COLUMBIA — Kony Ealy is an imposing figure, standing 6-foot-5 inches tall and weighing 265 pounds.
His friend is even bigger.
Ealy, a sophomore from New Madrid, is beginning to flourish on the Missouri football team’s defensive line. He has 1.5 sacks so far this season and contributed four tackles in last Saturday’s 24-20 win over Arizona State.
But long before he played defensive end at Missouri, Ealy could be found just as often on a horse as on a football field.
After he finished sixth grade in 2004, Ealy moved with his family from a suburb of St. Louis to New Madrid, where he lived on a 14-acre farm. Having long been an animal lover, Ealy asked his father if he could get a horse.
After he finally got one, Ealy, who was always tall for his age, started to ride.
“It was just really fun – just riding and not worrying about nothing,” Ealy said. “You can take a lot of things off your mind and just get out in the open and relax.”
He has owned a couple of different horses over the years, with the most recent having prestigious bloodlines.
One weekend in high school, Ealy drove with his father, Wille Ealy, to Lexington, Ky., to look for a new horse. There, he found a stallion whose grandfather had been named “Jailhouse Rock” – after his owner, Elvis Presley.
The Ealys bought the stallion, and bestowed upon him a name befitting of the bloodline.
Ealy and Outtajail became fast friends, with the lanky teenager often riding him around town. The horse was calm and composed, always minding the orders of his owner. Ealy, in ranking his favorite horses, places Outtajail at the top of the list.
“He’s well trained; he listens,” Ealy said. “He’s a nice horse. You can put a baby up on him and he won’t buck or shake or run or nothing.”
When he came to MU, Ealy was forced to leave Outtajail behind. He entered Missouri’s program as a skinny, raw defensive end prospect that had the height to compete, but weighed only 208 pounds.
Throughout his redshirt year, Ealy got stronger, gaining more than 50 pounds and converting a scrawny frame into that of a stout, prototypical defensive end.
He saw his first game action as a redshirt freshman in 2011, picking up a sack and 13 tackles in 12 games.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn’t surprised by Ealy’s progress. After seeing the sheer athleticism Ealy possessed in high school, Pinkel knew it would take time to develop the intelligence and frame necessary to break out on the next level. But the talent was always there.
“All these things were anticipated. He was an athlete out of high school that we felt had the potential to be a really good defensive end,” Pinkel said. “As he matures, he’ll get better and better.”
With his size and speed, Ealy can get to a quarterback in a number of ways. Right offensive tackle Justin Britt, who consistently battles Ealy in practice, knows that better than most.
“You get some of the speed rushers and the bull rushers. The thing about Kony is that he can do both. He’ll come off the edge with speed, or he’ll go right through you,” Britt said. “He’s young, quick, healthy, strong. He’s going to be a force.”
The more he concentrates on football, though, the more horseback riding fades from his plans. Ealy has become more of a student of the game as he has gotten older, immersing himself in both weightlifting and film study.
With the constant focus and preparation, there’s little time for anything else. Ealy says during the season he “lives, breathes and dies football.” His life on the farm, and his horses, will have to wait.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to do it recently, because I’ve been at school and working out. The more years (of football) you get in, you get more and more serious,” Ealy said. “Hopefully when I get home I’ll get a chance to get back in the saddle.”
Of course, it won’t be the same Kony Ealy getting in the saddle this time around. Despite gaining a significant amount of muscle throughout his career at Missouri, Ealy doesn’t expect the added weight to hamper his ability to ride a horse.
No matter the size or weight, he says, there’s a horse for everyone.
“You can’t take horses for granted. They’re really strong. If you’re 300 and some pounds, you can get up on a horse. They’re strong enough to carry you,” Ealy said, laughing at the visual. “As far as height, you may just have to get a bigger horse.”
As Ealy’s eyes remain firmly set on South Carolina, Outtajail patiently waits in New Madrid. When the offseason hits, though, football will relent, at least for a little while.
Then, friends will reunite.