COLUMBIA — Max Copeland has been working on the perfect technique since he stepped foot on campus in August 2009. And the secret, he says, is conditioning.
And, as his long golden locks blow softly in the wind, it's clear that all of Copeland's hard work has paid off.
• Former Missouri wide reciever and current Philadelphia Eagle Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL July 26. Right after Maclin suffered the injury, he had a text message on his phone from his old coach Gary Pinkel.
• Freshman defensive lineman Nate Crawford (Pensacola, Fla.) was held out of practice with a back strain.
"Don't skip conditioning days," he advises to anyone who might want to grow a similar mane out of their scalp. "If you don't condition, you get knots, and those are hard to get out."
The senior left guard will have much bigger problems to deal with this fall. He'll be charged with keeping quarterback James Franklin on his feet against some of the best defensive lines in the nation. Copeland added about 10 pounds in the off-season to bulk up his frame, but he said he thinks success will hinge on the mental aspects of the game.
"I'm often mistaken for kind of empty-headed," Copeland says. "But you know, I've got some thoughts up there under all that hair."
Copeland loves to wax poetic about everything from the Roman empire to Black Sabbath. But as a physics major, he is a man of science, and he puts his brains to use on the gridiron.
"Physics is about looking at stuff through a different lens," says Copeland, who has a 3.2 GPA. "And looking at stuff in terms of vectors and angles and forces. It's the art of simplifying things: You're a point particle, and you're moving that way at this angle at this force."
During his junior season, when he was named to the SEC's Academic Honor Roll, Copeland made 11 starts for Missouri as he studied the likes of thermodynamics, extra-galactic astronomy and modern astrophysics. This year, he only has one capstone course to focus on.
"That way," he says, "I can major in football this fall."
Copeland was born to play. His 6-foot-3, 300-pound body is built to toss aside blitzing linebackers, and he loves to rally his Tiger troops with unintelligible whoops. He's a natural leader, and provides the jolts of energy needed during early-morning practices.
"It's always good to have somebody that will keep it funny and light," said co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker. "Because this is a grind out here."
Walker and his fifth-year lineman met at a Missouri football camp several years ago. Copeland was a 16-year-old tight end from Billings, Mont., via Kansas City. His father attended Missouri, but Copeland's love for Tigers football was an independent passion that developed as he grew older.
After he graduated from high school, Copeland had a choice: Accept a full scholarship to play for the University of Montana, or attend Missouri as a preferred walk-on.
"Montana as a state is kind of like an island," Copeland says. "You go to the U of M. That's the mecca as a football player. I didn't do that. I didn't want to feel like I was funneled into some assembly line."
Some people in his hometown disagreed with his decision to leave.
"The comment was often implied that, 'You're throwing away a great opportunity,'" he says.
So, Copeland set out to achieve his dream of playing football at Missouri with an added incentive to prove he knew what he was doing. He arrived on campus in August 2009 and got his last haircut. After three seasons of hard work, he finally earned a scholarship before his redshirt junior year.
"I dreamed about that day every day," Copeland says. "But that's not what I came here to do. Money never motivated me. I wanted to be relevant on the battlefield, and I ended up getting that, which is much more fulfilling."
That battlefield awaits for one more season. He will have to settle for the role of unofficial team leader; despite his boisterous profile, he was not selected by teammates to be a captain.
He has a personal philosophy on leadership:
"You should never want to be a leader," Copeland says. "It's one of the reasons why the Roman empire was so successful, because leadership was not seen as an honor. It was seen as a public service, like a dude picking up trash on the highway. That's how it should be regarded because that's what keeps it pure, and keeps it from being corrupt."
Not that Missouri's four selected captains — James Franklin, E.J. Gaines, Andrew Wilson and L'Damian Washington — are corrupt attention-seekers. Copeland is overjoyed that they will lead the team.
"You don't get to choose your role," Copeland says. "The role chooses you."
This year, the Tigers can look to their vocal senior left guard for inspiration, phonetic eloquence and physics-inspired blocking techniques.
Or some hair-care tips.