He might tear in the tunnel. In that moment before he jogs into Memorial Stadium for a final time, wide receiver Tommy Saunders might let his emotions flow free.
He insists spending senior day alongside linebacker Brock Christopher will be hard. Both grew up in Kearney, in suburban Kansas City. They spent three years together at Kearney High School. On Saturday evening, the game against Kansas State will mean more. It will mean recognizing their roots. It will mean maturation. It will mean paying it forward once more as teammates, as friends, as leaders. Together, they have experienced a lot.
“It’s not about playing on the field. It’s about the people,” Saunders said. “The guys you played with in high school. … The things you learn from each other. The things you go through with each other.
“Coming to college, you don’t know anything. Being able to carry that with some guy I shared the same things with in high school, it’s just amazing.”
They value their roots. Christopher moved to Kearney during the sixth grade. As he aged, he heard whispers about a dazzling star who commanded the respect of peers. Christopher met Saunders, a sophomore at the time, during his freshman year of high school. Saunders remembers Christopher as light-hearted. To draw laughs, Christopher sometimes smacked into bleachers or smashed into closed doors. On the football field, the pair made an instant impact. They led the Bulldogs to Class 4 state championships in 2002 and 2003. They excelled in basketball; in 2004, Kearney finished a surprising second place in the state tournament, behind powerhouse St. Louis-Vashon High School. Christopher and Saunders became close.
“When I first moved there, everyone looked up to Tommy,” Christopher said. “He was always the best athlete in the town and everyone looked up to him.
“We were able to build a great friendship over those years. We were on great basketball teams and great football teams. ...We still brag about that to this day.”
They have matured. Before Christopher arrived at MU, Saunders instructed him to become fit and to prepare himself for the rigors of major college football. The previous year, Saunders clawed his way onto the roster, despite being overlooked by Kansas City-area recruiter and wide receivers coach Andy Hill while in high school. Saunders received offers from Missouri State and Northern Iowa. But he was confident that he could make a name for himself in Columbia.
“When I decided to come here, I didn’t worry about starting,” Saunders said. “All I wanted to do was be the best player I could be.”
As a redshirt walk-on in 2004, he impressed coaches with his relentless work ethic. He blazed a trail for Christopher.
In the meantime, Christopher constructed an impressive high-school resume. As a senior, Rivals.com rated him as Missouri’s seventh-best prospect. He led Kearney’s defense in tackles all four years. With Saunders’ help, he arrived at Missouri with the familiarity of someone much older.
“He told me coming in that if I would hit people, I would play my freshman year,” Christopher said.
On Saturday, they will pay it forward once more. Mentors have touched Saunders. He credits former wide receivers Brad Ekwerekwu, Sean Coffey, Will Franklin and Greg Bracey as influential in allowing him to survive his early days at Missouri. Since, he has made it a point to push underclassmen wide receivers such as Jeremy Maclin, Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson. Teammates respect him for his humility. In August, he was named one of four senior captains.
Like Saunders, Christopher has become a leader. He has blossomed from his reserved former self into a respected catalyst of the Tigers’ defense. Teammates approach him for guidance. They look to him to make game-breaking plays such as his interception late in the fourth quarter last Saturday to preserve the victory over Baylor.
“It’s crazy that two people from our high school would come here and be so successful,” said freshman tight end Beau Brinkley, also from Kearney.
Said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon: “One thing I’ve noticed about Brock, his leadership is a lot better. He’s just that guy who you can look to.
“When things get tough, Tommy makes it a big emphasis to get the whole team together.
“A lot of people will know they were great football players at Mizzou.”
Come Saturday before kickoff, emotion in the tunnel might overcome them both. They say it will be difficult bidding farewell to a place that has defined their growth over the past four-plus years. Soon, it will all be gone. Students in gold shirts swaying to “The Missouri Waltz.” Cannon fire after each touchdown. The crowd’s roar after quarterback Chase Daniel connects with tight end Chase Coffman for an acrobatic score.
From Kearney to Columbia, Saunders and Christopher have made it. And their legacy continues.
“I have learned a lot about life from both,” Brinkley said. “I learn something new every day.”