As far back as the early 1990s, I remember my father and I talking about seeing a Mizzou football game together.
Growing up in St. Louis, all I knew about Mizzou was that it had a good football team. When area high school players signed on to play at MU, their reps were sealed. In the pre-Rams era, my city had no real football team to get behind, and many St. Louisans bought season tickets for Mizzou games. They still do.
For some reason, my father and I never made it to a game — until last fall. By then I had moved to Columbia for graduate school, my parents had divorced and my dad was living alone in Farmington. When he asked me for a good time to visit, I said to check the football schedule. He laughed and insisted on buying the tickets. It took 15 years, but finally we would watch the Tigers do battle against the Furman Paladins the following Saturday on Faurot Field.
Having worked jobs in other states, I hadn’t seen much of my father in the last few years. Seeing him now was unsettling, to say the least. A one-time college basketball guard who enjoyed jogging and tennis into his late 40s, he’d suffered an aortic aneurysm eight years ago. He never fully recovered, and now stood well under the six feet he once measured. His appearance was hunched over and frail, his arms shaking with a steady tremor.
His hand tightly gripped my own as we navigated the amped-up crowd until we reached a grassy knoll that doubled as nosebleed seats. Just getting there seemed to tire him, and we spent much of the first quarter in silence amid the cheers and ROTC cannon fire.
My dad was never an easy person to talk to. A psychotherapist who now counseled prisoners, he went through life as a listener rather than a talker. I moved back to Missouri in part to be closer to him — to connect in a way that we hadn’t before.
Midway in the second quarter, I found myself criticizing him for his flaws. I don’t recall my exact words, but the undercurrent was yet another reminder that he had spent my teen years in the latent stages of alcoholism, leaving me bereft of a strong male figure when I most needed one.
Rather than reply, my father just smiled sadly. His lack of words shamed me, and I quickly changed the subject. I told him about my classes, my future plans and introduced him to friends sitting nearby.
Shortly after halftime, with the Tigers enjoying a commanding lead, my dad said the crowd was getting to him. As before, he held onto me until we exited the stadium. After driving me home, he told me that he was proud to have me as his son. Then he was gone.
I had no way of knowing, but that day on Faurot Field was the last time I would see my father alive. Two weeks later, police officers pulled me out of class to inform me that he’d died of a heart attack. He was only 63.
A year later, it’s with very different eyes that I’m anticipating the 2010 season.
It would be easy for me to claim the bona fides of Tiger fandom — as an MU student, a native Missourian, a former football player. But I didn't truly feel part of a longstanding tradition until my dad and I lived up to the promise of attending a game together.
There’s a lot of speculation about Mizzou’s odds in the last season of the old Big 12 Conference. Coming off five straight bowl appearances, the Tigers have hit their best winning streak in decades.
Of late, however, the Tigers are receiving as much press for their performance off the field, especially tailback Derrick Washington’s suspension and subsequent felony charge. Can they pull it together in time? We’ll see.
Regardless, as the Tigers take the field against Illinois this weekend, I’ll be cheering for a team that’s more than worthy of respect. I’ll be supporting a school I’ve come to love. I’ll be reminiscing my own years running around in cleats on Saturday afternoons.
And I’ll be thinking of my dad.
Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU.