HOUSTON — John Huff steps to the microphone on stage in the front of a crowded Liberty Hall at the JW Marriott in Houston.
The Texas Bowl Chairman begins his speech to the tables full of players, parents and alumni at the Texas Bowl team luncheon Tuesday by conducting an unofficial, but telling, survey:
Missouri (8-4) vs. Navy (9-4)
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
"How many of you played football on Friday night in the state of Texas?"
So many people stand — players, parents, and alumni — that the view of the stage disappears. At a table near the doors of the banquet hall nearly everyone is standing. Sean Weatherspoon from Jasper. Danario Alexander from Marlin. Kevin Rutland from Houston. Jared Perry from La Marque.
Missouri's Texas Bowl appearance is the team's fourth straight bowl game in the state of Texas, and there are about 50 combined players from the state on the Navy and Missouri rosters. For Missouri coach Gary Pinkel the return trip to Texas and a chance for many of his players to play close to home are some off the most important elements of the week.
Alexander managed to slip it in as he introduced himself for the player question-and-answer session during Tuesday's luncheon. Rather than specify his position or year Alexander let the crowd know that he was home: Danario Alexander from Marlin, Texas.
Later, the players from Texas were asked about playing back in their home state. Did Alexander have any friends or family coming to the game?
"About 6,000 people from my hometown," Alexander said to the delight of the crowd which responded with a unified laugh.
Six thousand is nearly the entirely population of the small Texas town. Its size is similar to Weatherspoon's home town of Jasper.
"Everybody's been calling me trying to get tickets and stuff like that," Weatherspoon said. "It's my last game, and for it be in the state of Texas, it's a big deal, because it's basically a home game."
The annual trip has become commonplace for both senior captains. There was the Sun Bowl in El Paso their freshman year. Then the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, followed by the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, and now a trip to southeast Texas and the nation's fourth largest city. But for the team's younger Texans, and especially its Houstonians such as Jerrell Jackson, the week has been a chance to play host.
"Everybody's been going to (Jerrell's) house," Weatherspoon said. "Whenever it's time to go out and see some nightlife you can kind of see us migrating toward those guys."
The benefits aren't limited to a few familiar faces in the stands and a knowledgeable set of eyes at the front of the group. Along with the state of Missouri, Texas is one of Pinkel's biggest recruiting hubs. The increasing visibility of the Missouri program and its continued postseason presence in the state allows the program to further establish itself in one of the country's prized collections of high school talent.
"For us to be down here and to be in the media, the daily media, for people to learn more about our program, I think it’s just a huge, huge plus for us," Pinkel said.
For most of the year Missouri isn't much more than a logo to high school players and coaches throughout the country. The program's marketing is little more than national television appearances or the occasional sighting of an NFL player. Bowl games allow for other coaches to see the program up close and to understand the environment their players would be entering with the Tigers.
"We had 15 high school coaches at yesterday’s practice," Pinkel said. "That’s nice because they get to actually see you coach and see you teach and see you interact with players."
But for all the advantages the program may receive down the line, the hometown stage is still meant for many of Pinkel's stars who will be spending their final four quarters as Missouri Tigers. And for them, this is the way they'd like to go.
"It's a perfect way to end it," Alexander said. "For this season and the way it's going for me, to play in front of my home state and people from my hometown, this is the way I'd want it."