COLUMBIA — Marshall Willingham was starting to get a little jealous.
The talk surrounding the Hickman football team early in the season focused on the "three-headed monster" the team had at running back. The Kewpies' coaching staff split carries among senior Deven Larry and juniors Bohannon Davidson and Justise Keith. Willingham, a sophomore, was relegated to blocking duty.
Hickman Kewpies (4-0)
vs. Rock Bridge Bruins (3-1)
2011: Rock Bridge 33-27
2010: Rock Bridge 24-20
2009: Rock Bridge 26-0
2008: Hickman 41-7
2007: Hickman 23-0
2006: Rock Bridge 48-0
2005: Rock Bridge 21-18
2004: Hickman 35-0
2003: Hickman 30-14
2002: Rock Bridge: 34-7
2001: Hickman: 28-8
2000: Hickman: 55-0
1995: Hickman 17-6
1994: Hickman 43-42 (2OT)
1981: Rock Bridge 7-0
Hickman leads series 8-7
“I didn’t want to be selfish," Willingham said. "I knew my role on the team. Coach told me if I did my job, I would be rewarded."
In the fourth quarter of Hickman's convincing 56-7 victory over Smith-Cotton High School on Sept. 7, Willingham got his chance. After three quarters of helping pave the way for Larry and Davidson, the eager downhill runner got his chance to carry the ball midway through the fourth quarter and found his way to the end zone.
Willingham's face lights up when he describes the play.
"It was kind of unreal," Willingham said, recalling the roar of the crowd as he crossed the goal line. "It's a feeling that you can't describe."
Though the touchdown came once the Kewpies had the victory well in hand, coach Arnel Monroe realized he might not have just a three-headed monster anymore.
“We had to wait for Marshall to develop some confidence," Monroe said. "He got hungry. He’s realized some of his own potential, and we’ve become a four-headed monster."
Willingham's role increased the next week. With Hickman locked in a close game against Helias Catholic High School last Friday, the coaching staff showed its confidence in Willingham, giving him the ball on a pair of third-downs. He converted them with ease.
"Marshall's been the guy left out," Monroe said following the 21-14 win over Helias. "He's powerful and he's physical, so we try to get him the ball in situations where his power and physicality will work for him."
Power and physicality are two attributes the Kewpies' entire team has taken on. Willingham credits the backfield's success to what he calls the best offensive line he has ever played with.
"I can't say enough about the offensive line," Willingham said. "They work their butts off. They’re 95 percent of the reason why running is so big at Hickman.”
The four-pronged rushing attack has been the key to Hickman's 4-0 start. But the Kewpies' running game faces a stiff test on Friday night when they take on Rock Bridge, a team anchored on defense by talented defensive tackles A.J. Logan and T.J. Smith. Logan has orally committed to the Missouri Tigers, while Smith weighs in at more than 400 pounds.
“It’s crazy," Willingham said. "To know that we’re going to have a chance to put a lick on them and try to beat some of the guys you grew up playing with. We’re going to be playing against some great players who will go D-I.”
The Kewpies show a noticeable excitement heading into the rivalry game, which will be played at Missouri's Memorial Stadium. But Willingham is just happy to be a part of Hickman's success. The feelings of jealousy have vanished.
“Now that we’re there, I’m glad to be a part of it," Willingham said. "I have to work harder to compete and stay on their level."
Hickman gets added motivation
At the end of each Hickman football practice and game, coach Monroe gathers his team and delivers some motivational words. With the Kewpies playing in the Providence Bowl on Friday, Monroe decided to bring in a couple of former Hickman standouts to help deliver his message after Thursday's walk-through.
Blake Tekotte, a 2005 Hickman graduate and current member of the San Diego Padres organization, and Jeremy Wooden, a member of Hickman's class of 1999 who Monroe called one of the greatest to ever put on the purple and gold, visited practice to give the Kewpies some words of wisdom.
"We're going to have Hickman men come in here and talk to them about being a Hickman man," Monroe said. "I feel like that's a special quality and has become an uncommon concept."
Tekotte recognizes what the rivalry has become and hopes the Kewpies can avoid the feeling he has whenever Rock Bridge beats Hickman.
"They've had a lot of hype over there," Tekotte said. "They had a couple years where they beat us and we took it pretty personal. We like to keep it on the north side of town."
Wooden, meanwhile, was in a similar situation as the current Kewpies team, trying to recapture a winning tradition. He thinks coach Monroe's mentality will help this team get back to where it once was.
"He's not going to back down from anybody," Wooden said. "He has one speed, and that's all out."