I entered junior high and high school my brother Matt and I always looked forward to watching Mizzou football and basketball games, particularly those against Kansas. I began picturing myself as a student at these games and could not wait for the prospect of attending college at the big state flagship university that seemed so different from my small town.
When I got to Mizzou as a freshman, I did not hesitate to buy an all-sports pass and did not miss any football games that I can remember, although the games were far from memorable. I think we once tore the goal posts down for simply winning a game against Illinois. I still felt so lucky and excited to be a part of a Division I college football fan base, even one with such a traumatized history including the fifth down and fleakicker (both of which I recall watching with my family). Lifetime friendships were forged at these games. When Larry Smith arrived my junior year, it seemed things were improving. My love for football never faded, even as Smith’s tenure grew less convincing.
I made a tough but necessary personal choice to leave Ol’ Mizzou for law school which made following the program harder for a few years. Not surprisingly, Mizzou games were typically not televised in Virginia but I still managed to earn the nickname “Mizzou” for my (overexcessive?) pride in my undergraduate alma mater. (I recall one of my UVa law classmates, a Michigan alum, being completely unaware of the “Mizzou” moniker, along with many classmates who assumed Kansas City was in Kansas. Ugh.) However, when I began my professional career in Austin, home of a fellow Big 12 conference school, I again had greater access to Mizzou games. Unfortunately, I also encountered a lot of Texas arrogance that foreshadowed Mizzou’s eventual departure from the conference. I recall someone at my law firm joking that Mizzou should be kicked out of the conference because they weren’t any good. In Austin, I served as president of the local Mizzou alumni association, organized watch parties and made good friends who shared this bond of feeling that defeat is just around the corner from victory. It was with these people that I watched in amazement as Brad Smith elevated this program and our spirits and hope for greater things to come. Could it be? Were we finally on our way with Coach Pinkel?
While I absolutely adored Austin, there was no doubt that I could not stomach raising my children as Texans. I am (at least) a fourth generation Missourian and I needed to come home. Thankfully, my Arkansas-born and Louisiana-reared husband agreed and nine years later, here we are. I tell my son regularly that he was at Armageddon at Arrowhead in 2007, bouncing around in my six-months-pregnant belly as we hit what was at that time the pinnacle of recent Mizzou football history. When College Gameday came to town in 2010, we made sure to be there with signs at the ready. We still aren’t season ticket holders but I hope to change that very soon. With two young children, one of whom is still a toddler, the number of night games and cold weather games make regular attendance harder right now. Plus, because I work outside the home during the week I want to ensure my weekend time is spent with my kids. However, this weekend we are cashing in the frequent flyer miles and heading to Atlanta because I can’t miss this part of Mizzou’s football journey and I want my son to experience it, too. We are staying with one of my dearest friends from my Mizzou days, a bridesmaid in my wedding and lifelong friend. Even if I have to spend half the game walking my toddler daughter around the concourse, even if Mizzou loses in spectacular fashion, it will be worth it. Because this team and this coach have given me so much joy and pride as a fan and we have not yet made a game this season. The mental toughness and quiet strength this team projects seems new and different for a Mizzou team. When L’Damian Washington talks about their preparation and approach and leadership, I think these guys are destined for great things in football and beyond, in life. When Gary Pinkel talks about this team and this upcoming game, it is with a humble confidence that strikes just the right tone. They seem ready. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, maybe Auburn will just win. Whatever. I have to be there because if these guys are going to win this championship, and possibly WIN IT ALL, I feel like I’m representing my grandpa and aunt and sister and cousins who are also Mizzou alums, and the rest of my family who are fans. I’m representing OUR STATE, the one I love so very much. I can’t wait. M-I-Z!!!!!