COLUMBIA – Missouri sophomore wide receiver Jeremy Maclin had an unusual experience Monday at the Tigers’ weekly media day. Almost nobody was looking to speak to him. Maclin knew exactly why.
“This is the biggest game of a lot of these guys’ careers coming up,” Maclin said. “They deserve every bit of" the attention.
“These guys” are the Tigers’ 22 seniors who will play their final home game Saturday at Memorial Stadium against Kansas State, ending the run in Columbia of the best class in Missouri’s history record-wise.
In the last four years, Missouri has posted a record of 34-14 overall, accounting for slightly more than 60 percent of coach Gary Pinkel’s victory total. The senior class will also join that of 1981 as the only ones to play in a bowl game every season.
“It’s something that we take great pride in,” linebacker Brock Christopher said. “We’re trying to get this program going in the right direction, and we have it in a great direction.”
By Pinkel's own admission, Senior Day is never easy. This year’s Senior Day might be the hardest he’s ever had.
“This is going to be an emotional day for me,” Pinkel said. “They had other choices. When these guys came here, these facilities weren’t built. They believed in what we were doing. What they’ve done for us and our program, I don’t think you can put into words.”
Maybe not, but one statistic displays the difference between where this program used to be and where it is now.
The year before this senior class arrived, Missouri suffered three home conference losses. In the four years since, the Tigers have had just three home conference losses combined. The Tigers’ Big 12 North rivals are a combined 0-8 in Columbia in the seniors’ careers.
“To be honest, I don’t know if we really know how much we’ve done,” backup quarterback Chase Patton said. “When you’re in the midst of it, you’re just in the middle of it. It’s just been a mindset thing that’s shifted in this program. It’s been really enjoyable.”
That only makes watching their exit tougher for the players who will return in 2009.
“It kind of stinks — you see guys that you’ve been grinding with for three years, and you’ve got to see them leave,” junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. “Brock Christopher has been helping me since I’ve been here, and he’s going to be gone. It’s tough.”
But as emotional as Saturday might be for Pinkel and the non-seniors, it will be unquestionably more so for players playing their final home game.
“A lot of things will be running through your head, good memories and bad memories,” defensive tackle Ziggy Hood said. “Hopefully, you’re overshadowed by good memories. It’s just a pleasure and honor to play in this stadium and walk the field with these guys. These last four years have been totally good to me.”
Those seniors and many others also will have something else on their minds. Saturday’s game would have been Aaron O’Neal’s final home game as well had the linebacker not died during a workout in 2005.
Pinkel said that as far as he knows, O’Neal’s family will be in attendance on Saturday.
“That’s going to be important,” Pinkel said. “We’re going to honor him, and that’s also very important.”
For the seniors, who have paid tribute to O’Neal throughout their careers, it just adds to the meaning of this game.
“It’ll be real emotional, just from the standpoint that it’s going to be our last game on the field,” Christopher said. “Knowing that he would have been out there with us, it’s going to be something special. I’m not sure who’s wearing his jersey this week, but whoever it is, it’ll be real emotional for all of us.”