COLUMBIA — In the front corner of the Missouri football team’s locker room, at the end of the long line of identical empty spaces, is a locker. Nothing distinguishes it from the others except the nameplate above that reads “Wonsey.”
It is just a shiny piece of metal with a name engraved on it, but for running back Titus Wonsey, it is a symbol. It represents faith. It represents hard work. It shows just how far he’s come, and how far he still has to go.
As a senior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., Wonsey knew he wanted to continue playing football, but an ankle injury kept him from getting any scholarship offers from smaller schools near Chicago like Northern Illinois or Olivet Nazarene.
“I knew he had plans to play at the next level,” Wonsey’s high school coach Bryan Wells said. “I just didn’t think he was going to do so at a major conference school. For him to reach where he’s at now is just a testament to his work ethic.”
After contacting Missouri recruiting coordinator Nick Otterbacher, who told Wonsey the team had space for him, Wonsey came out as a walk-on in the fall after arriving in Columbia. During the first week of classes, as full-contact practice was about to start, the coaches called all the walk-ons in for a meeting.
“I was expecting them to kind of tell us we were going to be dropped into a situation where we may not know what’s going on, but we just need to compete,” Wonsey said. “But they only told a select few guys they made it in a separate meeting. For the rest of us, they said for the first time, they didn’t have enough lockers, and that some of us might get a call during the season to come out and practice.”
Wonsey couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He doubted whether Missouri was the place for him. He doubted whether football was the game for him. He couldn’t help but wonder if he was only kidding himself into thinking he could play football at a Division I level.
“I called my parents right away, and I was pretty devastated,” Wonsey said. “I kind of figured I’d get to be out there on Saturdays no matter what happened.”
Unsure of where his road was taking him, Wonsey credits his parents for keeping him focused. An Illinois state trooper and a pastor at a church on the west side of Chicago, Wonsey’s father Wade Wonsey reminded Titus Wonsey of his priorities.
“I just told him to keep on praying, and to focus on school,” Wade Wonsey said. “I’ve always said, ‘Titus, school is why you’re there, and sports are just a perk.’ At the same time though, I told him to keep praying and have faith that God was in control of his path.”
Titus Wonsey took those words to heart. His mother suggested he speak with the coaches about how he could contribute to the team in other ways. Sure enough, there was an open spot for a student assistant. Wonsey snatched it up, but never let go of his dream to trade in his tennis shoes and polo shirt for cleats and a jersey.
“I remember when I would walk to the stadium, I’d take the back way, where there’s a huge hill,” Wonsey said. “Every day, I’d just sprint up it and tell myself, ‘The work you’re putting in now is going to pay off later.’”
After heading home after the Tigers put the finishing touches on a 12-2 season at the Cotton Bowl, Wonsey returned to Columbia determined to earn a spot for the spring.
“The coaches told me the guys who made it through five weeks of weightlifting and mat drills would be able to dress out in the spring,” Wonsey said. “So I put everything I had into that, and kept on praying everything would work out and I could finally play.”
Wonsey’s efforts paid off.
Missouri’s media guide lists Wonsey at 5-foot-7, but even if you count the dreadlocks sprouting from the redshirt freshman’s head, 5-foot-5 is probably a more accurate measure. His 195-pound frame packed into just 65 inches draws some comparison to smaller, thicker backs like the NFL’s Maurice Jones-Drew, who use their diminutive size to get low and deliver hits, rather than take them.
“He’s got a lot of explosiveness in him,” Wells said. “You don’t have to watch him much to see that, and he’s a guy who doesn’t take a single step he takes on the field for granted.”
Wonsey’s size has garnered him plenty of attention this spring, but he’s quick to play it off.
“It seems weird that people make so much of that,” Wonsey said. “I never really think about it, because to me, I’m just Titus, not any of that other stuff people say I am.”
Head coach Gary Pinkel isn’t buying Wonsey’s humility though.
“It’s just great,” Pinkel said of the attention to Wonsey. “Our guys love people that come in and work hard, and even a guy like him who comes in and is a bit of an overachiever, shoot, you love guys like that.”
When Wonsey finally takes the field in Saturday’s Black and Gold Spring Game, it could be his only chance to see the field in 2008. Whether his reps on Saturday are the first of many or the first and only, there’s at least a few Tigers fans who’ll be there to see them.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Wade Wonsey said. “I’ll be there, his mom and brother will be there, his sister is driving down from Indiana to see him, it’s just going to be a celebration of Titus this weekend. He’s worked so hard, and this is his dream. I’m just so proud, I’m not sure who’s more excited, him or me.”