COLUMBIA — Missouri cornerback Randy Ponder had just finished up his second season with the team when coach Gary Pinkel called him into his office.
Ponder walked in, not sure what to expect. Then Pinkel delivered the worst news Ponder had received in his football career.
"We don't think you're going to get a scholarship," Pinkel recalls telling Ponder.
The second-year walk-on was taken aback. As a three-star recruit out of high school, Ponder passed up several scholarship offers to walk on at Missouri. He thought it was the best fit for him and figured he could work his way up the depth chart and earn a scholarship.
He bet on himself.
Sitting in Pinkel's office that day, even if only for a moment, Ponder felt as if he had lost. Missouri's depth chart was crowded, and more recruits were on the way. There just wasn't room for another scholarship player at cornerback.
"I was just being honest with him," Pinkel said on Monday. "At that time, we didn't think we were going to scholarship him. We thought we would recruit players.
"I thought he could go some place else and get a scholarship."
Even with other options, Ponder didn't hesitate. He trusted the choice he made as a high school recruit. Instead of folding and walking away from the table, Ponder doubled down on the bet he made two years earlier.
"I want to stay," he told Pinkel.
That was that. Ponder would stay at Missouri, buried on the depth chart with no promise from the coaching staff that a scholarship would ever come.
"I just had to stay hungry," Ponder said. "Honestly, I wanted to play for Mizzou, and I felt like it was the best fit for me.
"It just added fuel to my fire."
Ponder talked to his parents right away. He had just taken another risk, passed up another chance at a scholarship, but their support didn't waver.
"My mom always told me, ‘There’s always a struggle behind success,'" Ponder said. "She just said, ‘Be ready to write your story for success.’"
Ponder didn't waste any time. He prayed, and he got to work.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2011, he worked his way into a limited role in Missouri's secondary. He played 13 games, starting three. Ponder broke up four passes, ranking second on the team, and made 37 tackles.
"He started playing better than he’s ever played before," Pinkel recalled.
Ponder wasn't a timid freshman unsure of how to use his physical abilities anymore. Ponder had become an instinctive defensive back with a nose for the football and a different perspective.
His performance was enough to earn a scholarship at Missouri.
"The journey of trying to get a scholarship humbled me on so many levels," Ponder said. "You have no idea."
The scholarship was just a step. In his junior season, Ponder set a career high with 45 tackles. Prior to his senior season, he secured his spot as Missouri's starting cornerback across from E.J. Gaines, holding off John Gibson, David Johnson and Aarion Penton in fall camp.
In Saturday's win against Georgia, Ponder got another promotion. In the first half against the Bulldogs, Gaines could barely make his way off the field after suffering a strained right quadricep.
The next play, Ponder found himself lined up as Missouri's No. 1 cornerback, accompanied by Penton, a freshman. After a long journey, Ponder's gamble paid off, but the senior wasn't done taking chances.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray stood under center in the fourth quarter down by eight points. He barked out signals that broke the tense silence inside Sanford Stadium. Ponder knew Murray wanted to go deep. The Bulldogs needed yards and didn't have much time. The Southeastern Conference's all-time leader in career passing yardage was going for it.
Murray was locked in on the corner route, and Ponder knew it. He took a few steps back, allowing the receiver to come open for just long enough to convince Murray to pull the trigger.
The pass lofted in the air. Ponder had already jumped underneath the receiver's route and the ball was coming right to him for one of the easiest interceptions of his career. The interception left Murray with his head in the ground, kicking his feet against the field and sealing a huge win for Missouri.
Despite his strong performance and Missouri's perfect record, Ponder views this week's game against Florida as another opportunity to prove himself.
"We all have to step our game up because each game gets bigger and bigger," Ponder said. "Each game we win we have a target on our back.
"All eyes on us."
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.