COLUMBIA — Growing up in Kansas City, Jayson Palmgren said he was often around Kansas fans more than Missouri ones.
For Palmgren, though, choosing which school to root for was not about popular opinion. It was simpler than that.
"I mean, it's a chickenhawk or a tiger," Palmgren said.
Missouri (6-5, 4-4 Big 12 Conference) will play Kansas (2-9, 0-8) for the 120th time in football this Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It might be the last time, if Kansas school officials are serious about not continuing the rivalry once Missouri leaves for the Southeastern Conference next season.
So it does not matter that Kansas might have one too many Charlie Browns on its roster. Missouri players and coaches expect the Jayhawks to play as hard as ever, and they plan on being ready.
"This is like their whole season, this is like (their) bowl game," Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines said. "If they win this football game, it's like they’ve accomplished a lot this season."
Gaines, who went to high school in Independence, said talk of this being the last rivalry game has pervaded the Missouri locker room. It has only given the Tigers more motivation to get a win, which would give them the series regardless of the disputed record. Missouri claims to lead the series 56-54-1, while Kansas says the series is tied at 55-55-1. The source of contention is the 1960 game which Kansas won but had to forfeit later.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel grew up in Pennsylvania, but he summed up his understanding of the rivalry in three quick sentences:
"My brother went to Kansas," he said. "I love my brother. I don't talk to him this week."
Asked if the coaching staff would have to motivate the team more than usual to play the Jayhawks, Steckel seemed to wonder if reporters understood the definition of "rivalry."
"No, that's why it's a rivalry," Steckel said. "I guarantee you that they will bring their best game and their best focus against us. To match that, we have to bring our best focus and our best game."
When offensive coordinator David Yost followed head coach Gary Pinkel to Missouri, the Tigers won the rivalry game the first two seasons. It wasn't until they lost, in 2003, that Yost said he really felt the importance of the rivalry.
"That's when it bites you," he said. "When you lose, you feel the harshness of all our fans who have been through losses before. You come up short one time, and it starts really eating at you and it becomes a focus for you. After you finish the game, 365 days from now the game is marked on your schedule."
Marcus Lucas also grew up near the Missouri-Kansas border in Liberty, but there was never much doubt about his allegiances. His mother, Monique Lucas, played for the Missouri women's basketball team from 1986-89. When it came time to choose a school, he never considered Kansas. He said it would have felt like some kind of betrayal.
"Growing up, I had friends who were for KU, but around this time of year you kind of lose those friends," Lucas said.
Palmgren, who was born in Kansas, was not happy to find pictures of himself as a baby dressed in Jayhawk apparel. He emphasized that the pictures were taken before he could properly dress himself.
Palmgren, a senior, was looking forward to seeing his freshmen teammates witness the rivalry this weekend.
"The new freshmen have no idea what's going to happen," he said. "But after one experience of this, you'll understand it for the rest of your life."
Good thing. They might not get another chance.