COLUMBIA — In an instant, and with a single hit, a football game became the last thing on anybody’s mind.
With just over a minute left in Alabama’s 42-10 victory over Missouri on Saturday, Missouri quarterback Corbin Berkstresser tossed a short pass to tight end Eric Waters, who corralled it on the right side of the field near his own sideline.
Immediately after making the catch, Alabama defensive back Bradley Sylve hit Waters, knocking him cleanly out of bounds. Just as quickly, Waters’ back – and then head – slammed into the turf.
The 6-foot-4 junior didn’t move, lying face down as his teammates surrounded him. Seconds ticked by, the training staff approached, and still, Waters didn’t move.
Rain trickled down softly, Alabama took a knee and ran out the clock, and a hoard of teammates, scattered poncho-clad Missouri fans and Alabama supporters on the southwest side of the stadium looked on.
As the game ended, Marching Mizzou was uncharacteristically silent. Players from the two teams met in the middle of the field, shaking hands and walking slowly toward their respective locker rooms.
The Alabama fan section also did not follow its usual routine. Typically, Alabama fans celebrate a win by chanting the "Rammer Jammer" cheer, which taunts the other team, proclaiming, “We just beat the hell outta you!”
Despite a 32-point victory, though, the "Rammer Jammer" never came. Worried faces and quiet murmurs replaced the usual Alabama bravado, if only for a moment.
With the rain still beating down on them, the scattered Missouri fans in the student section didn’t make a mad dash for the exits. They stayed in place, as did the marching band, all eyes peering down on Waters, who was now being placed onto a stretcher.
He was taken off the field, the cart moving slowly as a group of his teammates walked along beside him. As it left through the tunnel on the south side, the nearby Alabama fan section gave a rousing cheer, roaring with the same vigor as when coach Nick Saban had passed by moments earlier.
Waters raised his hand into the air and gave the thumbs-up signal to the crowd. As the cart disappeared from view, the Marching Mizzou started up again, the rain dripping off their raincoats and instruments as they played. The remaining Missouri students, standing and clapping in the east bleachers, turned to finally leave.
In a news conference minutes later, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel addressed a room full of reporters.
"I’ve been told this by my trainer, that it’s precautionary, what they (the training staff) did. But I don’t know that for a fact. I told our football team that, too," Pinkel said, his hair and black visor damp from the rain.
"The second we hear anything (about Waters) we will text our players and let them know, as we always do with anything in our football program. Let them know exactly how their teammate is doing. Hopefully he’s going to be OK."
After being carted off the field, Waters was transported to University Hospital on Missouri’s campus, where he underwent both an MRI and CT scan. Both came back normal. After temporary numbness, he eventually was able to move all of his extremities.
The injury was to his lower back, not head or neck, like many had feared. His father, Eric Waters Sr., accompanied him to the hospital, and said via phone that he understood that injuries like his son’s come along with the game he plays.
"It’s just part of the game. Eric underwent all kinds of tests, and he’s stable. He’s going to be fine," Waters Sr. said at University Hospital after the game. "We’d just like to thank everybody who has followed up with us and is supporting him tonight."
Shortly after 1 a.m., Missouri team spokesman Chad Moller sent an email updating the media on his condition, in which he announced the diagnosis as a "muscle strain."
Waters was released from the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute on Sunday, and on Monday morning he took to Twitter to thank his fans and followers for their support and prayers over the weekend.
"Thanks to everyone who sent up prayers for me this weekend. So thankful to have great fans and great ppl in my life! God bless," Waters tweeted.
Saturday’s result certainly did not endear Missouri to its top-ranked opponent, but Waters’ situation served as an example of how opposing fans can look past their allegiances to acknowledge something more important.
As he was carted off the field, fans of both teams rose to their feet and cheered. Whether they were wearing crimson or gold, it didn’t matter.
They all cheered. And Waters noticed.
“A special thanks to all the Alabama fans and there support and thanks to all my followers again,” he tweeted on Monday.
Football, even in the SEC, took a backseat when it mattered most.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.