COLUMBIA — Justin Safford has been a little louder than usual recently.
“Justin’s kind of a quiet guy, but when you see a player like that get fired up for a game, you know it’s something serious,” teammate Ricardo Ratliffe said.
On Sunday, Safford explained to Ratliffe why the Missouri men’s basketball game against Illinois on Wednesday is so important. As the only senior on the team, Safford is going into his fourth and final Braggin’ Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. He is also the only player on Missouri’s roster from Illinois.
“This is one game every year that I always marked on my calendar,” Safford said.
Safford is from Bloomington, Ill., and he grew up cheering for the players dressed in orange and blue. After playing three years at Bloomington Central Catholic High School, Safford moved to Goldsboro, N.C. to play his final year at Charis Preparatory Academy. While he played his final high school year out of the state, he still entertained thoughts of returning to play college basketball for Illinois.
“It’s a school that I wanted. It was one of my choices to go to,” Safford said.
Safford received offers from Illinois, but when the time came, he picked Missouri. Since then, the Braggin’ Rights game has grown in importance, becoming the main indicator of how merry his holiday break will turn out. His teammates agree.
“My freshman year was the most miserable Christmas ever, sitting in my dorm room on Christmas morning just sick to my stomach. Then, last year was probably one of the best Christmases ever,” Kim English said.
Missouri players will get two days off after Wednesday’s game before returning to practice Christmas evening. Safford will spend his break in Illinois.
“I always go back to Illinois people at Christmas time, so it’s always good to get to rub that in their faces,” Safford said.
Safford’s first opportunity to boast came last year when Missouri beat Illinois 81-68 after losing the nine previous matchups. He said his time at home during that break was unusually quiet. After losses his freshman and sophomore years however, the time off wasn’t so peaceful.
“Family is always with Missouri, but I’ve got my friends and buddies that are all Illinois fans, so they kind of throw it in your face,” Safford said.
By text messages and phone calls, his friends found ways to give him a hard time after the losses. The most memorable of those texts came from one of Safford’s high school friends who eventually became a head manager for the Illinois basketball team before graduating last year.
“He would always text me after and give me crap,” Safford said.
A win on Wednesday would mean Safford finishes 2-2 against the university from his home state, allowing him to hoist the rivalry’s trophy for the second straight year. Even more importantly, it would give the quiet guy from Bloomington something to brag about.