COLUMBIA — When we needed a basket, the ball magnetized to Maty Mauk. He was the guy we all expected to make the winning plays under pressure. And he didn't let us down.
The setting was a bit more subdued than a packed Southeastern Conference football stadium, but during a pickup basketball run at MizzouRec one Friday afternoon in May, Mauk carried my team to victory. Impressed? Probably not. But I saw a glimpse of what makes Missouri’s sophomore quarterback the type of get-it-done leader his teammates trust.
No matter who he calls his teammates.
Mauk was leisurely shooting with wide receiver Levi Copelin that day. They had "Next," which is pickup-basketball talk meaning that they could choose any other players to fill their team for the following game. I asked Mauk if he had room for me.
"Sure," the Tigers quarterback said, his now-grizzly beard then just a cub.
I’m 5-foot-8, 145 pounds if Shakespeare's Meat Lover's pizza is still in my stomach. In other words, I don’t cut an imposing figure on the basketball court. Mauk didn’t seem to care. He added two more players just like me.
I thought of this when Mauk commented last week at SEC Media Days about his supporting cast. The Tigers lost their top three wide receivers, including the brilliantly skilled Dorial Green-Beckham. But Mauk didn’t seem to care.
"People can say and do what they want, but we know what we have," Mauk told the media. "We have playmakers. We have an offensive line that is healthy coming back. We have a quarterback with experience.”
That experience is limited to 133 passing attempts in parts of 10 games as a redshirt freshman last season. Mauk filled in for an injured James Franklin in Missouri’s Oct. 12 win against Georgia started the next four games, and was an occasionally used weapon down the stretch for the 12-2 SEC East champions.
Losing is a somewhat foreign concept to Mauk, a four-star recruit out of Kenton, Ohio, who went 42-8 in high school. So when the media picked the Tigers to finish fourth out of seven teams in the SEC East this year — Missouri returns just nine total starters — he simply does not foresee that type of mediocrity.
That’s the difference between high-level athletes and the rest of us. We try to use logic to rationalize why a specific outcome will or will not occur. They, meanwhile, have built a large enough reservoir of self-confidence that they expect a positive result.
I witnessed it, even in basketball games with nothing at stake.
Our first game was a bit rough. Our opponents were clearly inferior — like an early-season cupcake. Mauk didn’t run hard; he missed easy layups; he threw errant passes. He coasted, and we won by a margin that was tighter than it should have been. (If South Dakota State keeps it close against Missouri in the season-opener on Aug. 30, don’t say you weren’t warned).
But Game 2 — against a group of players bigger, stronger and faster across the board — brought out the Mauk whom coach Gary Pinkel describes as possessing the “it factor.”
It’s not surprising or all that extraordinary that an SEC quarterback was physically talented enough to lead a pickup basketball team to victory, but Mauk was impressive in how he did it.
The rules of the court stipulate that games go to 16 points — counting by ones and twos. A team must win by two. It was one of those back-and-forth battles that went well beyond the 16 points, with neither team able to gain a late two-point advantage.
The man guarding Mauk — a burly, athletic player who clearly relished in the challenge of locking down Maty Mauk — was excessively physical on the perimeter. He shoved and grabbed the quarterback, our point guard, who took the contact in stride until calling a foul late in the game (players referee their own games in pickup ball).
In turn, the defender taunted Mauk with words not suitable for print. Basically, he called him soft. He called him weak. He called him unathletic. Mauk softly but defiantly commented that he'd someday make money off his athleticism.
Mauk, whom the Missouri athletics department lists at 6 feet, 200 pounds, never got rattled. He made most of our team’s big plays down the stretch. He pulled up and made a 30-foot shot on one end of the court. He rose to the rim for a big block on the other.
Eventually we won the game on a deep shot by a student who will never make money off his athletic ability. Mauk and the rest of our team slapped hands to celebrate the victory.
He did not want us to lose. He would not let us lose. We did not lose.
In a sports arena, I hope and try to win. Mauk truly believes he will win. And in that recreational basketball gym last spring, I truly believed we would win because Mauk did.
Effective leaders in any industry can transfer their confidence to others. It’s an especially good quality for a quarterback in the toughest college football conference in America.
When the Tigers say they believe in Maty Mauk, it’s because the kid with the beard hasn’t yet let them believe anything else.