COLUMBIA — Freeman Simmons and Mark Pickerel are coming home.
The South Dakota State cornerbacks have to adjust to stifling heat again. They’ll be on a field where they watched Missouri games as kids and played as teenagers for Rock Bridge High School against Hickman High School.
Their friends and family will be in the stands. The Bruins-turned-Jackrabbits are ready for nostalgia and nerves.
South Dakota State finished the 2013 season with a 9-5 overall record, going 5-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Missouri finished the year with a Cotton Bowl victory and a 12-2 overall record, going 7-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
“Coming back to my hometown and things like that,” Simmons, a second-string cornerback, said, “It’s going to be a very exciting game, I think. We’re definitely going to have a chance.
“I just imagine me making a big play — game-changing or something like that. It makes it even more exciting for me. It makes me ready for the game.”
That momentum-shifting moment would hurt the Tigers, but it would be a surreal homecoming for Simmons and Pickerel, a third-string corner.
The play Simmons imagined would be a very different kind of play from the ones they made in high school. Pickerel was a second-team all-state quarterback who threw for 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. Simmons, an all-district running back, ran for 2,069 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Bruins over his career. The two played annually at Faurot Field as part of a rivalry game against Hickman.
Despite how formative Columbia was for the duo, the change of pace — a massive shift, really — from this city to Brookings, S.D., was even more transformative.
The cold was inescapable. It’s the kind that chatters teeth and feels like 1,000 needles on your skin. Pickerel first noticed it on his official visit to South Dakota State. After attending a basketball game, he walked out of the arena wearing a jacket and jeans — not nearly enough clothing in the South Dakota winter.
He looked at the temperature on a screen across the street: -12 degrees.
“I still decided to come here,” Pickerel said.
It’s quieter there. Traffic is rarely a problem, and the campus is about a quarter of the size of Missouri’s. It was an adjustment for Simmons, too.
“It’s a big culture change because a lot of people here are into agriculture and things of that nature,” he said.
Simmons studies psychology, and Pickerel studies economics, according to athletics department's website.
The two worked through the chilly months and the slower pace of Brookings. Simmons, a redshirt freshman, and Pickerel, a junior, can call a place so different from their hometowns a second home.
“I’ve experienced it all,” Simmons said. “I’m kind of used to it, actually. It was awhile back ago, and it was 10 degrees outside, and I was just in a shirt chilling. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is comfortable.’”
The transition from offense to defense also became second nature, and, though they're not No. 1 players, both should see some playing time Saturday in what will be the season opener for both teams. Simmons said it will be an “epic game” for the two.
“I grew up going to all these games with my parents and stuff, and I played there a couple times in high school, playing against Hickman,” Pickerel said. “But it’s just straight business when I go down there.”
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.