COLUMBIA — There was no way anyone could have seen it coming.
It hadn’t happened since 1967. He had only touched the ball in a game five times this season.
As Oklahoma kicker Patrick O’Hara’s opening kickoff spun in a high arc, descending downward at the 14-yard line, Gahn McGaffie was waiting. Waiting for the ball, waiting for his chance, waiting to see how far he could push the Sooners who wanted to smash him into the turf.
When McGaffie returned O’Hara’s kickoff for a touchdown, he did something the Tigers hadn’t done for 43 years: return an opening kickoff for a touchdown.
The last time a Tigers player scored on the game's first play was when Roger Wehrli did it in 1967. The last time Missouri returned a kickoff for a touchdown was in 2008, when Jeremy Maclin did it in the second quarter against Illinois. Both of them went on to play in the NFL.
It only took McGaffie 14 seconds, and in that time he went from a relatively unknown wide receiver to the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week. The crowd roared, but it also wondered, who is this guy?
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, though, wasn’t the least bit surprised.
While many people were still figuring out how to say the sophomore’s name — it’s pronounced like John — Pinkel fielded questions about the young player. He said that McGaffie is one of the hardest working players on the team, and though he sees little playing time, that doesn’t mean that coaches haven’t noticed him.
“He’s got a remarkable attitude,” Pinkel said. “He’s always got a great attitude, always out there working and improving. He’s a great athlete.”
After the game, McGaffie seemed almost overwhelmed by the attention. His naturally prominent eyes seemed wider than usual, taking in both the win and the attention. At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“It was just like an overwhelming experience,” McGaffie said.
Given two days to calm down, to get used to seeing himself on the highlight reels, McGaffie seemed calmer, more able to realize what he had done. The return still stood out clearly in his mind — he narrated the entire experience, from the first block to the final steps into the end zone — but he could better appreciate what he’d done.
“Hard work pays off, so I’m just thankful that when I got that opportunity I made the best of it,” McGaffie said.
Pinkel agreed that McGaffie has only had a few chances to make a big play this season, but that it was more than just luck and favorable circumstances — McGaffie has real skill. Pinkel added that seeing McGaffie succeed like he did on Saturday was a great experience as a coach.
“It’s very rewarding to see a player like that make a play,” Pinkel said. “But that’s Gahn McGaffie for you.”
McGaffie said he appreciates Pinkel’s confidence, and he that he is not going to change anything about his approach to the game. All he can do is hope that his hard work will continue to pay off.
“I kind of just play my role on the team,” McGaffie said. “If they want to put me wherever, I’ll go there if it helps the team.”
McGaffie said he hopes he gets another chance to help the team in a big way, but he’s not looking for it. Now that he’s done it once, he said, he feels a little more comfortable. He knows that he can read his blocks and find the holes, but he also appreciates his teammates’ blocks and protection.
“He had a moment, and he’ll have more here,” Pinkel said. “It was certainly a big play in a big-time environment.”
What McGaffie did on Saturday was crucial, the perfect start for the Missouri team. It was one of those plays that seems to come out of nowhere, where fans keep blinking to make sure it’s actually happening. And just as McGaffie couldn’t have expected the short kick or his perfect field placement, he also has no idea where he goes from here. And that’s fine with him.