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Fans float across state for game

Saturday, August 30, 2008 | 9:51 p.m. CDT; updated 4:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 1, 2008
Pat Ryan holds up a shirt that lists all of the trips that he has taken and all of the trips that he plans on going on at Cooper's Landing on Thursday night. Ryan and a group of his friends were boating from Kansas City to St. Louis for the Missouri football game against Illinios.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Matt Burgess was a center, not a safety, under Bob Stull. It has also been corrected to show that Bill Nolan is a resident of St. Louis. A sentence about "awe moments" was also removed.

ST. LOUIS - Floating on calm water on a beautiful day, it is easier to talk about it and laugh. There they were: eight guys in a pontoon boat on the Missouri River, facing a thunderstorm.

"We got behind a wing dike, hooked the anchor on a tree and stood on the banks under a tarp as the storm came up behind us in a black wall," said Bill Nolan of St. Louis. "One of the guys said, ‘Look, guys, I know storms, and we're fine as long as it doesn't hail.'"

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And then it started to hail.

They had to go on with the journey. Far downriver, the Edward Jones Dome called to the crew of the White Trash Pontoon, or WTP. The other boats of their fleet, the Party of Six and the Hillbilly Deluxe Number 2, were long gone and on their way to Cooper's Landing near Columbia.

But, storm or no, the WTP would be in St. Louis by game time, and nothing was going to stop them.

Think of it as the ultimate float trip. Pat Ryan, an MU graduate and a former safety for the Tigers, had it all planned out: four days, 24 men, three power boats and one pontoon. They would make their way from Kansas City to St. Louis.

Each man had his own duty, whether it was keeping a steady supply of fuel or keeping a steady supply of beer. They'd start from Kansas City, stop at Cooper's Landing, then move on to St. Charles, finally finishing up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis with plenty of time to make it to the game.

Ryan, now of Lenexa, Kan., asked around and found his friends needed very little persuading to join him on the adventure, which they dubbed the "MO-400." Many of them had thought about making the trip but had put it off for one reason or another. Now they were ready.

"Adventure was the thing," Nolan said. "Pat Ryan's an adventurer. He's set up trips to run with the bulls in Spain and to the World Cup, and this was something I could do without leaving the state of Missouri."

And adventure they got. Adventure, trouble and experiences that Phil Johnson, a Kansas City lawyer, called almost spiritual.

When the guys started in Kansas City on Wednesday, most of them didn't know each other that well. When they got off the boats at the Gateway Arch, they were almost brothers. There was even talk of making it an annual journey.

"This is something to tell your kids, tell your grandkids," Mike Allegri said, looking down the river he had come to know so well.

The trouble began even before the trip did. One of the boats had to be replaced before the group left. Then, at mile 67, one of the power boats stopped working; they had to redistribute.

When the time came for the first fuel stop, the men found themselves out of gas and 21 miles from the planned site, with the MFA tanker they'd arranged for nowhere in sight.

"Our trip could have easily ended right there," said Scott Widman of Lenexa, his face uncharacteristically grim as he recalled the near miss.

While they were planning the trip, Johnson - as legal counsel for the group - called the Missouri Water Patrol to get legal clearance. Did they have any advice?

"She said, ‘People on the river will help you,'" Johnson recalled.

Now they were counting on that promise. It soon rang true, as a local couple showed up at the river bank and drove the men to get some fuel.

Then the real trouble began. The storm blew in, almost out of nowhere, and the pontoon was stranded. The WTP crew found a picnic shelter and started to pump their air horn over and over and over again. Miraculously, out of the pitch-black rain and hail came one of their chase vehicles.

"In the dark we heard the horn honking, and we see all these guys in yellow jerseys on the picnic tables," said Scott Walz, the chase vehicle driver.

"You would have thought we'd won the Orange Bowl, the way we were cheering," Nolan said.

Once in Columbia, the WTP crew met up with their buddies at the Regency Hotel, hit the town that night and then pushed off together from Cooper's Landing at 8 a.m. the next day.

The second day went smoother, with only one major hitch in the plan. A fuel line on the WTP stopped working near Washington, Mo. Eighty-year-old Bill Miller was there to help. Miller, who had been sitting on the bank, took the guys to get the part they needed, stopping to let them meet his grandson along the way and then sending them off.

As if those weren't enough problems, the crew also lost the football they'd been tossing from boat to boat.

The third day was the real test: The guys had to get through a lock and onto the Mississippi River. As they kicked off from Blanchette Landing in St. Charles, they were in high spirits.

Then, while they were looking for the navigation markers on the river, one of the guys spotted a bright orange object bobbing in the river.

"That's our football!" Nolan screamed, as he lunged to the front of the pontoon, past the grill, to retrieve it.

"What are the odds?" asked Johnson, who started 27 games as a quarterback for the Tigers from 1990 to 1994.

When they plucked it from the water, Johnson just held the ball up for a while, in disbelief.

On the pontoon, one of the seven former football players on the trip contemplated what another great season might mean for the Tigers.

"It's the season we've all been waiting for," said Matt Burgess, who played center under Bob Stull. "When we beat Nebraska, I felt a real connection to those guys even though I didn't know them. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off of me."

The ride on game day was clear and easy. Getting through the lock, which many in the group thought would take hours, was a painless process. The three boats, dwarfed by the barges on the Mississippi, even managed to avoid being capsized by the wake of larger boats.

When the Gateway Arch appeared like a knife in the horizon, a cheer went up from the group.

"M-I-Z!" yelled the Hillbilly Deluxe Number 2.

"Z-O-U!" came the reply from the Party of Six and the White Trash Pontoon.

Burgess, ecstatic with the accomplishment behind them, sat quietly in the back of the boat.

"Life is defined by moments of awe," Burgess said, looking up at the Arch, then to each boat in the fleet, "It seems strange to say that about this trip, but there are these defining points in your life. And we've had about 40 of them on this trip."

 


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