After last home game, graduating Tigers look back
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- Members of the Tiger's Lair show off their spelling and cheering ability in the students' section against Kansas State at the last home game on Faurot Field. From left to right: Adam Smith, Taylor Zak, Daniel Bailey and Bradley Heath.M
- Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel has led the Tigers from a middling program to annual Big 12 contender, relying heavily on this year's senior class.
- Tiger Walk used to be a sparsely attended event, but it has grown to a full-fledged party before every home game.
- Seniors Chase Daniel, Tommy Saunders, Ziggy Hood and William Moore, instrumental in Mizzou's rise to power, played their final game at Faurot Field on Saturday.
- Kicker Jeff Wolfert gave up a diving scholarship to join the football team as a walkon. The risk was worth it, as he went on to set Mizzou's career scoring record.
- Likely to play in the NFL like his father, senior tight end Chase Coffman hugged his dad, Bill, in the pregame ceremonies.
- Lonnie O'Neal, father of Aaron O'Neal, was at Faurot Field in recognition of what would have been his son's senior night. Aaron O'Neal died after a voluntary workout in 2005.
- Senior running back Jimmy Jackson broke through a crowd of Wildcat defenders on his way to the end zone.
- Quarterback Chase Daniel has been outstanding for Mizzou in his three years as a starter. He has been named a Heisman Trophy finalist, a second-team All-American, a first team All-Big 12 quarterback, an Academic All-American and is up for several more awards at the end of this season.
- Backup quarterback Chase Patton, a Columbia native, picked up his first passing touchdown in his final home game. Patton carried off a rock from the M at the north end of the stadium, as seniors traditionally do.
- Both Chase Daniel and Chase Coffman have been league standouts since starting with the Tigers and are a fixture near the top of most offensive categories each week.
With Mizzou up 34-10 in the fourth quarter against Kansas State, the frozen crowd chanting his name, senior Chase Patton entered the game. The backup quarterback, a Columbia native, was getting his last chance to play on Faurot Field.
After an 11-yard rush by Patton, the Tigers were 13 yards from the end zone. The wind-whipped fans came to their feet, cheering with hoarse voices. Patton slung the ball wide to the left, hitting receiver Jared Perry. He snaked his way through the screen for the touchdown. And though he had two rushing scores in his career, this was his first and only passing touchdown.
Jumping around, his team congratulated him, pounding him on the helmet and pads. The experience, says Patton, was surreal.
“I tried to stay out there as long as I could; I was really in the moment,” he says. “It’s bittersweet, obviously. You’re going to have to move on with life some time, and I look forward to that. But it’s also tough to think about how fast it’s gone, how many memories we’ve had.”
Coach Gary Pinkel was right in the mix, congratulating Patton on the pass and reveling in the joy of the moment for one of his 23 seniors.
“That was the best. I was so happy he did that,” says Pinkel. “It’s the last time he’ll play in the stadium. So many different stories — that was one of a great young man.
“The good thing with these kids is that there’s a little story behind every one of them.”
Building a team
When the 2008 seniors were first coming into their own, the program was experiencing some rocky times. In 2004, the team didn’t make a bowl appearance, and 2005 wasn’t much better. The team finished 7-5 after winning the Independence Bowl, but many fans were disappointed quarterback Brad Smith’s senior season didn’t end on a higher note. Fans didn’t see how Mizzou could replace Smith, who set all the school records for passing and rushing and became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 more.
Sophomore Chase Daniel was named the starting quarterback in 2006, and expectations were low because of the team’s lack of experience. Those who doubted Pinkel’s choices were soon chagrined as Mizzou started 6-0 and went on to finish 8-5 with a berth in the Sun Bowl.
Things were even better in 2007, when Mizzou went 12-2, was ranked No. 1 and convincingly won the Cotton Bowl. Daniel was a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Big 12 North champion Tigers were a game away from playing for the national championship.
That success carried over to this season, and Mizzou is now just three wins away from playing in a Bowl Championship Series game. The 64,520 average attendance rate is the highest since 1980, and the Tigers have become perennial contenders in the conference. Things change quite drastically over the course of a few years.
“Look at the win-loss record these guys have at Mizzou,” Pinkel says. “These guys have done so much for Missouri football … They’ve set a bar. I’ll forever be indebted to them.”
Linebacker Aaron O’Neal would have been part of this graduating class. In an emotional tribute, his father was on hand for senior day. This season, in honor of O’Neal, a different senior has been chosen to wear No. 25 at each home game.
On July 12, 2005, O’Neal died following a voluntary workout. His memory is kept alive as the team chants “1-2-3-AO!” at the end of every practice and game. His tireless effort and his dedication to working his hardest embody how the team aspires to work.
“Aaron— for all of us, that’s kind of hard to describe,” says Pinkel, “what happened and how we all went together through it.”
To many of the players, including Daniel, the game was all about O’Neal.
“Starting off and having AO honored is something special,” Daniel says. “This night was about him. It wasn’t about our seniors; it wasn’t about this team. It was about him.”
Setting an example
Now that Mizzou has a system in place, the success this senior class has achieved can continue. With strong and experienced coaches and a tradition of winning, the wins should continue to pile up. That is, as long as underclassmen are reminded of where the program was four short years ago.
“The seniors really let us know what this thing was about,” says junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. “This is the best class Mizzou has ever had in its history as far as winning games. They let us know how much this means to them.”
The seniors’ teaching wasn’t restricted to the field of play. Personal development is just as important to the team.
“I’ve been with these guys for three years,” says sophomore receiver Jeremy Maclin. “We’ve cried together. We’ve bled together. That’s my family out there. [Senior wide receiver] Tommy [Saunders] is a prime example. He’s taught me all I know: how to be a better receiver and how to be a better man. They carry themselves very well. Those are definitely guys you want to look up to.”
After the game, seniors ran over to the whitewashed rock M behind the end zone to grab pieces as keepsakes. They ran down the line of loyal fans who’d stuck it out to the end, high-fiving each one before heading back to the locker room. Tight end Chase Coffman, despite a sprained toe, made the trip down the line, too, and was carried off the field — partly to keep the foot rested but also to celebrate the receiving records he set while with the Tigers. The excitement of the 41-24 victory was immediate, but the emotion of playing the final game at home took a little longer to sink in.
“During the prayer, you could hear guys crying,” Weatherspoon says. “It was tough. But we’ve got three more [games] left, so we have to get it done.”
The teammates’ closeness is apparent. There’s a level of trust and openness in communication that players say has continually grown since they’ve been at Mizzou.
“Being part of a system and buying in to it and believing what the coaches are doing and things like that is just so key to success on this team. And I feel like we’ve grown so much in that,” Patton says. “We talk about us being a family, and we are. That’s the real key to being successful.”
At the press conference after the game, Pinkel made several attempts to describe just how much these seniors have meant to him. He started and stopped several times before finally getting something out.
“You just get so close to these players. I mean, I’m so close to these guys. I hug ‘em and love ‘em and … um … anyway, let’s talk about something else,” he said, barely keeping his glassy eyes from spilling onto the table in front of him.