COLUMBIA — The meeting inside the closed-door room at the Missouri State High School Activities Association offices in Columbia stretched for more than an hour Wednesday morning, and at the end, Antwon Turnage's head wilted to his knees. His mother wrapped him in her arms.
"A big weight came off my shoulders," said Turnage, the senior Rock Bridge receiver wearing full pads and speaking before Wednesday evening's practice.
Turnage transferred from Hickman during the summer. On Saturday, he sat out of the Bruins' game with his athletic eligibility called into question by his former school. A panel of administrators representing MSHSAA voted to rule Turnage eligible Wednesday, and he is set to return to the field when Rock Bridge plays at Rockhurst on Friday.
"I’m very appreciative of the state association for how swiftly they were able to put an appeals meeting together," said Rock Bridge coach A.J. Ofodile. "I know those administrators have a lot on their plate. To be able to meet on this issue and to make a ruling on this issue, to make sure there’s a least (amount) of impact on the kid, I’m just really happy about that and appreciate their approach to it."
Ofodile said he learned of MSHSAA's case on Turnage on Oct. 1 after his team's 27-10 win over Hickmana few days before. He told Turnage the next morning that he would not be able to play in Jefferson City against Helias.
"I about cried to be honest," Turnage said.
Both Rock Bridge and Hickman remain tight-lipped over the case's specifics, on what was accused and what was ruled in the closed-door meeting. Hickman coach Arnel Monroe said he noticed "irregularities" in Turnage's summer transfer. He said Hickman "reached out" to Rock Bridge in July.
Hickman athletics director Doug Mirts, who sat in on Wednesday's meeting, declined comment.
"I’m glad the kid is playing. I really am," Monroe said. "As a coach, as a dad, you never want to take opportunities away from your kid. For me, this is more about doing everything by the book."
"I’m the bad guy here," he added. "But this was never about Antwon. This was about the principles and policies that everybody has to adhere to."
The Columbia Public Schools' transfer request form cites the MSHSAA regulation that prohibits a student from participating in varsity-level sports for 365 days following a transfer approval. Bylaw 3.10.1 of MSHSAA's handbook states "a junior high or high school student may be eligible at the public or non-public school located in the district in which the student’s parents (as defined in Bylaw 3.10.1.a) reside."
For cases such as Turnage, who resides in a public multiple school district, the rule says "a student may be eligible at the school designated for the student to attend by the board of education."
The Columbia Public School's transfer request form also cites the MSHSAA regulation that states a student can not transfer for athletic purposes.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Turnage has excelled on the field in five games at Rock Bridge this season. He scored five touchdowns with 14 catches and 184 yards.
"More than anything, I'm happy for a young man in his time here who has just done things the right way," Ofodile said of the MSHSAA's ruling. "He’s been a great team guy, he’s really, really been serious about his academics and busting his butt."
The feeling, Ofodile said for his team, was relief. As it was for Turnage, who throughout the past week practiced on scout team, hoping he was helping his team in some way, any way.
The thought of not being able to play football again ran back and forth through his mind, he said.
"Because this is all I got," he said. "This is my life."
Sitting in Wednesday's meeting, he said, might have been the most stressful moment of all. When it was over, he felt the relief like a wave, like a weight lifted.
His head dropped. His mom embraced him.
His dreams of playing Division-I football and beyond were still possible.
"It's all for Momma," he said. For the woman who raised him when his father left him as an infant; who moved him away from East St. Louis to Columbia; who currently works two jobs to support him.
"I feel like God has been here with me, and now I've got to take advantage of what he gave me," Turnage said. "So I gotta do better than how I did before."
The rest of his season was ahead of him Wednesday evening.
He walked past the locker room dry erase board.
"Seniors--" it read, "you have 4 games left that are guaranteed. How do you want to remember it?"
And then he walked out of the door, and he ran to the practice field.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.