COLUMBIA — Aaron Rivers had waited in line all day for his minute with Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel. After reaching the front of the line and asking for a photo with Pinkel, the eighth-year coach surprisingly asked if he could hold Rivers' 2 1/2 month-old daughter. Pinkel must be watching a fair amount of election coverage this summer, for just before the photo, he leaned down and planted a kiss on the baby's forehead, eliciting smiles from just about everyone who caught a glimpse. None, however, matched that of the baby's proud father, standing inches away. The gesture was a cordial one, but it's doubtful the coach could have fully grasped how much it meant to Rivers.
"I've got a little bar down in the basement, and this picture is definitely going up over it," said Rivers, a 30-year-old father of three from St. Joseph. "I'll be telling my daughter about this day for a long time."
Rivers named senior co-captain Tommy Saunders among his favorite players, and one whose autograph he made the drive specifically to get.
"He's a friend of our neighbors," said Rivers, who says he hasn't missed a Tigers home game in five years. "And I just think it's great when guys like him walk on, and then persevere, get scholarships, and become contributors like he has."
At Missouri's Sixth Annual Football Fan Day, held Sunday on a muggy Faurot Field, All-Americans Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin had lines that stretched more than the length of the field. Saunders, however, was placed in a tent with sophomore tailback Derrick Washington and high school teammate Brock Christopher that collected its own impressive line, including Rivers, who was just one of a throng trying to meet the receiver sporting his signature frizzy afro.
Mike Hoffman, 38, made the two-hour trip from Kearney with his three children. They waited eagerly before the gates opened to get a chance to meet the hometown hero Saunders, as well as Kearney natives linebacker Brock Christopher and tight end Beau Brinkley.
"That's one thing coach does a great job of instilling in everyone here," Christopher said. "You not only represent your teammates and school, but you also represent your family and where you're from."
For Saunders, that truth was never more evident then when he took a trip back to Kearney last fall.
"We had a Bulldog Night last year, and I went back and talked at that," Saunders said. "Everybody was cheering and going crazy, and I was just kind of like, ‘Wow.' It was awesome."
On a team with such star power in Daniel, Maclin, and defensive personalities like senior safety William Moore and junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Saunders says days like Sunday keep him grounded.
"Whenever you're on this team, you've got a ton of people looking up to you, even if it doesn't seem like it," Saunders said. "It's up to us to set good examples for our teammates, but also for all these little kids running around here that's looking up to you. So, on and off the field, you've just got to remember that."