COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel, Dave Steckel and Andy Hill are about to lose their kids.
At least that’s what it feels like. Each season, before the Missouri football team’s final game inside Memorial Stadium, each senior trots out of the tunnel individually. They aren’t surrounded by their teammates, lost in the shuffle of black and gold. It’s just one person, one kid that made a commitment four or five years ago to a team and a coach.
In Missouri's weekly media day on Monday, many of the team's seniors were asked to look forward to Saturday's game, the final one for each of them inside Memorial Stadium.
Here's what they said:
“Well, I did go out last year. I was in coach’s attire. I was in a collared shirt. But it was a different feeling last year, just because I didn’t know, with everything going on, if I’d be able to come back. I didn’t know it was going on.
“It’s a little different this year, because I’m pretty sure there’s zero eligibility left for me to get. So I’m going to go out there in full gear, and it’s going to be emotional, and my whole family’s going to be there cheering.” — offensive lineman Elvis Fisher, who received an extra year of eligibility after missing last season with a knee injury.
“(The senior class is) really close. We came in when J-Mac (Jeremy Maclin) was a redshirt freshman. It’s been five long years, so it’s past a brotherhood. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s an extended family. But it’s going to be an emotional day, I know that.” — cornerback Kip Edwards
“I don’t know when exactly it’s going to hit me. Maybe sometime after the game, but just knowing it’s going to be my last game there is going to help me prepare a little bit harder, be a little more focused and do everything I can to get a win.
“(The senior class is) really close. Words can’t really explain it. Coming in, you feel kind of spaced out from some of the guys, but as camp and all that comes, and with different experiences you have to hang out with each other, you come closer and it’s kind of hard to break it up.” — running back Kendial Lawrence
That coach is waiting for them a few yards away.
As public address announcer Randy Moehlman calls out their name, each senior trots out of the tunnel, passing the Golden Girls and cheerleaders that stand in vertical lines on both sides, creating a path through the end zone. They make their way through that path and onto the field, basking in the cheers of thousands of Missouri fans whose eyes and voices are centered on them.
For the last time in that stadium, they prepare to play a football game. And Pinkel is waiting for them, loving and hating and dreading every second.
“Senior Day was a little bit better before I used to stand out there and hug ‘em,” Pinkel said during Monday’s weekly media day.
“My first few years, in the locker room I’d hug them and say goodbye to them … I always tell the story that Andy Hill came up and said, ‘Well why don’t you go outside and do that?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ And it’s documented that I’m an emotional wreck by the time the game starts, and it takes me about five minutes into the game…”
His voice trails off, and he quickly changes direction. He doesn’t finish his statement. He tries not to look ahead.
Steckel, the team’s defensive coordinator, isn’t concerned with the Tigers’ chances of advancing to a postseason bowl game. In the week before this game, all he thinks about is his seniors – his kids.
He knows this is a game each of them will remember, because he was once in their place. On Monday, he recalled the last football game he played in, rattling off the final score, a 17-14 loss. He remembers not wanting to take his jersey off. He remembers being the last one to leave the locker room.
And he knows his kids will all remember the events that take place on Saturday, too.
“I asked the defensive guys, ‘Can you remember your last high school football game?’ You remember everything,” Steckel said. “You remember if you win, you lose, what tape you wore, what socks you had on. You remember everything. And the priority is to send our seniors out with a win.”
For Steckel, those seniors aren’t just a collection of athletes. They are his family. He knows how that sounds, that every coach has said it and every football fan has read it in some weepy newspaper article about a player soon to leave.
But he doesn’t care. For a defensive coordinator who recruited these kids, coached these kids, mentored these kids — those are the only words that seem to apply.
“These kids give so much to the university. They give so much to the program. They turn into your kids. It all sounds cliché, and I understand that. But they turn into your kids,” Steckel said, emphasizing the final sentence with a louder volume, a more forceful punch.
“I always say this: They’re away from home. If something goes right, wrong or indifferent, we’re the first phone call they give. So, relationships you build with these kids over time, and the advice you give them and the advice they come for, it’s like losing your kids ...”
Steckel's voice trails off, too. Solemnly, he adds a few more words, their pronouncement tinged with sadness and acceptance.
“Sending them off to pasture.”
Hill, the receivers coach, would rather you didn’t know how much he cares. He’d rather joke about it, passing each player off as a jokester, a rebel or a fiend. Even in his jokes, though, the truth seeps through.
“Usually, I’m glad they’re leaving. I never liked them. I’m glad they’re gone,” Hill said, his tone flat, his eyes wide open. Finally, a smile breaks the silence. “That’s a joke.
“But no, it’s a tough day, especially in pregame when they introduce the seniors.”
Steckel knows that. So, too, does Hill. But as he stands at the end of that path, waiting to greet and send off each passing player, Pinkel knows it especially.
On Saturday, before Missouri’s game against Syracuse, Pinkel will be back there, giving those reluctant hugs. The game will be played, at some point the season will end, and just like that, the kids will move on.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.