Don't let the seniors down
I wanted to write an extensive post about all the emotions surrounding this year's Senior Day. But Gabe DeArmond took the words right out of my mouth. I'm not sure I can say it any better than he did so I'll let him take this one:
Many, many times over the last few years, we have broken down Missouri's recruiting classes from a million different angles. One thing has stood fairly constant in those breakdowns. To make the math easy, you get an average of 25 players in each recruiting class. If, four or five years later, you can say that 15 of those players have somehow contributed significantly to your program, you've had a monumentally successful class.
So, how good is the senior class Missouri will honor at Faurot Field on Saturday? The Tigers have 22 seniors playing their final games. Fifteen of them have started multiple games for Missouri. That's not good. That's incredible.
Now, to be honest, the players are not all in the same class. Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood and Brock Christopher all played as true freshmen. They were in the 2005 recruiting class. Most of the rest signed with the Tigers in the 2004 class.
But because these players all began their careers on the field in the same year, we count them as one class. Fifteen out of 22 have not only contributed, they have been major players. They have been good enough to, for at least a few games, be considered the very best at their positions on a Tiger roster that has gotten progressively deeper every season.
Breaking it down even further, 18 of those 22 players signed as scholarship recipients with Missouri. Two of the walk-ons (Adam Casey and Zach Milligan) have not had the chance to see significant playing time. But just as impressively, three more walk-ons (Jeff Wolfert, Tommy Saunders and Colin Brown) are in that group of not only multiple-game, but multi-year, starters.
Anyway, the point of all this? This is the senior class Missouri fans are going to remember. I say this not to take anything away from the group of seniors to which Missouri said farewell last season. Lorenzo Williams, Pig Brown, Martin Rucker, Will Franklin, Tony Temple, Adam Spieker, Tyler Luellen, and more, were most certainly the bedrock of the foundation for this Missouri program. Last year's seniors and this year's go hand in hand. But in 20 years, the group that most Tiger fans are likely to remember is this one. Let's hit some of the highlights:
*This class has won more games than any four-year class in Missouri history. As of right now, they're at 34 wins. If the Tigers can win the final three games of the regular season, the Big 12 title game and a bowl game, this class could top out at 39 wins. Prior to last season, Missouri had not won nine games in a season in 38 years. This class will, at a bare minimum, average nine wins a year. That number could creep very close to ten. This class will, without a doubt, play in four bowl games. The last Missouri class to be able to say that? The Class of 1981. For some perspective, Andy Hill has been coaching at Missouri for 13 years. He was in his second season as a player in 1981.
The highlights are too numerous to list them all. But there have been some fantastic moments with this group. Here are simply a few that stand out to me:
*In 2005, I had left the Tigers for dead against Iowa State. Brad Smith went down with an injury and a known, but completely untested, true freshman replaced him at quarterback. Chase Daniel led the Tigers back from a ten-point deficit and then won the game in overtime. The Missouri fans that were left (and trust me, it wasn't all of them), walked out of the stadium that day thinking, "Hmmm, we just might have something here. Maybe we should go ahead and continue to field a football team after Brad leaves."
*In 2006, a couple of plays stand out. The Tigers were in a back-and-forth game early on with Kansas State. The Wildcats had driven to the Tiger one-yard-line and had a chance to take the lead. On fourth and goal, Tommy Chavis stuffed the Cats. Missouri's offense responded with a 99-yard drive. The Tigers went on to beat K-State for the first time since 1992. A couple of weeks later, the Tigers were facing Kansas. They had lost three in a row to the Jayhawks. Everyone said Mark Mangino had Gary Pinkel's number. As the Tigers routed Kansas 42-17, the play that stood out was a simple pass over the middle from Daniel to Jared Perry. Perry sprinted away from everyone on the Kansas team for a 75-yard touchdown. Daniel goes into the season finale against Kansas this year having gone 66-for-87 for 717 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions against Kansas. The Jayhawks may have had Brad Smith's number...they didn't have Missouri's.
*Backtracking to before the 2006 season, I remember watching every practice of fall camp. Adam Crossett had made a field goal from 50 yards to give Mizzou the lead in the Independence Bowl the year before. Placekicker wasn't a position I had my eye on. But then this walk-on named Wolfert just kept making kicks. I thought, "You can't not play this kid." All he's done since then is become the most accurate kicker in the history of NCAA football.
*There was 2007, the most incredible season those of us who have followed this program for a long time have ever seen. Against Iowa State, Pig Brown got hurt. And William Moore finally fulfilled the potential we'd heard about for two years. Moore was always a great athlete, but he had never been a great safety. He wasn't just great, he was the best defensive player in America for the last six weeks of 2007.
*In that same year, Texas Tech once again came to Columbia undefeated and on everyone's radar as a possible breakout team. On the Red Raiders' first possession, Stryker Sulak intercepted Graham Harrell and returned it for a touchdown, the Tigers' third pick six against Harrell in five quarters. Missouri dismantled Tech. Could we see a rematch in one month at Arrowhead Stadium?
*I remember watching the Heisman Trophy ceremony last season. I knew Chase Daniel wasn't going to win it. But that didn't even matter. I'd watched that show every year since I was old enough to be interested in sports. There had never been a Missouri Tiger sitting in that room. Personally, I thought that was pretty cool. He's probably not going to get back there this season. But the publicity and the attention Daniel has brought to this program is unmatched. To a generation of Tiger fans, Chase Daniel IS Missouri football. You may never get to see another one this good.
*As good as he's been, I don't know that Daniel is even the best player named Chase in his own class. I can't pick out a play that summarizes my memories of watching Chase Coffman. He gives you a new one every single week. He's caught more passes than any tight end in Division One history. He has the Missouri record for receptions and touchdowns. He has the best hands I've ever seen. Ever. You want a kid that's impossible to replace? I don't know where you find another Chase Coffman.
*My last memories don't take place on the football field. Maybe we're not supposed to have favorites when we're in the media. Maybe we're supposed to remain completely unbiased. But sometimes, there are stories that change that.
I remember meeting Rich Weber, the grandfather of Tommy Saunders. He'd come by the radio show I did at the North end of the stadium every Saturday just to say hello. More and more, you could sense the pride he had in his grandson. Last season, I decided I should write a story about that bond. I spent about 25 minutes on the phone with Mr. Weber. The Saturday before, Tommy had scored a touchdown and raised a finger in the air, saluting Sir Papa. I'm glad I got a chance to write that story, and to know that man. A few months later, Rich Weber died. I've never cried at the death of anyone outside my family. I cried that night.
If you'll allow me to tell two stories about the same kid, Tommy Saunders may not have the statistics of some of his classmates. He won't make an all-conference team, much less an all-American team. But he's the glue of this class, and of this team. Last week, I was sitting at the Black and Gold basketball game. Tommy walked by with two kids I've never seen. I'd guess they were around eight and 11 years old. Saunders volunteers his time with Big Brothers, Big Sisters giving these boys a male mentor. Twenty-two years old and he's doing more for these kids than some fathers do for their own. It has absolutely nothing to do with what he does on the field, but Tommy Saunders is everything that's good about college football.
Missouri football will move on. The records set by Daniel and Coffman and Moore and others may be broken. Other teams may win more games, may bring home the national championship trophy that it appears this group will not. But it is tough to imagine that any class will ever do more for Mizzou football.
Enjoy Saturday. Stay till the end. Say goodbye. But more importantly, say thanks. This class deserves it.
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