COLUMBIA — Fans watched from the stands as Missouri football players prepared for practice on Faurot Field on a hot, sunny morning in June. Like most mornings, athletes shouted familiar chants, stretched and received instructions from coaches.
Except today proved to be a different type of practice for members of the Missouri football team. This time, they were the coaches, and their players — campers entering first grade through eighth grade — were the ones prepping for a strenuous practice.
Players have been coached at the Tiger Youth Football Camp for five years. Hosted by the Columbia Youth Football League and Missouri Athletics, this year's two-day event drew more than 450 campers from across the country, giving them the chance to learn drills, interact with MU football players and even score a few autographs.
The camp is one of three football camps hosted at MU over the summer, a small portion of the wealth of summer camps, from high school engineering tutorials to week-long musical training, that populate MU's campus every summer.
The youth football camp's first evening consisted of campers practicing offensive and defensive skills and one-on-one drills, followed by a pizza party and a tunnel of awaiting parents for the campers to run through.
Before practice Sunday morning, campers ran around, buzzing with energy as they were given their assignments. The boys were divided into groups by grade level and rotated through an assortment of drills, including kicking a football, running through arrangements of cones and weaving around mats.
Hundreds of parents and family members sat on the bleachers, some watching intently, water bottle in hand, while others dawdled, making stops at the concession stand or socializing with other parents.
A family from Mansfield, Texas has made the drive to camp for the past four years. David and Julia Thayer have been bringing their son, William, 10, to the camp ever since they saw it advertised on the MU athletics website.
On Saturday night, the Thayer family participated in the tunnel of parents that stretched from one end zone to the other.
“It’s great when the kids get to run out of the tunnel. It definitely makes them feel like they’re big boys,” David Thayer said.
Julia Thayer said the newly renovated field, with fresh SEC logos, brought extra excitement for the family this year.
The intensity of the campers on the field is apparent. Some push hard through the drills and even celebrate with an end zone dance, egged on by Ian Simon, a Tiger football player and first-year volunteer with the camp.
Simon is one of roughly a dozen Missouri football players that helped out with the camp.
“It’s great to be out here,” said Kenronte Walker, another first-year volunteer and Tiger football player. “It’s fun. Everybody is just getting better.”
Many of the campers said they liked tackling, running through drills with the players and being on a big-time college football field.
Stephanie Adams and her sons, Brody, 6, and Riley, 8, traveled from St. Charlesto attend camp. This is their second year.
Adams said the boys cherish interacting with the players. She said last year was especially memorable for her older son.
"One of the players that was here, Michael Egnew, went on and got drafted,” Adams said. “Riley thought that was pretty awesome because he got to meet him.”
Stephanie Padgett is a board member for the Columbia Youth Football League and has been lending a hand at the camp for three years.
“It (the camp) brings people from across the state together around youth football and Mizzou football,” Padgett said.
She said it also attracts campers from across the country. Last year, 40 percent of the campers came to Columbia from more than 100 miles away.
“It’s a great opportunity to interact at a level that you don’t typically get to do during a game weekend," she said.
Padgett said the camp provides participants with up-close experiences that they can’t usually get otherwise, such as getting their picture on the big screen after they ran through the tunnel of awaiting parents.
She also said there's been anincrease in the number of campers since she started at the camp.
“It’s increased to the fact that we’re maxed out,” Padgett said.
John Heider, who runs the Columbia Youth Football League, has been leading the camp for five years. Heider said his favorite part of camp is watching the Missouri players interact with the campers.
“Just watch these guys,” Heider said of the Tiger players. “Big smiles on their faces and that’s all of them. They’re just big kids themselves.”
“The crazy thing is that no matter what we teach the kids out here, they won’t remember left or right but they’ll remember the experience with the players,” Heider said. “And what we’re trying to create is a lifelong love of the game—and loyal Mizzou fans.”
Supervising editor is Dan Burley.