There are more than 100 players on the Missouri football team, and some friendships seem to form naturally.
Receivers hang out with receivers. Starters jel with one another. Players from the same hometown share a similar background and build from there.
Other friendships are a little more unlikely. Take Brad Smith and Scott Wheatley. Smith is the Tigers’ senior star quarterback who has started every game in his college career and shattered more records than a disco delomotion night. Wheatley is a journeyman walk-on lineman who has never started a game and has just started seeing action on the field in this, his senior season.
So what brought these two together?
Two F’s. Not the academic kind. Both had success in school, graduated, and are now in graduate studies.
No, the two F’s they share are faith and fishing.
“Brad was real quiet his true freshman year, but he started opening up as a redshirt freshman,” Wheatley said. “He took me to church actually. Then we learned we both like fishing so we started that.”
Finding time around school and football to fish can be a challenge, so Smith and Wheatley aren’t picky about the particulars of any given fishing trip. The two fish whenever and wherever they get the opportunity.
“We have a lot of early mornings and sometimes in the evenings,” Smith said. “We’ll go in ponds, wherever we can find. I’m a bass fisherman but we will go for anything, catfish, crappie, whatever.”
Over the course of four years of fishing, a rivalry has developed between the two.
“It’s gotten kind of competitive,” Wheatley said. “We definitely like to see who can catch the biggest or the most fish.”
The edge, Wheatley admitted with a smile, lies with Smith.
“Brad cought a pretty big cat one day,” he said. “I’d say it was maybe eight or nine pounds.”
Sundays, Wheatley and Smith can be found at Victory church in Columbia. They share a faith in Christ that both say makes them stronger. Wheatley said Smith’s openness about his faith allows him to go to him in times of need.
“Anytime you have the same faith it just allows you go to him with any questions you might have and if he doesn’t have an answer he can help me find it,” Wheatley said. “Overall (Brad) makes me want to be a better man (through faith). He’s shown me ways to better myself.”
Wheatley returns the favor in football, serving as a motivator for Smith. Smith said Wheatley is unlike any other player once he hits the field.
“He’s taught me about perserverence and hard work,” Smith said. “If somebody tells him he can’t do something, he works harder. He just has this drive to prove all your critics wrong.”
Wheatley, who this season earned a scholarship for the first time, has had to claw his way up the depth chart. He’s switched from defensive line to offensive line and back again, in an effort to see time.
“(He’s) a guy that came into the program..and you’d keep telling him, ‘You know, you’re probably just not quite good enough, you’re working hard, but...’,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “But he didn’t buy that. He didn’t believe it.”
Wheatley said he has had an intrinsic drive to succeed since an early age.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve just had that competitiveness, not wanting to lose,” Wheatley said. “I hate when someone says I can’t do something. I want to not only prove it to them, but prove it to myself. It’s about keeping going. I’ve never quit anything in my life and I don’t plan to. “
It’s been special teams where Wheatley has had his most shining moments this season. He has blocked extra points in games against Kansas and Baylor.
Smith couldn’t be happier to see the success of his oldest friend on the team.
“It’s great,” he said. “Nobody knows how hard Scott worked since his freshman year. It’s been non-stop, harder and harder every year
If anybody deserves it, it’s him.”
Wheatley was the last Tiger off the field after running a few extra laps to complete one of his last practices, after which he sheepishly said he feels a sense of accomplishment about his five years at Missouri.
“Fighting all those years and finally getting some playing time has been great.”
The friendship of Wheatley and Smith has little to do with successes on the field though.
“It’s not even about what happens on the field,” Smith said. “We just go out and have fun together.... and try to forget about what’s going on on the field.”