COLUMBIA — When everything else was over, or at least paused for a moment, they needed to pick a rock.
It is a tradition for senior players on the Missouri football team after their last home game of the season — claiming a stone from the rock filled M at the north end of Memorial Stadium as one’s own.
After a 31-27 victory against Texas Tech, the seniors acknowledged the student section and then jogged with what energy they had left to the north end zone and hopped the waist-high fence to the 90-by-95 foot rock M.
Some players scoured the hill, running toward the top for the less accessible prizes (gems?). Others grabbed rocks from the base. Almost all put some thought into the selection.
Silly? Sure. But after losing Henry Josey to a devastating knee injury, after head coach Gary Pinkel was suspended one week for a DWI arrest and after another harrowing comeback victory, maybe taking a few seconds to deliberate on a white-washed rock was what they needed.
This was Luke Lambert’s second rock. Although he was out with a knee injury, he participated in the senior day ceremonies last year because he did not yet know if he would be eligible for an additional season. He was still on crutches, so he picked a small one.
He selected another small one Saturday. He wants one he can use as a paper weight in his office when he gets a job. Lambert also wanted one he could make it up the hill with when he walked back to his car later that night.
Most of the seniors were carried across the field back to the locker room by underclassmen, but Lambert chose to walk. He wanted to take his time.
“It’s something you’ll remember the rest of your life,” Lambert said. “It’s something special.”
Minutes earlier, sophomore Michael Sam had made the game-deciding interception in Missouri’s red zone. Now, he and freshman Kony Ealy were getting berated by fellow defensive end Jacquies Smith for not being able to carry him. Within 20 yards of the end zone, not far from where Sam had made the interception, he and Ealy had to let Smith down.
Sam claimed he was, reasonably enough, tired. No excuse, Smith said.
“I’m questioning those guys' weightlifting ability because they were struggling a little bit,” Smith said. “It was the worst horse race ever. We would have lost by a mile.”
Did Smith ever have problems lifting an upperclassmen?
“Nah, I don’t remember carrying off anybody since I’ve been here,” Smith said.
As Jimmy Burge carried fellow defensive lineman Brendan Donaldson, who is 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, all by himself, Donaldson looked down and said, "That's more work than you've done all day."
Ahead, Jared Culver watched injured kicker Grant Ressel, who is 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, be carried by two teammates and laughed.
"I like how the kicker needs two guys to carry him," Culver said.
The running backs crew helped carry De'Vion Moore, whose 54-yard rush in the first half led to Missouri's first touchdown. Despite the assistance, Moore still picked a rock based on its, and his, size. He compared it to a watermelon — not small, but not like the one offensive lineman John Birdwell got.
"I'm a littler guy. I got one I was OK with carrying," he said. "Some of the bigger guys got huge rocks, but we just played a game, I didn't want a huge, huge rock."
Forgive safety Kenji Jackson if he did not treat it like an Easter egg hunt. As he approached the end zone, he was worried about climbing the fence safely. Then, he searched along the foots of the M, wary of slipping if he climbed.
"One stuck out to me," Jackson said. "It was like, 'Look, look and then, boom.' In five seconds, it sneaked up to me."
The rock M was created in 1927, but it's unclear when senior football players began leaving with pieces of it. Moore, for one, did not know how the tradition began.
It did not seem to matter in the moment. The moment itself was enough.
"Seniors carry rocks, and they carried rocks before I got here," Moore said. "We just know we leave with a rock."