COLUMBIA — Carl Gettis stands in his own end zone with the football in his hands and a split-second decision to make.
Gettis, a sophomore cornerback on the Missouri football team, has just intercepted an Iowa State pass, and in his mind, he can hear Tigers coach Gary Pinkel reminding him to do the safe thing and down the ball in the end zone. The Tigers have the game well in hand, and the risk of a mistake on this half of the field is too great.
Missouri (9-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: San Antonio
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM
But two years ago, Gettis was a running back, and now his old skills are coming back to him. He still has the vision, and he sees daylight in front of him. That’s all he needs, and after a brief pause, he takes off running.
“I was looking down the field, and I didn’t see anybody downfield except the quarterback,” Gettis said. “I had a couple linemen in front of me, and I just decided to go ahead and take my chances and bring it out.”
On his try for a 100-plus yard touchdown return, though, disaster strikes in the form of Scott Haughton, the last man in his path. The Cyclone lineman knocks Gettis out of bounds at the Missouri 25. It doesn’t matter to his teammates, who celebrate his play.
But for Gettis, as happy as he is about his first interception of the year, there’s a bit of disappointment. He knows he is going to hear about not scoring from the other members of the Tigers’ secondary.
“I’ve got to get on him,” Castine Bridges says with a laugh.
Bridges, who was Missouri’s most experienced starting cornerback before his injury against Kansas, lets everyone around him know he’s not going to let Gettis hear the end of this one. That includes Gettis, who is standing 10 feet away and has to listen to Bridges tell someone else exactly what he did wrong on the return.
“I think he’s forgetting about his running back skills he got in high school,” Bridges says, laughing hard. “He should have cut it.”
As Bridges says that, Gettis turns his head down in mock shame. But he is ready with a response.
“He’ll probably joke with me that I didn’t take it back,” Gettis said. “I’ll just joke with him that he didn’t get one this game.”
It’s all in fun, a good-natured exchange between two teammates and close friends. It’s also something that’s almost over, because with Bridges and safeties William Moore and Justin Garrett graduating, Gettis is the only starter on the Missouri secondary who will be back in Columbia next season.
Given the secondary’s camaraderie, it has been like family members passing the torch to the next leader.
“He’s like our little brother,” Garrett says with a smile. “He fits right in. He’s the one making the plays. He’s big time.”
Gettis might already be big time with his play, but like a little brother, he has been content to let the more experienced defensive backs lead the group while they’re around.
He also knows that once they’re gone, he will have to fill their leadership roles, a challenge he says he is prepared for.
“I definitely have to step up next season,” Gettis said. “When the opportunity shows itself, I try to show the characteristics of leadership. But I don’t feel that I have to be the main vocal leader this year.”
Listen to Carl Gettis talk for a few minutes, and it becomes obvious why Bridges, Garrett and Moore have no doubts about his ability to take over in 2009.
Everything he says is thought out, with a certain calmness and a quiet maturity that suggests he knows exactly what he’s talking about. There’s a sense that he has a plan for the future when he discusses the leadership styles of Moore, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, and that sense is heightened when Gettis says he has studied all of them and has learned from all of them.
“You have to learn how to be a leader before you can just become a leader,” he said. “With Spoon, you’ve got a vocal leader. In Ziggy, you’ve got a quiet leader who just gets his job done, and then you’ve got Mo, who’ll do a little bit of both.”
Gettis said that his leadership style will likely be patterned after Moore’s. That’s not a surprise to Moore, who said enthusiasm and vocal leadership is what Gettis has learned most from him.
“Carl’s been good since the day he stepped into the program,” Moore said. “It’s not unexpected. He’s become more vocal, and his leadership is just going out and making plays. I definitely think he’ll be the leader. I tell him every day to step it up, because next year, you’ll be running it. I definitely think he’s up to the task.”
Gettis’ lessons haven’t stopped with leadership. But when he talks about the skills he has picked up from his teammates, he doesn’t sound like the typical sophomore, trying to simply process information. Nor does he sound like someone who switched positions two years ago.
Instead, Gettis’ smooth voice and detailed description of what he’s learned makes him sound like he’s a coach, preparing a scouting report on each of his players’ strengths and adapting them to complement what that player does well.
“Castine, watching him play, he taught me a lot about being more physical, not worrying about being hurt,” Gettis said. “Tru (Vaughns, another senior cornerback) has real good footwork. I’ve been watching Tru’s footwork, everything he does as a defensive back with his footwork. J.G. (Garrett), he’s coming down like a missile to lay the wood on somebody. That’s something I like about J.G.”
It is that combination of natural talent, natural leadership and the desire to learn and make himself better that have earned Gettis the respect of the Missouri secondary, something Garrett thinks will serve him well next year.
“I think he’ll do a good job, because everyone respects him back there,” Garrett said. “Knowing that us three are going to be gone, he’s the man now. He’s got to run the show.”