COLUMBIA — Clogged, chaotic, cramped — exactly what Missouri wanted.
The atmosphere surrounding Memorial Stadium before Missouri's game against Oklahoma on Saturday night was almost stifling. Simply getting to where you needed to be involved a lot more than it should: elbows and “excuse mes” and even the occasional shove. In the two weeks since Missouri’s last home game against Colorado, something has changed. Missouri, both its team and its fans, began to compete on a higher level.
At 5 p.m., half an hour before the gates to the stadium opened, fans were lined up 20-deep at each entrance, waiting for the chance to storm their seats. Others slumped against the walls of the stadium, looking almost exhausted by the effort of arriving. Gilbert Joehl leaned against a metal barricade at Gate 2W, third in line, examining his ticket and plotting exactly where he’d like to sit.
“Here’s the problem,” Joehl said, pointing to his ticket. “General admission, the hill.”
Like thousands of other fans, Joehl had no assigned seat, and he was forced to arrive earlier than he usually does for the game. Not interested in paying $80 or $150 for a ticket, fans like Joehl had no choice but to crowd the gates and compete to enter the stadium first, before the hill’s grass disappeared and open space was measured in inches.
Back in the parking lot, the tailgate raged. Ticket scalpers fanned their prized commodities, waving them in the air. People offered sums of twice, three times face value to buy their way into what could be Missouri’s biggest home game in decades. Two scalpers, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that it was the biggest crowd they’d seen in their careers. Both said they'd been working the area around the stadium for about 20 years.
Long-time Oklahoma fan Steve Medina of Bartlesville, Okla. roamed the parking lot, taking in the sights. In his red Sooner T-shirt and white cowboy hat covered in Oklahoma emblems, Medina looked curious, almost comfortable. The crowd was nothing out of the ordinary for someone familiar with game days in Norman.
“It’s pretty chaotic, I guess,” Medina said. “It’s a great atmosphere.”
Medina said that he wasn’t sure he expected the energy at Missouri, that he was enjoying his time there. He said that the fans seemed excited for their team’s chance to play in such a big game but not at all as hostile as other home crowds.
“They’re great as far as talking with you, visiting with you and hollering at you,” Medina said. “We don’t get a whole lot of hoo-rah like generally we sometimes do.”
The crowd at this, Missouri’s first home sellout since its game against Texas on Oct. 24, 2009, was more than the passages and aisles of the stadium. Simply finding the proper gate was a challenge, as the space between tailgate tents and trunks seemed like a too-crowded, dark tunnel while the rain clouds threatened overhead.
Once in the stadium, getting to your seat involved both contortion and aggression, squeezing through impossibly small spaces, trying not to step on a child while shoving, as nicely as possible, the usher out of the way. It was nothing personal, but finding that seat was all that mattered.
Once you arrived, once you claimed your inches of prime metal or grass real estate, you could finally appreciate it. Appreciate the yellow pompoms, the rumbling of the cheers, the close quarters you’re coming to reluctantly enjoy.
Because it was different. As the team warmed up, each pushup and jumping jack was matched with a cheer, building the confidence that the team needed more than anything going into the game.
The time ticked by.
All the noise, all the confidence remained, but seemed slightly less significant. Missouri fans had put on their show, and it was time for the team to uphold its end of the bargain.
When Oklahoma kicker Patrick O’Hara’s cleat connected with the football, the true test began.