COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team was hosting No. 10-ranked Nebraska in a nationally televised game on Oct. 11, 2003 at Memorial Stadium.
Down 24-21 with a fourth-and-goal looming, Missouri elected to kick the game-tying field goal from the 14-yard-line — or so everyone except the Tigers thought. Missouri kicker Mike Matheny lined up for the field goal and the ball was snapped to holder and back-up quarterback Sonny Riccio.
As Matheny ran toward the ball, starting his kicking motion, Riccio picked up the ball, spun around to his right and rolled out toward the Nebraska sideline. He lofted the ball into the end zone, floating it just over the fingertips of a Nebraska defender and into the hands of Missouri tight end Victor Sesay. Missouri took a 28-24 lead and never looked back, beating Nebraska 41-24 and ending a 24-game losing streak to the Cornhuskers.
“I think Sonny Riccio threw one of the biggest passes in Missouri football history. I think in a lot of ways he has a legacy here,” said Missouri co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker, who recruited Riccio to Columbia.
Riccio was recruited to Missouri to be a starting quarterback, but after falling behind Brad Smith on the depth chart, Riccio decided to transfer to Delaware after the 2003 season with the hopes of starting for the Blue Hens.
While it’s a long and arduous process to recruit high school players to Missouri, once those players get here, keeping former high school stars happy becomes difficult.
In early December of 2000, Sonny Riccio was still sorting through his potential college choices. He was being recruiting by Bowling Green, Ball State and many other Mid-American Conference schools, but a new suitor popped onto to his radar: the Tigers.
Just weeks before, Toledo head coach Gary Pinkel had been hired by MU to replace Larry Smith, bringing with him many of his Toledo assistant coaches, including Bruce Walker.
Walker learned about Riccio in 1997 while recruiting Lincoln High School (Ellwood City, Pa.) linebacker David Gardner. At a practice, Walker watched his future Toledo linebacker, but also noticed Riccio, just a freshman quarterback at the time — a player Walker would track in the future.
At Toledo, Walker recruited Riccio and continued to do so when Walker switched to MU. Riccio was ecstatic to be given the chance to play college football in the Big 12. But the young player hesitated even though the Tigers were his best offer. A 12-hour drive from his hometown to Columbia would make traveling difficult for his parents, so he continued to look at all of his options and listened to teams’ pitches.
“The coaches sit in your living room and talk with your parents, tell you how they are going to take care of you, look after you even off the field,” Riccio said. “They tell your parents that they have everything you could possibly imagine to take care of your son for the next four to five years.”
Former Missouri wide receiver Brad Ekwerekwu said coaches try to paint the perfect picture of the university.
“It’s their best sell,” he said. “They make you see what the school looks like on the sunniest of sunny days.”
While Riccio was cautious not to get overly swayed by the recruiting coaches’ standard lip service, the day-to-day process of recruiting enthralled him.
“They come to your school and pull you out of class,” he said. “It’s exciting for a high school kid. You’re in the middle of a science or a math class and a college recruiter comes and simply takes you out of it.”
Riccio saw Missouri as a program on the rise, so he decided to take an official visit. In Columbia, he loved everything he saw. The facilities were grand and sparkling. The academics available would help him grow as a person. And he had strong relationships with the coaches, particularly Walker.
Those relationships, Riccio said, were instrumental in him selecting the Tigers. It’s a concept not lost on the Missouri coaching staff.
“That’s the most important factor in recruiting, period,” Walker said.
While most people think high school players choose schools based on a name, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“There are so many different reasons that different kids make decisions,” said Gabe DeArmond, publisher of PowerMizzou.com, a Web site that follows Missouri recruiting. “And despite what fans think, very few of them are based on if team ‘A’ beat team ‘B’ or if team ‘A’ finished ahead of team ‘B’ in the standings last year.”
During the recruiting process, the ability to play early was a factor for Riccio. Missouri told him that he would likely redshirt his first year on campus, but after his redshirt year, the depth chart was wide open. However, the Missouri coaches cautioned him that playing is never promised.
“Playing time is always a factor in the recruiting process, but playing time isn’t determined until you get here,” Walker said.
Riccio was also told about the other players Missouri was recruiting, including another dual-threat quarterback who went to school less than 40 miles away from Riccio in Youngstown, Ohio. An ardent competitor, Riccio committed to Missouri fully aware he would have to fight for a starting job with another member of his recruiting class.
That Youngstown quarterback was Brad Smith.
Quicker and more athletic by Riccio’s own admission, Smith got the upper hand. In 2002, Smith became the starter as a redshirt freshman and Riccio took the reigns as the third-string quarterback. He worked hard and with a strong spring game showing in 2003 against the team’s starting defense, he ascended to Smith’s back-up for his sophomore season.
Having such a capable back-up forced Smith to avoid complacency.
“Even as a back-up, you have to prepare like a starter,” Smith said. “Just knowing that you have a guy capable behind you, a guy that can lead the team, it’s a comfortable feeling, but it also keeps you focused and keeps you trying to get better.”
In his limited minutes, Riccio made them count, passing for 134 yards and two touchdowns in 22 passing attempts, including the fake field goal touchdown against Nebraska.
“I just told myself, ‘Sonny, whenever you get in the game, relax and just do what you know how to do,’” Riccio said.
Ekwerekwu, who currently serves as a mentor for some of the younger Missouri football players, said frustration about playing time is quite common. In their first couple of years on campus, many of the players don’t even see the field, causing them to feel insignificant.
“When you practice hard all week and you don’t get to play in the game, you kind of feel like your work is for nothing,” he said.
Ekwerekwu said the younger players express their frustration to him, feeling that no matter how well they practice, the coaches still won’t notice or award them playing time.
Ekwerekwu understands, having dealt with his own playing time issues. As a true freshman, the coaching staff vacillated between keeping him redshirted and playing him. Eventually his redshirt was burned five games into the 2003 season, but he only totaled 11 catches his first year at Missouri, making him wonder whether playing that year was worth it.
While Ekwerekwu only played with Riccio in 2003, he said he understood Riccio’s aggravation. Despite being stuck behind Smith who had the same eligibility as Riccio, he always remained a team-first player.
“Absolutely, without a question (Riccio was a great teammate). He was a funny guy, one of the funniest I’ve ever met,” Smith said. “Even in his situation, he kept guys loose. He had fun in his role and that says a lot about his character.”
During the offseason, Riccio asked the coaching staff for an increased role in the offense. He was told that he would get a spot series here and there in the regular season, but it never happened.
“The worst thing for a coaching staff is a quarterback controversy, and so they wanted to avoid it at all costs,” Riccio said.
He also played the most competitive position in football.
“Sometimes you get in tough situations at certain positions like quarterback where it’s a tough deal,” Walker said. “It’s not like the guard spot or wide receivers where you can mix in guys.”
After the Tigers’ Independence Bowl game against Arkansas in 2003, wide receivers coach Andy Hill came up to Riccio and told him how much he appreciated his efforts and said if he ever needed anything, just to let Hill know.
“They knew I was going to transfer before I even did. The coaches knew I was frustrated, but I never showed it,” Riccio said. “I’ve always wanted to do things the right way, that’s just the way I was brought up.”
When he transferred to the University of Delaware — a place he would throw for over 4,500 yards and 29 touchdowns in two seasons as starting quarterback — there was no angst against him. Everyone understood that he just wanted the chance to play, something he wouldn’t get at MU.
“He was a great teammate,” said current offensive coordinator David Yost who was Riccio’s quarterback coach. “I know the guys here and the guys who played with him have great respect for him and he’s always going to be a teammate of theirs even though he ended up as a Delaware Blue Hen. He’ll always be a Missouri Tiger.”