COLUMBIA - One of the most common things athletes tell each other is to play for the name on the front of the jersey and not on the back.
Missouri linebacker Brock Christopher didn't even have a choice Saturday night. He had no name on the back of his jersey in the Tigers' 52-3 win over Southeast Missouri State at Memorial Stadium.
It wasn't a mistake. Christopher had a new number for this game. Gone was his usual No. 34, replaced by No. 25 - the number that the Tigers Aaron O'Neal wore before his death from meningitis in July 2005.
"It's not really about me," Christopher said. "Don't get me wrong, it's an honor to wear that jersey. No. 25 is still with us, we talk about him all the time. He signifies what being a Missouri Tiger is. I'm extremely honored I was able to wear that number to represent him."
The idea to have Christopher wear the number began with the seniors' weekly meeting on Monday. Some of the Missouri seniors mentioned how they had seen other teams, most notably Oregon, have a player wear the number of a teammate who had passed away.
They decided that they could do the same thing for O'Neal, who would have been a fifth-year senior this season.
"We all figured that was one of the best ways we could honor him," Christopher said.
From there, the plan developed to have a different senior wear O'Neal's No. 25 each game. Christopher was chosen as the first because he was the only senior linebacker starting against Southeast Missouri State after Steve Redmond was injured.
The seniors said they felt that because O'Neal had been a linebacker, a linebacker should be the first to wear the number.
"Steve Redmond would have been the first to wear it, because he was A.O.'s roommate," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Every week, the captains will select a player to wear his number and represent A.O. in his senior year. We just think that's a great way of honoring him, not only for the fans and players but certainly to honor him for his family."
Like Christopher did on Saturday night, every player who wears No. 25 will go without a name on the back of his jersey.
"We weren't going to put my name on the back of Aaron O'Neal's jersey," Christopher said. "When I first walked in and saw no name on the back of the jersey, it was kind of a wake-up call. Running out of the tunnel, I was just thinking of him."
The seniors clearly wanted to keep their tribute to O'Neal a guarded secret. Despite playing the same position as Christopher, junior Sean Weatherspoon did not know about the process behind the decision.
"I don't know, I guess the seniors pick it," Weatherspoon said. "It might be a different position next time. I really don't know much about it."
Although the decision surprised Weatherspoon, nobody needed to tell him why it was made.
"This season would mean so much to him," he said. "I know it means a lot to his family to see somebody carry on his legacy. I don't know what they said about it, but I'm pretty sure it gives them a good feeling to see somebody out there representing their son."
A look at Missouri's depth chart shows that the Tigers have 11 other senior starters, which would increase to 12 when linebacker Van Alexander returns to action.
If Missouri is able to return to the Big 12 Championship game, that would allow every senior starter the opportunity to wear O'Neal's jersey along with the chance to honor him by winning more games than last year's team.
"It's about his legacy that he left here," Christopher said. "He made the ultimate sacrifice, doing what he loved to do, playing to be a Missouri Tiger."