COLUMBIA — When Big MO lets loose in the end zone at Memorial Stadium during a football game, everyone in the stands knows what it means — a score for the Missouri Tigers.
Big MO is the 6-foot, 150-pound bass drum that sounds like rolling thunder when it's pounded in the end zone. The drum, with a rich history that includes a role in Chicago theatrical productions, has been a presence at Missouri home games since 1981.
The drum and its crew have even gained celebrity-like status.
“One time a random girl in the stands proposed marriage to me," said David Champlin, a member of the team that handles Big MO. "That was kind of weird.”
“It comes with the territory,” added John Shetley, another crew member.
During the game against Furman University on Sept. 19, a woman skirted past security to ask Champlin if she could beat the drum. He obliged, and she was beside herself with delight.
“Thank you,” she told him. "You just made my day."
Later in the game, a group of girls in the stands screamed when the backup quarterback Jimmy Costello came onto the field. The screams came from just behind where Big MO was stationed with crew member D.J. Tucker.
"I thought they were screaming for me," he said.
Champlin (known as “Big Dave”) and Shetley (“Big John”) have been on the Big MO crew for a combined seven years. They are responsible for game-day activities: racing the drum through the end zone, leading the M-I-Z / Z-O-U cheers and making as much commotion as possible when the Tigers are on defense.
An air of mystery has long surrounded the origins of Big MO. The drum came to MU in 1981 as a gift to the university from the St. Louis Quarterback Club (now called the St. Louis Tiger Club). The club is an athletic booster organization officially sanctioned by MU.
Bob Harrison, a 1964 graduate who serves on the Tiger Club's board of directors, said he recently discovered a letter from June 1981 detailing the club’s $5,000 donation to purchase "the world’s third-largest drum."
Big MO was manufactured by Ludwig Drums in Chicago. Jay Joern, a 1972 MU graduate and a member of the board at the time the purchase was made, recalled that it was painted red with gold flakes. Mostly it sat in storage, but the drum was occasionally rented out for carnivals and Broadway productions in Chicago.
Getting such a large drum to Columbia proved to be a challenge.
“We must have stopped three or four times on I-55 coming back to fasten it down in the back of the pickup," Joern said. "We’re lucky it didn’t rain."
Once in Columbia, the drum was painted black and presented to the university at the Tiger Fall Rally the week before the first football game in 1981.
Joern thought Marching Mizzou would be able to use the drum in formation, much as the University of Texas and Purdue University do. Yet from the beginning, Big MO has been the center of its own show on the sidelines.
In 1993, responsibility for the drum was transferred to honorary band-service organizations Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma. They help pay for improvements to the drum and recently purchased two new drumheads at a cost of $2,000.
Only members of the two organizations are eligible to be on the Big MO crew, with requisites for height, weight and physical condition.
“Basically, you’ve got to be able to control the drum and not let it run over you, because it’s heavy," Shetley said. "When you’re running down the field during pre-game or after touchdowns, it takes a lot to stop it."
No background in drumming is required. Both Champlin and Shetley played sousaphone for four years in Marching Mizzou.
“There’s a lot of interest in the drum line to play it, but they think it’s too heavy,” Champlin said.
Not everyone is a fan of the big drum.
At the 2007 game against Nebraska, a Nebraska band director confronted Champlin about hitting Big MO before the Huskers snapped the ball.
“You know you can’t do that,” Champlin recalled him saying. To which Champlin replied, “Try to stop me.”
As a rule, the crew isn’t allowed to make noise during announcements at a game. They must stop hitting the drum as soon as the ball is snapped and play begins; the same regulation governs Marching Mizzou.
More than anything, Champlin and Shetley say they are dedicated Tigers fans, happy to be as close as possible to the team they love.
"The best thing about it is that we’re down there on the field seeing the team play," Champlin said. "I love Mizzou football.”