COLUMBIA — It’s the haircut. It has to be.
How else could Jaron Baston manage to blend into the crowd walking off the field inside Daniel Devine Pavillion? There’s no way. Certainly not with that voice, the one that dominates every Missouri practice. Or with that hair, long, curly black, jutting outwards before turning back down, like the top of a palm tree.
Baylor Bears (3-5, 0-4)
at Missouri Tigers (5-3, 1-3)
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
But this week most of the hair is gone. And as some of his teammates are pulled aside for interviews, so is Baston.
Jaron Baston has always been hard to miss. It just hasn’t always been for the right reasons. Baston’s first few seasons at Missouri were filled with the actions of a young college student abusing his freedom. He missed classes, and was often late when he did show up. He was a disruption during mandatory study halls. His only concern was about himself.
“It was more of just me being immature, putting myself before the team,” Baston said.
“I was 18, 19 at the time. I was young, and I made a lot of mistakes.”
Baston is 22 now. He’s also a team captain, and an undisputed leader of the Missouri defense. He is an example, and not as a cautionary tale, but of how far one player can come. There was a time when Jaron Baston’s voice was met with rolling eyes and gritted teeth, just another big mouth spouting off. Now, when Jaron Baston speaks, people listen.
The senior defensive tackle says that over the past five years no player has seen the inside of coach Gary Pinkel's office more than he has, and he says it in a way that doesn't make it sound like a good thing. This wasn't a privileged right to see the inner sanctum. It was more like a trip to the principal's office.
"I just was getting in so much trouble," Baston said. "It wasn't stuff that was that bad. But one thing leads up to the next thing, and you've got a bunch of stuff and it starts becoming a headache."
Along with his lapses in responsibility, his mouth and his temper continued to hold him back. There were spats with coaches and with other teammates, who would often see just how far they could push him.
"Guys would like hide my shoes, say certain stuff, just to see if they could piss me off," Baston said. "And they could. Back then, I had a short temper."
Finally, Pinkel gave Baston an ultimatum. There were no more chances. He could straighten up, or he could go.
Asked when this meeting happened, Baston thinks for a moment before recalling that it was during his sophomore year. He reaches the conclusion not because of any context from his own career, but because of someone else's. That was Lorenzo Williams' senior season.
Williams' name still lingers, even two years after his final year at Missouri. Veteran defensive players like Sean Weatherspoon still speak of him with an undeniable reverence. But for Baston it's different. "Zo" was more than just a memorable senior leader. "Zo" is part of why Pinkel never had to go through with his threat. "Zo" is a big part of why he's still here.
There were times back then when the two of them would spend all night at Williams' house talking. And while everyone from teammates to alumni admired Williams, Baston saw him as more than a football player and a leader.
"I'm the oldest brother, so I kind of had to learn everything on my own," Baston said. "When I met Lorenzo, he kind of just took me under his arm and showed me the right things to do. I took after him as a big brother. Everybody around here respected him. I kind of looked at him and wanted to portray the things that he had. I wanted to be respected the way that he was respected."
Just as Baston finishes the thought Weatherspoon yells as he enters the tunnel toward the Missouri locker room, chastising Baston for doing an interview while the rest of his teammates head inside to watch film.
"See man. There ya go," Baston said. "Takin' all my shine. Takin' my stats. I don't get no love."
Baston finishes with a laugh, but he's only half kidding. "Shine" is the word that Baston uses to describe publicity, credit, from the media and the casual observer. He also admits that it's something he's never gotten. On any other team, he'd be lauded as a vocal leader. But it's often a one-man race with a talkative All-American behind him. At any other position he'd be talked about as a defensive force. But last time he checked, double-teams faced aren't something they chart. He feels like he makes just as many great plays as much-talked-about superstars like Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy. But he understands that being a nose tackle comes with the price of anonymity.
"Sometimes I feel like I do a lot of great things on this team being a football player and a leader," Baston said. "But it's always going to be the stars on the team that take your shine."
As a competitor, the lack of credit gets to him at times. He knows how hard he's worked. But this isn't Jaron Baston three years ago. This is Jaron Baston now. What goes on outside of the Missouri locker room isn't what's important.
"I think my teammates know what I do," Baston said. "That's all that matters."
Senior defensive end Brian Coulter talks about how when he arrived on campus as a junior college transfer last season it was Baston who opened up his home, something Baston says he probably would've handled differently in the past. And now, when young players arrive at MU, current players often point them in Baston's direction. Baston has seen the best (2007's Cotton Bowl victory) and the worst (2005's 45-35 home loss to New Mexico) of Missouri football in the past five years, and it's seen the best and worst of him.
"I can relate to them in any type of situation, whether it be a negative situation or a good situation," Baston said.
He says that he can relate to any of the players on the Missouri roster, and he credits that ability for his selection as a captain before the start of the season. He says that the vote, which was unanimous, wasn't a finishing point. It wasn't the culmination. But he does know that it's indicative of the respect he envisioned back when he watched Williams gain the admiration of everyone around him.
"It's not up to the media," Baston said. It's not up to other people who really don't know you. It's up to your teammates who are around you every day, people who know your personality whether it's the good side or the bad side."
Baston tries to be an example with his daily practice habits. He's proudest of how much "he's worked his butt off" to get here. But his new title is best seen on game day. Before every game Baston addresses the defense as a whole. And it listens.
"Whenever Jaron talks he demands your attention," Coulter said. "He wants your eyes. He wants your focus on him and he wants you to take in what he says."
Baston says that he can't say what exactly his speeches consist of, but Coutler gives an idea. He says that Baston talks about himself, about how he is going to be the one people feed off.
The added attention of being a captain has also brought added attempts from teammates to push Baston's buttons. But a few years has made every hidden shoe or verbal jab a bit easier to dodge.
"I always felt that my pride was on the line with everything," Baston said. "I felt like I had to prove myself to everybody. Now I prove myself on the football field. At the end of the day I'll laugh it off. I usually come out on top anyway."