When Luke Lambert looks onto the field, he doesn’t focus on what has changed.
The lights aren’t quite as bright now. Thousands of people aren’t cheering, and video boards don’t replay each big hit or deep pass.
Luke Lambert experienced a lot of big games, a lot of big moments and a lot of wins during his time at Missouri. A few weeks ago, he took a look back at where it all began and where he ended up.
This is what he said:
On why he became a Green Bay Packers fan as a child: “Growing up, my favorite color was green. I think that played a part, and it just kind of affirmed it when they won that Super Bowl. My mom’s a huge (Brett) Favre fan.”
On the winning tradition at Missouri while he played there: “I’d say I was lucky to play here during that period of time. Looking back and seeing all the guys that I played with that are in the NFL right now – Chase (Daniel), Ziggy (Hood), Danario (Alexander), (Sean Weatherspoon) Spoon, William Moore, (Andrew) Gachkar, Beau (Brinkley) - there’s a bunch of guys there. It’s amazing that in my five-year period I got to play with those guys, and share the field with them, and see them turn into the players that they are now. It’s something you can never forget. It’s something you can always tell people.”
On Missouri's rivalry with Kansas: “It’s not just a rivalry. It’s a hatred. They’re like your stepbrother. You hang out with them, but when it comes to game time you just hate them. That’s the one you look at and say, ‘Win. Gotta do it. This is a game we have to win.’”
On whether the rivalry with Kansas should continue: “I don’t understand why KU and Mizzou can’t come together and make it happen. You’re talking about a huge revenue stream, and a rivalry that’s been going on for hundreds of years, too. This is why people come to MU, to play KU. It kind of makes me mad as a player, seeing it go away.”
On whether Missouri will compete in the SEC: “You have to understand that, from a football standpoint, there’s going to be some growing pains. It’s a lot different league. We’re going into a league with 12 different teams that have been there for a long time. We have to scout all those 12 teams, and those teams only have to scout us and (Texas) A&M. It’s a huge learning curve for us, coming into the league. You can kind of see that now, but in a couple years we’ll be right up there where we were in the Big 12, competing for a championship.”
On how strange it feels to watch a Missouri game from Memorial Stadium bleachers: “I think it’ll be an adjustment when I see people on the field that I don’t know. That’ll be the biggest change. Because I was hurt for a couple years, so I was looking at it from the sidelines – from afar. So I got exposed to that a little bit. I think the biggest change will be when I go watch Mizzou football and I don’t know anybody.”
The players are shorter and lighter. Their uniforms are cheap, passed-down gifts from whomever wore them last.
The formations are more basic, the strategy condensed. The rosters are smaller, and many players appear on both sides of the ball.
Here, practice ends when it gets dark.
Despite the differences, though, Lambert looks out and sees familiarity. He smiles, takes a deep breath and soaks it all in. This feels right.
This is football.
Lambert, who played linebacker for Missouri from 2007 through 2011, hasn’t left Columbia. After earning an undergraduate degree in agriculture business management in 2010, he received a medical redshirt and played one more season, while beginning to work toward a graduate degree.
A year later, Lambert is no longer on the team, but he is still working toward that degree. He attends classes at MU and works at the Landmark Bank on Broadway as a credit analyst.
His life is simple now, more boring. No more rivalry games against Kansas to end a long season. No more film sessions, replaying specific plays over and over to highlight a player’s tendencies. No more Missouri football.
While he left the team, though, he couldn’t leave the game entirely. Lambert has attended all of Missouri’s home games, but the sight of his teammates struggling without him is often more frustrating than rewarding.
He wanted a more hands-on involvement with the game. And with the Columbia Colts, that’s exactly what he found.
Mike Morris, Lambert’s longtime friend and an offensive lineman for Missouri in the late ‘90s, has served as head coach of the Colts, a youth football team made up of seventh graders, for the past five seasons.
Knowing Lambert was still in town, Morris asked him to volunteer his time and serve as the team’s defensive coordinator. Morris knew also that for a former football player, the love affair with this game doesn’t end when your eligibility runs out.
“After all the accolades with football are done, you’re kind of left there, hanging dry. ‘Hey, you’ve got a degree. Go get a job,’” Morris said. “So this is a way to hold on to the football feel a little bit, and I think he really drew into that and is really having a good time with it.”
Lambert accepted the position, and once again football was part of his routine. There were practices three times a week and a game on Sunday. It was football, but then again, it wasn’t exactly the same as how he remembered it.
Here, a coach’s job doesn’t hang in the balance from game to game. Players don’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of the moment, as thousands of ruthless fans in a visiting stadium boo their entrance to the field. Here, the game is simpler, more pure.
It’s a game again.
“When you get up to high school and college, I think there’s more of a sense of urgency for coaches that transfers to the players – a need for production,” Lambert said. “Some players get lost in the translation, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m working.’" But still, the basis of what you’re doing is fun.
“Whether it’s seventh grade or it’s professional, what you’re doing is football.”
Lambert embraced the challenges of his new position, learning how to adapt his knowledge of the game to a more basic level. His rapport with the kids was never in question; they knew his face, recognized his name; for them, he was a blueprint of how to reach Faurot Field on Saturdays.
“They know he’s won playing at a Division I school, so automatically he must know something about football. Plus he’s just a likable guy,” Morris said. “He’s always been like that. Shoot, I’ve known him forever. I’ve known his family, and that’s just how he is. And that’s why the kids are drawn to him.”
Lambert, reverting back to his prior experiences with football, watches film of his opponents. He goes to games, trying to scout each team’s tendencies and weaknesses. He knows this is only a youth league, far from the Big 12 or theSoutheastern Conference. But then again, he also wants to win. And so does his team.
“We actually do scout our opponents, that’s the sad thing,” Lambert said, laughing as he eats. “We try to get tape. I’ve actually gone and scouted a team before. It’s competitive for the kids, and they want to win.”
The Colts participate in the Gateway Football League, comprised mostly of teams from the St. Louis area. The team is 7-2 this season with its last playoff game coming on Sunday.
Lambert, while being a veteran of the game, isn’t used to this level of competition and travel for a team so young. In Brookfield, where he grew up, there’s one team. Each kid plays two, or three or four positions.
You grow up, and you play football. But not like this.
“I’m from north Missouri, so I wasn’t exposed to stuff like that when I was a kid,” Lambert said. “We had a football league, but you have to understand that where I’m from, you play with the same kids from when you’re in third grade all the way up until when you graduate high school.”
This, in many ways, has been an entirely new experience for Lambert. And it’s exactly what he needed.
Going in, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to coach. He is working to become a financial planner, but he always thought coaching football might be something he’d like to try.
Now – after a year full of scouting opponents, watching film and holding practice until the sun goes down – his future is a little more clouded. He isn’t paid to coach these kids, but he does so willingly, enthusiastically.
This, even without the glamour of the SEC, is something special for Lambert.
It’s football, and he hasn’t left it yet.