Take one look at Tony Palmer and the words intimidating and scary might come to mind. Listen to him talk for five minutes and that perception will almost certainly change.
Palmer, Missouri’s starting weakside guard, is anything but the typical offensive lineman. Among a group of players that prides itself on being mean and having tattoos, Palmer stands out. Not because of body art or size, but because he represents everything that is right about college sports.
By all accounts, Palmer is one of the genuinely nice guys on the team. He is an avid churchgoer, loves gospel music and can play a number of musical instruments. When the game is over, he gives praise to God, his teammates and his opponents, almost everyone but himself.
Missouri tailback Tyrone Roberson said Palmer deserves his reputation as the team’s nice guy.
“I don’t know many people more genuine than Tony,” Roberson said.
Palmer is not without a mean streak, though. Every Saturday, Palmer turns it on like a light switch. Palmer, at 6-feet-2, 303 pounds is no pushover in the trenches. He won the team’s interior lineman of the year award in 2002 as a redshirt freshman and set the Missouri football bench press record of 453 pounds.
When Palmer isn’t staving off mammoth defensive tackles, he is probably playing music of some sort. Palmer’s love for religion and gospel music developed at an early age.
Palmer grew up in Midwest City, Okla., only a short drive from Norman and the University of Oklahoma. Palmer’s father, Tony Palmer Sr., divorced Palmer’s mother, Adrianne Gaines, when Palmer was 6.
Palmer and sister LaTasha were devastated. Palmer did what most children do when their parents divorce, he rebelled.
After a series of custody battles, Palmer went to live with Tony Palmer Sr. in Lacy, Wash., returning to Oklahoma for visits in the summer. Adrianne Gaines said her son started to become a problem.
“He was somewhat of a troubled teen, very rebellious like most kids who come from broken homes,” Gaines said.
For 6 ½ years, Gaines worked at Cory’s University Drugstore as a pharmacist’s assistant and at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City as a sheet metal mechanic, where she would meet her future husband.
Palmer struggled without his mother and returned to Midwest City for good three years later.
Upon Palmer’s return, he had to get used to the new man in his mother’s life. Little did he know that man was going to be what he calls his “Godsend,” in the form of the Rev. Richard Gaines.
Gaines was everything Palmer wanted. He was strict, but caring, and he steered Palmer away from the rebellious attitude and toward his second home, Community Missionary Baptist Church.
At 12, Palmer finally had the father figure he so desperately wanted. Adrianne married Gaines and Palmer had the guidance he needed.
Palmer said the addition of Richard Gaines into his life changed him forever.
“He came in right at that age where you are at your baddest, you know, when you can go one way or the other,” Palmer said. “He is my stepfather, but I call him my father because a dad can always make a child, but a father is the one that is there to raise a child.
“He’s been the main influence in my life and makes me the man I am today. I just thank God for bringing him into my life at a time when I really needed him.”
With a new family in place, Palmer began to thrive on the football field and off. Richard Gaines calls his son the fastest learner he has seen. Palmer was an unstoppable force of energy, always looking to try something new and perfect a new craft outside of football.
He started with music, learning the saxophone in fourth grade. When he met Tonya Ford, the organist at Gaines’ church, Palmer’s thirst for music expanded.
Palmer asked Ford to teach him more. She taught him the keyboard and piano first. Palmer learned those quickly and moved on to his next musical endeavor, the drums. After picking up the drums, Palmer decided it was time to sing. He joined the church’s choir.
Palmer performed with the choir regularly. He loves gospel music, rhythm and blues and even some country. He makes a concerted effort to join the choir whenever he gets home.
Richard Gaines said Ford was an excellent role model for Palmer.
“I think she just saw his budding curiosity in music and took an interest in him,” Gaines said. “He looks at music as another way to express himself.”
After fine-tuning his music abilities with the choir, Palmer began to grow on the field. Palmer was a natural athlete. Despite his size, Palmer was one of the best athletes on the team. By the time he was a senior, Palmer had earned All-State honors as an offensive lineman and a difference maker on the defensive line.
With Palmer’s budding football stardom came time for another important lesson from Richard Gaines. To ensure that his son would assert himself in football games, Gaines emphasized the importance of differentiating football and life. That lesson enables Palmer to shed his nice guy image on Saturdays.
Palmer said he needed that reassurance to do his job well.
“My dad always taught me to be the nicest guy off the field, but when you’re on the field to have the mindset that somebody just broke into your house,” Palmer said. “You have to change the way you think to perform well.”
To help bring out his mean streak, Palmer turns again to music, though his musical interests change dramatically. Palmer listens to hard rock before games to get in the right frame of mind.
Missouri hasn’t been all football and music for Palmer. He struggled with the adjustment to college. He didn’t know many people, so he talked to his mother every day.
He missed his friends and his church, but most of all he missed his parents, especially his mother.
Palmer said his mother was the reason he survived the challenges of his new surroundings.
“My mom, that’s my heart,” Palmer said. “There is no mother greater than mine. The stuff that she went through to get me the best life possible, wow, she can never be replaced.”
Eventually, Palmer found a new family at MU, his teammates. Palmer attends Second Baptist Church in Columbia and regularly goes to Campus Crusade for Christ and Athletes in Action.
When Palmer isn’t practicing or studying, he often joins teammates Mau Uiagalelei and Roberson at the Black Culture Center, playing the piano and singing his favorite song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
When Palmer returns to Oklahoma on Saturday to play the hometown Sooners, he will do so as a sort of local hero. None of that means much to Palmer, for he knows the people most important to him will attend.
Andrea Hicks, his fiancée, will be there. Ford and the rest of the gang from the church will show up. Richard and Adrianne Gaines will be front and center, distinguished by the black and gold of the Tigers in a sea of crimson and cream and a pair of smiles that won’t go away.
“Everyone here is so excited to see Tony,” Richard Gaines said. “The whole church has been talking about this for a year. I guarantee this, though, nobody is as proud of the football player and man that our son has become as we are.”