COLUMBIA – The seats in section 117 at Mizzou Arena subject the reporters and startled fans sitting there to the full dose of Mary Canon’s earsplitting yell.
The moment Canon lets loose her first piercing shriek during a game, those seated in the section directly below Canon’s luxury suite twist their heads to see where the obnoxious scream is coming from.
Given the yell’s ferocity and deafening volume, they’d likely be shocked to learn its origin is the lungs of a woman months shy of her 70th birthday. Despite her age, you’ll struggle to find a more intense and emotion-riding-on-each-and-every-play Tigers fan than Canon.
And you can bet you won’t hear a more unique and attention-grabbing yell.
The search for someone who knew about the woman and her less-than subtle cheering habits took just a quick question or two. When Canon arrives a half-hour in advance of the Missouri men's basketball game against Oklahoma State on Saturday, a member of the Mizzou Arena staff informs her that a reporter is interested in meeting her. After gaining approval, he makes the introduction.
Canon reacts like most would when told she produces a sound that, uh, “stands out,” and that her all-too distinguishable yell was the reason for the reporter’s visit.
But after a few awkward moments, Canon smiles, laughs and says she is completely fine – she even sounded flattered – with the idea of being the subject of a story. She raises the newborn trust to the next level by responding affirmatively when asked if she wouldn’t mind a note-taking visitor sitting next to her during the game. With the game less than 30 minutes away, there is no time to run and grab a pair of earplugs.
The 69-year-old, decked out in a bronze shirt with black tiger strips running diagonally across it, black and gold bead necklaces and gold earrings, is not an MU alumna, though you’d no doubt expect her to be. She was born in Marshall and attended Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) but has always been an avid Tigers fan.
For the past three years, Canon has made the one hour, 20 minute trip to Columbia from her home in Sedalia with her son Jeff Canon, who got rights to the luxury suite this year through the business he owns, ProEnergy Services. She attends just about every basketball and football game and even travels to a handful of road games.
“He sees to it to bring his mom to the games,” said Mary Canon, who doesn’t go to road games without her son. She attended her first game just three years ago, when her son started buying tickets. Until then, she watched every game on TV.
“At home I yell just as loud,” she said, smiling, like always. “There’s something about being in the arena. It just makes it so much better.”
Before moving to the luxury box this season, Jeff Canon had seats above the sideline, which put his mother even closer to other fans, who occasionally glanced back after one of her yells.
“It was like, ‘You’re bursting our ear drums,’” Mary Canon said.
She remains relatively unnoticed until the player introductions, when she clears her lungs and starts unleashing jubilant yells after hearing the name of each Missouri starter. During introductions, the arena is filled with noise from the blaring sound of “Eye of the Tiger” being played over the PA system and the cheers from more than 15,000 fans. But, even when you’re not sitting right next to her, you can make out her scream – which sounds like she’s riding a rollercoaster in the middle of a big drop.
Even before the ball is tipped, it’s clear Mary Canon is anything but an indifferent onlooker, there to enjoy the amenities of the luxury suite. Like the rest of the arena, she stands before the game begins and doesn’t sit down until Missouri scores its first basket. Then she sits anxiously with her fingers interlaced, hands often lifted underneath her chin, and her upper body tilted forward. And she never stays down long. After Tiger plays that are in the least bit meaningful or exciting, and sometimes when they’re not, she pops up from her padded, armrest-equipped chair and releases her yell while pumping her fully extended arms in the air. After really big plays, she shakes her forearms repeatedly in overflowing excitement. But none of her movements come close to matching that screeching yell.
“I just get into the game and do my own thing,” she said in her warm and unassuming voice, a contrast to the scream.
For Mary Canon, watching the game is intense. She constantly talks herself through the action on the court.
“Yes…Yes…,” she says as Missouri works toward a basket. During a sequence when Missouri looked caught in Oklahoma State’s fullcourt press, Mary Canon quivers. “Oooooh,” she says, cupping her mouth with her hands and relaxing only when the Tigers make it all the way through the trap.
When Laurence Bowers nearly travels, she shouts, “Oh don’t walk with that ball!”
Sharing the suite with a group dominated by men, many of them clients of her son, Mary Canon's basketball knowledge might be as advanced as any of them. She played the sport until eighth grade and said she was going to hurry home to catch the Kansas-Kansas State game on TV later that evening.
Missouri builds a big lead capped by 3-pointer by Michael Dixon Jr., which brings Mary Canon out of her seat.
"Yeaaahhh!" she screams. "Whooooo! Whooooo!"
But then the Tigers let the lead slip away quickly.
“Now boys you get to playing!” she shouts, scolding the Tigers like she might have a misbehaving child at the day care she operated until she retired last year.
When it’s announced that Marshall Moses, a key Oklahoma State player, had picked up his third foul with six minutes still left in the first half, she lets out a jubilant shriek, pleased that Moses would have to spend the rest of the half on the bench.
Later, following a Cowboys basket that resulted from a Tigers defensive lapse, she exhales a disgruntled “Ughhhh.”
“Oh that was too easy” she says. “Come on boys, don’t let them do that!”
Mary Canon is literally on the edge of her seat throughout the game, her mood changing with each play.
“We didn’t need that!” she yells after a foul is called on a Missouri player.
Although she’s often a wreck during games, she takes on the role of motivator.
“Come on boys, we’re playing to win,” she says.
“You’ll probably notice I try to help coach Anderson coach,” she tells her reporter friend.
Mary Canon hopes that her loud cheers encourage Missouri’s players, but “they wouldn’t want me down there close,” she says, laughing.
Opposing players might want to strangle her. Before almost every Oklahoma State free-throw attempt, she screams "Miss it!" as loud as she can, hoping it will alter the shot.
One time when it does, or at least when she thinks it does, she gets loud again.
"That was a good job," she says. "He missed it."
Even when the Cowboys simply release a shot, she screams, only slightly softer than when she's cheering for the Tigers.
Sitting next to Mary Canon, her yell overtakes the senses, and it's difficult to even process anything that's going on. The first few times, you raise your eyebrows and wonder how she can produce such a noise. After a while, the scream starts to sound a little less piercing. Eventually, once you know to expect one after any big play, the yell isn't so startling. Not that you can block it out. That's impossible.
Mary Canon occasionally takes sips from the two small bottles of Dasani water tucked beneath her seat. She yells so frequently – at least once every possession – that she often loses her voice the next day.
“Can hardly talk sometimes,” she says.
She will most certainly not chat during games. She laughs with the man sitting in front of her. She’d never confront him, but the man is actually sitting in her normal seat, the first one in the first row of the luxury box.
“I didn’t want to say anything,” she said. “That would be rude.”
When someone else moves from the back of the suite to talk to her, she politely acknowledges him, but keeps her attention focused on the court.
“We’re whippin’ em!” she says. Missouri is pulling away en route to a 95-80 win.
When the man leaves and says good-bye, Canon courteously turns her head then snaps it back to the game.
“I don’t have time for bye,” she says. “I have to keep my eyes on (the game). I’m not one to come and visit. I came to watch the game.”
With the game already decided, Mary Canon receives a call from her grandson.
“What am I doin?” she says. “I’m watching Missouri play ball.”
A few seconds later: “Yes we’re winning. We’re whippin 'em good.”
With just a few minutes left, Missouri's Justin Safford tips in a basket. For once, Mary Canon is silent. She simply clenches her fists and continues to watch the action. Just minutes later, though, she is back to her old ways.
The crowd begins an "M-I-Z...Z-O-U" chant. By the chant's third cycle, her "Z-O-U" has drowned out the other voices in her box. She is the last in her suite to stop chanting. As the final seconds tick away, Missouri, up by double digits, looks like its going to hold the ball and let the shot clock expire. But Bowers fires a 3-point attempt as the 35 seconds expire. He connects, and Mary Canon lets loose one last vigorous yell.
For anyone sitting anywhere remotely close to section 117, Mary Canon has become a staple of Missouri games. Her screaming cheers never cease, whether they are joined by those of other fans or not.
She acknowledges the enthusiasm she just can’t control.
“Hope I didn’t burst your eardrums,” she asks mid-game.
Not quite. But close.
Actually, it’d be hard to find a more fun way to spend a game than with Mary Canon. When Missouri plays Texas A&M on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena, Canon’s first shriek will make at least one reporter smile.
Unless he gets smart and buys some earplugs.