COLUMBIA — To get the ESPN "College GameDay" festivities started, cast member Digger Phelps sauntered onto the court wearing a dark suit, lilac shirt and dark purple tie. He paused for a moment to take in the crowd of nearly 5,000, glancing from one corner of the arena to the other. Then he raised his arms upward repeatedly as if he were lifting a heavy load to work the crowd into a frenzy.
He grabbed a microphone and asked for the very first student who camped out overnight to attend the show to come out onto the court. Suspense and confusion grasped the crowd. People looked around, craning their necks to see who the first fan was. Fingers pointed in all directions as friends joked with each other about who belonged on the court.
No. 8 Kansas (18-4, 8-1)
at No. 4 Missouri (20-2, 7-2)
WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ 96.7 FM
Finally, Stephen Keller stepped down from his second-row seat in section 115 and shook hands with Phelps, who named him the cheer captain of the morning. Keller wore jeans and a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a white Zou Crew logo, and his cheeks were already pink from the effort he put behind his screams before receiving his new position.
Phelps ordered Keller to lead the fans in cheer No. 1, which Keller had to choose off the top of his head. His reaction came quickly, “M-I-Z!” The crowd responded with an uproarious chant of “Z-O-U!”
Keller bellowed “Steeeeeeeeeve” as chant No. 2, and “Let’s go Tigers” with the accompanying claps filled his No. 3 spot.
Keller, a junior mechanical engineering student at MU, and four of his friends had put up a tent outside Mizzou Arena at about 9 p.m. Wednesday. They were staking a claim to the first spot in line for the "College GameDay's" Saturday morning broadcast which was filmed in Columbia to highlight the No. 4 Missouri men's basketball team's evening game against rival No. 8 Kansas.
“I think we started all of this,” Emily Terrell said about the tent village that assembled outside the arena as the week progressed. Keller, Terrell, Joe Clarkin, Chris Seiffert and Tyler Landreth rotated in and out of their campsite, saving places in line when there were classes to attend or shifts at work.
When it came time to decide who would answer Phelps’ inquiry about the first student in line, Keller said his friends said he should because they had been using his tent and because he had been there since Wednesday night.
“I got to catch up on my reading,” Keller joked.
When the band blared the "Missouri Waltz," Keller danced between the "GameDay" desk at center court and the scorer’s table along the sideline, leading the crowd in the motions that accompany the song. Near the song’s end, he bent forward slightly while clapping and bounced from one foot to the other in time with the music.
Keller got creative when the band played Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” making up his own movements to match the lyrics. For the refrain, he belted out the words and made his thumbs and forefingers into circles that he placed over his eyes. To match the lyrics “rising up, straight to the top,” he mimicked climbing a ladder.
“It was awesome,” Keller said. “For a while, I felt like I got to be part of the team.”
He and his friends have been camping out before Missouri basketball games against Kansas since 2010 when they were freshmen. Keller said Athletics Director Mike Alden came out to visit with him around 9 o’clock on Thursday morning, and Alden sent him an email thanking him for his support.
After Keller’s cheer captain duties on the court, his voice was already becoming scratchy and strained from yelling.
“Hopefully, I’ll get a little bit of cheering in before the game starts, but I’m going to lose it,” he said of his voice.