COLUMBIA — The tailbacks are taking a knee on the sideline during Missouri's second scrimmage of the preseason. At 5 feet 11 inches and 250 pounds, Jared Culver doesn’t quite fit in with the group of shifty speedsters. He’s 35 pounds heavier than the next biggest back.
His teammates describe him as a punisher, a big bruiser. When he runs down the field, he looks like a slow rolling bowling ball, knocking down all the pins that get in his way.
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But Culver’s not just some big oaf that the Tigers will call in to gain a few inches when they need him. He’s a gifted athlete who participated in three sports in high school.
Football, baseball and cheerleading.
Yep, cheerleading. Culver, who goes by Big Bowser, like the monster from Mario video games, spent his junior and senior years of high school roaming the sidelines and practicing routines during the winter.
“Oh man,” fellow tailback Derrick Washington mumbles after about a minute straight of laughter. “It’s funny. I guess it’s his past. We don’t know what was going on with that.”
But Culver’s not embarrassed about his time on the squad.
“I took a lot of heat my freshman year,” said Culver, now a redshirt sophomore. “They saw pictures on Facebook. I’m not going to hide it. I was a cheerleader for two years and it was a lot of fun.”
After his sophomore year of high school Culver decided that he wanted to focus more on football and baseball, so he quit playing basketball. But that left him with too much spare time.
“A lot of my friends did cheerleading,” Culver said. “Me and my best friend went to go to just goof around them, and they wanted us to stay. Then coach asked us to stay around for the year.”
His first year on the squad, the Downers Grove South High School cheerleaders placed third in Illinois, and they were the state runners-up his senior year.
“I learned a great deal about the cheerleaders,” Culver said. “What they do is very hard. You’ve got to run around and scream, pick people up, do flips and everything else. I remember I was one of the guys who was always like, ‘Cheerleading is not a sport,’ until I did it. It was pretty tough.”
That’s something his current teammates are still be trying to understand.
“A lot of guys know,” Washington said. “They found pictures. People got on him for that. It took a while for guys to get over it, and then recently the freshman found out. They’ve been drilling him for it. I know he don’t like that too much, but hey, you was a cheerleader, so that’s what it is.”
While Culver doesn’t try to convince his teammates that cheerleading is the tougher than football, he does say it’s one of the hardest sports he’s played.
“There’s nothing like football,” Culver said. “I still say football is one of the toughest sports out there, but I got injured most in cheerleading. There’s no pads, you got to focus solely on other people, and if one person messes up the whole group’s got to take the punishment.”
There’s no doubt that the pain he went through as a cheerleader and the amount of practice it took to perfect a routine has benefited him at MU. In his third year with the Tigers, Culver has learned how to fit into an offense built around speed, while he is the only power back.
“I still do the same things everybody else does,” Culver said. “I run the same routes and everything. I just put a different twist to it. When I catch the ball, I’m down field more, running hard. Coach says every time I get the ball, just punish someone, so that’s what I try to do.”
And regardless of the fact that Culver might be able to fill in during the halftime routine, his teammates know one thing – don’t get in his way.
“When he’s coming down hill and he drops that shoulder on you, it’s going to be tough to stay up,” Washington said. “He’s going to punish you. If you catch him and it’s one-on-one, you’re going to end up on your back. Guaranteed.”