COLUMBIA — As I walked up to Little Joe before Saturday's game against Miami (Ohio) University, I realized that somehow I’d never even taken the time to look at him before.
I expected a massive pirate ship-like silver cannon. But Little Joe, the cannon in the north end zone of Faurot Field, is actually a rather sleek, camouflage-painted artillery piece with a barrel just big enough to fit a canister the width of a jumbo can of soup.
Missouri scored seven touchdowns in its 51-13 rout of Miami of Ohio on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers used four running backs in the game who combined for 236 yards on 38 rushes. All four backs, De'Vion Moore, Henry Josey, Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy scored a touchdown for the Tigers.
T.J. Moe caught seven passes for 95 yards to help the Tigers (4-0) go undefeated in nonconference play for the fifth consecutive season.
The Missouri defense forced three turnovers, each one leading to a Tigers touchdown.
Safety Kenji Jackson led the Tigers in tackles, registering 13 tackles and forcing one of Miami's five fumbles.
The Cannon Crew consists of 12 members of the Army ROTC program. Two hours before kickoff they take turns practicing the pulls that would later create the thunderous thuds. It’s a quick, downward yank. For now, the empty cannon just lets out a quiet click.
Twenty-five minutes later, it’s almost time for the first explosion of the day. Little Joe will boom for the first time 90 minutes before kickoff to signify the opening of the gates.
“You’re going to want to put your earplugs in,” Battalion Cmdr. James Shannon of the Army ROTC program tells me.
I quickly jam the foam plugs into my ears and follow my instincts screaming at me to back up.
From about 15 feet away I watch two officers prep Little Joe. They feed him a shiny gold canister, turn a handle to lock it into place and attach the braided lanyard that works as the trigger, and he’s ready to go.
As the clock on the scoreboard begins to countdown from 90 there’s a whole lot of yelling and signals, and before I can properly brace myself I hear, “Fire!”
The sound of the blast is deep. Just as my ears begin to ring, the aftershock hits me. Air pushes my knees inward and quickly makes its way up to my chest.
The turf below me rumbles for a second. I listen to the boom resonate farther and farther away.
Little Joe is a lot friendlier when you know he’s coming. From up close, he’s even sort of fun.
Everyone breaks for lunch. The next firing won’t be until the Tigers run onto the field right before game time.
There’s a lot more drama leading up to take two. Fans have filled the stadium, and Missouri’s pregame highlight reel is playing on the big screen. This year’s song that is supposed to get everyone pumped up is a modern, techno version of a train accelerating to max speed.
It’s a direct representation of my heart rate. I stand directly behind Little Joe. I want the full effect.
I get the same feeling in my stomach that I get before jumping into a cold pool. I know what’s coming, but I really don’t want it to. I take out one of my earplugs. The Army guys don’t wear them. Why should I?
This time, I actually manage to keep my eyes open and see the bright orange flame shoot out of Little Joe. A thick cloud of smoke follows.
Missouri quickly puts up 21 points in the first quarter, and each time my spine vibrates.
Meanwhile, junior Andrew Lang is prepping for his first play date with Little Joe.
“I almost lost some sleep last night worrying about if I just couldn’t get it,” Lang said. “Today, I woke up, got a couple of practices in there and I’m ready to go.”
Lang’s been around the bang before, but actually being the one to turn more than 60,000 heads — that’s a new feeling.
“It’s a hell of a lot of power,” he said. “When I do it, I want to shake this whole stadium. It’s going to be shaking me because I’m one foot away from it.”
After being psyched out when Michael Sam’s interception return for a touchdown was called back on a penalty, Lang knew his moment was coming.
“I got a little jitterish after that,” Lang said. “I thought to myself ‘Hell, am I going to do this or not?’ But we got the ball and we know Mizzou, we know they’re going to score, so they got me ready. I locked my forearms, ready to go again. I pulled that baby.
“Boom! Seven points on the board.”