COLUMBIA — Soon after his birth, A.J. Ricker was deemed unfit for Missouri.
Doctors warned his parents the winter air could cause harm to his asthmatic lungs. So they moved to Texas, leaving behind their lives in the Midwest, where his mother, Angela Ricker, graduated from Hickman High School and Central Methodist College, now known as Central Methodist University, and where his father, Tom Ricker, coached football at Windsor High School in their hometown.
But Missouri was always calling A.J. Ricker back.
Ricker returned at 18 to serve as the bullish core of the Tigers' offensive line from 2000 to 2003.
Eleven years later, he's back again. In July, he was hired to coach his alma mater's offensive line.
"I can't put it into words, really," Ricker, 34, said after the team's practice Wednesday morning.
He always wanted to coach. He felt coaching was in his blood and stalking the sidelines was the strongest alternative to playing.
"I coach because I still want to play, and I have a passion for the game, and I respect the game," said Ricker, who padded up for a one-year stint in Europe and another in an arena league. "On Saturdays, when they're out there playing, I'm out there playing. Not physically, but mentally. When they run out of that tunnel, I get the same butterflies as those guys. It's important to me. Know what I mean?"
He began his coaching track in 2006 as a graduate assistant for Western Michigan, and as he rose through the coaching ranks for the next eight years, Ricker wrote letters to Gary Pinkel.
He'd wish his former coach luck on the upcoming season in those letters.
"I'd love to come back and coach for you if it worked out," Ricker said he wrote. "I always threw that in there."
When the position opened July 1 after Bruce Walker's retirement, Pinkel looked to the player who showed him total devotion during the tumultuous start of his tenure in Columbia. The program went a combined 9-14 in Pinkel's first two seasons.
"He was (here) in a time when it was a battle of commitment," Pinkel said of Ricker. "He played really well for us, was very committed. But it was a very difficult time to be here."
Ricker started at center in every game he played for four seasons. His 47 straight starts were, at the time, a school record.
The years of his life he recalls so fondly are the same ones he calls rough years. He remembers how much he gave to the program.
"It (took) leaders. That was part of my job as a captain to do it," he said. "You know, I take pride in feeling like I helped build this thing. Really, we started this thing and took the lumps early. Our payoff was my senior year."
That season, the Tigers finished 8-5 and played in a bowl game for the first time since 1998.
"Going to that bowl game, finally seeing this thing get going, having pride about this program, that’s why I love being here," Ricker said. "I have a lot invested in this thing."
Now, he finds himself with a program that has a much different aura from the one he once knew. One where "you had guys with one foot in, one foot out," as he puts it. Coming off its Southeastern Conference East division championship, he said he sees a kind of urgency.
He wants to fuel it further.
"This is his alma mater, so it's really important to him," offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. "He's really passionate about, you know, our guys playing with a certain attitude and a certain kind of demeanor up front."
Ricker can feel it. He is in the place where he belongs. Even so, he's never been one for contentment.
"It's not one of those honeymoons where I'm just happy to be here," he said. "I have a lot of work to do. I'm happy to be here, but I also want to be successful here. That’s important to me."
Supervising editor is Raymond Howze.