COLUMBIA — Cosmopolitan Park is buzzing. It’s 5:30 p.m. Monday and unusually warm for the first day of October. Members of the Columbia Youth Football League migrate toward a green field on the east side of the park and take their seats around a microphone and two large speakers.
The crowd creates a huddle you won’t find on the practice field. More than 700 players, coaches and fans gather around, eagerly waiting for the guest of honor: Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
After 10 minutes of giddy anticipation, Pinkel arrives with senior nose tackle Lorenzo Williams. The crowd turns silent. Just two hours earlier, Pinkel was wearing a dark suit and addressing the media about how his team plans on stopping Nebraska on Saturday. Now, as he waits for Chuck Everitt, president and commissioner of the youth football league, to finish his introduction, Pinkel is dressed like the rest of the parents in his jeans and T-shirt.
The crowd finishes a rendition of the ‘M-I-Z ... Z-O-U’ chant, and Pinkel walks to the front. Grabbing the mic, he looks as comfortable as Chris Rock at the Apollo. He opens by talking about how he began playing football when he was 7, how his family couldn’t afford to buy him the correct padding. His thigh pads hung past his shins. He draws a laugh from the mothers. Dads nod as if to say, “Here, here.”
Then, after a quick cameo by Williams, Pinkel’s tone changes. His words get louder, his voice parched like he’s giving a speech to his players after a sluggish first half.
“The most important thing is learning about the good and bad of sports,” he preaches. “It’s not about the superstar, it’s about being a part of the team.”
Pinkel talks for five more minutes, but before he leaves, he wants to make sure the children hear this last part. “All eyes on me,” he tells them. Then he talks about life.
“Football is a great test of courage,” he says. “But the real sign of courage is when a friend wants you to do something (wrong), and you have enough courage to say, ‘No.’ And it’s something you’ll battle your whole life.”
Pinkel finishes his speech and walks off to the crowd’s chant of “Beat Nebraska, beat Nebraska, beat Nebraska!” Williams trails behind him and slaps a high-five to a young football player named Mason. In disbelief, Mason stares at his hand and swears to a teammate that he’ll never wash it again.
As the giant huddle breaks, the two MU stars linger near the parking lot. They take pictures and sign autographs.
“This brings back memories from a long, long time ago,” Williams says as he signs a jersey. “Any time you can get involved in kids’ lives, it’s a great thing.”
Pinkel, meanwhile, walks to his glistening gray motorcycle. As he straps on his helmet, Rebecca Dykhouse and her 10-year-old son Collen Dutton walk up to him and engage in casual conversation.
“He’s very motivating,” Dykhouse says. “Kids at this age are very easily influenced.”
Then, after a few more minutes of polite chatter, Pinkel revs his engine and drives off. The Nebraska game isn’t until Saturday, but on Monday, he was a clear winner.
The Missourian’s Chiara Della Cava contributed to this report.