TIGER KICKOFF: Gachkar overcomes challenges to lead Missouri football team

Friday, November 5, 2010 | 5:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, November 5, 2010
Missouri senior linebacker Andrew Gachkar fends off Nebraska blocker Niles Paul in Saturday's game in Lincoln.

COLUMBIA — Genetics dealt Andrew Gachkar a jumbled hand.

One glance at his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and you see he was born to be a football player. Watch him run from the line of scrimmage and you notice what great speed he has for a linebacker. When he makes a tackle, you know he has the strength, too.

Saturday's game

No. 14 Missouri (7-1, 3-1 Big 12)
at Texas Tech (4-4, 2-4)

WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Jones Stadium, Lubbock, Texas

Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is averaging 9.2 yards per rush and 262.2 yards passing, and has three receivers averaging at least 64 yards per game (Michael Egnew, T.J. Moe and Jerrell Jackson).
Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts isn't a threat on the ground but is averaging 298 yards passing. He was replaced last week in the fourth quarter by Steven Sheffield, who may get the start.

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There are two factors you can’t see, though; invisible characteristics that have on occasion conflicted with Gachkar’s football career — a health problem and an academic goal. Now in his senior season, Gachkar has worked through those challenges and stands out as a leader on the Missouri football team.

Health problems

In the spring of 2008, Gachkar had just finished his freshman season. One day, during a game of basketball, he realized that he couldn’t lift his right arm over his head. The muscles on which he relied each day at football practice failed him. Alarmed, he went to the doctor and was rushed into emergency surgery at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Gachkar had four surgeries throughout the spring and summer of 2008 to remove one of his right ribs that was forcing a blood clot. He lost about 40 pounds and spent weeks in the hospital recovering, never sure if football would be an option for him again.

“When I first got my surgery, it was just about getting healthy,” Gachkar said. “Football really wasn’t on my mind until I got the clear to get back on the field with my guys.”

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel never gave up on Gachkar, though. He visited him in the hospital twice (Gachkar barely remembers the first of those visits), and what he saw bordered on painful.

“He’s got such a great future, and then all the sudden you see a player laying there in bed, looking nothing like the guy he was a few months ago,” Pinkel said.

Gachkar, who is now healthy and stopped going for routine checkups about a year ago, said he doesn’t like to think back on those months when his football career, even his life, hung in the balance. Today he only thinks about it when he notices his scars, and he’s not asking questions. What could have happened if he hadn’t caught it? How long could he have gone on? He’s not looking for those answers. There are too many other things on his mind.

Academic challenges

When Gachkar arrived at Missouri in the fall of 2008, he knew that he wanted to major in engineering, an anomaly among football players. Most of his teammates were studying subjects like sociology and business, but Gachkar was determined that he would be able to study engineering.

His coaches weren’t so sure.

“They were like, ‘Look, you’re not going to be able to do this,’” Gachkar said, laughing.

Gachkar reluctantly followed his coaches’ advice and decided to major in business. It was a half-hearted decision for the linebacker, and he quickly realized that he had been wrong. He said that he simply couldn’t do business and realized that he should have trusted his gut. After his first year of college, he switched back to engineering, aware of the extra work his decision would involve.

“It’s something you’ve got to be prepared to take,” Gachkar said.

Instead of looking at is as a trade-off — football or engineering — Gachkar said he knew he could make it work because he understood the difficulty of balancing a difficult major with college football. He said he doesn’t want his athletics or his academics to suffer, but sometimes he has to make small adjustments.

For instance, Monday afternoon, he hadn’t started to watch film of Texas Tech because he had been in the engineering lab for the past four hours.

“It takes up all of my life besides football,” Gachkar said. “That and this, that’s all there is." 

After he graduates in May, Gachkar said that, besides going to the NFL, his dream job is to become a civil or structural engineer. He would like to design buildings and own his own company. They are difficult goals, but Gachkar has proved that he doesn’t let conventional expectations stop him.

“He really is such a smart guy,” Pinkel said.

A senior leader 

Not only is Gachkar intelligent, Pinkel said, but he is also a strong leader. In a season where the linebacking core has suffered several injuries, Gackhar has had to step into an even bigger leadership role, and he has never complained about the added burden.

Fellow starter Luke Lambert injured his hamstring in the team’s first game against Illinois and has never fully recovered. For Gachkar, this means there’s less experience at linebacker and more of a need for him to counsel younger players. More simply, it also means more playing time.

“Once Luke went out, just from a fatigue standpoint, it was hard because you have to play a lot more plays. Having a four-man rotation … that took a lot of pressure off,” Gachkar said.

That means greater endurance, practicing harder, and more time devoted to football — and time is the one thing that Gachkar is pressed for. Nevertheless, he has risen to the challenge and leads the team in tackles. Maybe it’s his past challenges, or maybe it’s some freakish inner drive, but for Gachkar it seems as if no obstacle is too difficult.

From where he is today, post-injury and studying the major that everyone said he couldn’t, Gachkar’s outlook is different than it was four years ago. In school, in life, in football, he knows that nothing is ever certain.

“You don’t take things for granted,” Gachkar said.

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