Small-town roots keep Missouri’s Kurtis Gregory grounded

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 | 9:43 p.m. CDT; updated 1:12 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — Counting the coaches and players, the Missouri football team is nearly half the size of the town where Kurtis Gregory grew up.

The starting right guard comes from Blackburn, more than 70 miles west of Columbia. Its population is 276.

“When people come from a town of 4,000 or 5,000 and say everybody knows everybody, I’m just like, ‘No, you don’t,’” Gregory said.

Now, Gregory’s part of a black and gold family that gets together everyday on the practice field. But he hasn’t forgotten about his family’s farm outside of Blackburn. He goes there every time he gets a chance, and some of his teammates have visited. And when disaster struck his sister and her family, his relatives wearing black and gold made sure to help out.

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Gregory grew up on his family’s farm outside of Blackburn. He started to drive a tractor in third grade, cut the wheat crop by himself in sixth grade and, two years ago, moved all of his money out of his savings account to invest in some cattle kept on the farm.

“He’s definitely got farming in his blood,” said Roger Gregory, his father.

This season, when the Tigers had the Saturday off the week before the Nebraska game, Kurtis Gregory brought quarterback Chase Daniel and tight end Jon Gissinger to Blackburn. The star from suburban Dallas and the backup from San Diego experienced something new. After going to a cattle auction, they went to the farm. The two visitors attempted to run a hay rake and hay baler. At first, they both had trouble with the baler, releasing the hay bale before it was wrapped properly. But Gregory coached them, and soon Daniel and Gissinger had improved.

Always a competitor, Daniel didn’t own up to his mistakes.

“I was an unbelievable hay baler. I don’t know what Kurt is talking about,” he deadpanned.

Then, they drove around the farm, where the family raises cattle and fattens up other farmers’ hogs for sale at market. They shot .22-caliber rifles. For dinner, Roger and Ruth Gregory fixed Porterhouse and round steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet corn and dinner salad. They were worried if they had prepared enough, but the players were full after leaving nothing on their plates.

Their next stop opened Daniel’s eyes. Kurtis Gregory took the two to his small high school, Santa Fe, located in Alma, five miles west of Blackburn. There was no one around on that Saturday night. They pulled in front of the empty football field and shone the headlights into the darkness.

The difference was stark for Daniel. When starring for Southlake Carroll, he was accustomed to playing in front of more than 20,000. When Gregory would warm up with his team, only 50 people were in the stands. But after finishing up their work during harvest season, fans would trickle into the small stadium with a gravel track. By the second quarter, there would be more than 500.

After checking out the stadium, Daniel and Gissinger headed back to Columbia. But Gregory went to meet his best friend. The two stayed out late. But MU football coaches didn’t need to worry. Gregory and Aaron Plattner had work to do.

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Stephanie Keller, Kurtis Gregory’s older sister and only sibling, always joked with her family that she wanted a big brother. She got her wish.

Her little brother weighed 9 pounds, 10 ounces when he was born.

“He wasn’t little for very long,” their father said.

While he grew into his6-foot-five, 305-pound frame, his father would warn him, “Now be careful. Don’t hurt the little kids.”

Missouri found Gregory by accident. Assistant coach Andy Hill was checking on another player at Santa Fe when his eyes fixated on Gregory.

“I happened to walk by a classroom and saw a big fella sitting in a little-bitty school desk all cramped up,” Hill said.

Gregory was only in eighth grade at the time. But with his interest piqued, Hill kept his eyes on him and eventually offered him a scholarship.

Gregory wasn’t the only big guy at his small high school. He played left tackle for Santa Fe, but Plattner, who played right tackle, was just one inch shorter and weighed 280 , the same as Gregory at the time.

Plattner grew up on a farm 15 minutes away from Gregory. The two bonded by helping each other on their farms, offroading in their pick-up trucks and four-wheelers and hanging out during the football team’s Thursday-night bonfires.

Gregory still gives a hand to his friend whenever he gets the chance. After Daniel and Gissinger left, Gregory called up Plattner, who was finishing up the corn harvest on his farm before rains rolled in the next day.

“Man, I need somebody to help me,” he told Gregory.

Gregory drove out to his friend’s farm, and the two stayed up until 3 a.m. until all the work was complete. The two were heeding Roger Gregory’s advice:

“If there’s nobody else to do it, you got to get it done yourself,” he said.

But when a disaster struck Stephanie Keller and her family, everyone in Kurtis Gregory’s family helped out.

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On March 12, 2006, when Kurtis Gregory looked into the sky after getting out of church with his family in Blackburn, he was in awe. Red and purple hues were omens of coming storms that Sunday.

“Sweet, I’m taking a picture of this stuff,” he said.

With a storm chasing his pick-up truck, Gregory headed back to Columbia.

His sister was in Arrow Rock, 30 miles east of Blackburn, where she lived with her husband, Daniel Keller, and their two young daughters, Adrian and Jessica. They were having a barbecue with Daniel Keller’s parents, Glenny and Fay, and friends when they heard a tornado had touched down 20 miles southwest of town. They all rushed to Daniel and Stephanie Keller’s home because it had a cellar.

With hail measuring three-inches in diameter starting to fall, the Kellers scrambled to safety when they heard on a radio that another tornado was coming. Several minutes later, the Kellers’ cellar started to rumble. With the air pressure dropping, Daniel Keller’s ears popped, and a candle flame suddenly rose. Then, Fay Keller heard a pop.

“There it goes,” Glenny Keller said.

“My house,” his son said.

Everyone was safe, but the house was destroyed.

After getting the news that evening, Kurtis Gregory drove out to Arrow Rock the following afternoon to help out his family. “Wow, it’s not there,” he said when he was approaching where the house used to stand.

Debris was strewn everywhere. Sheets of tin were bent around tree trunks. An old Ford Ranger was hurled three-quarters of a mile away, but a Buick was nudged only three inches. During the clean-up, Kurtis Gregory followed the tornado’s path to search for the quilts that his great-grandmother had woven and sister owned. He couldn’t find them, but he found other belongings, including his nieces’ stuffed animals. He climbed into a tree to retrieve Eeyore, the donkey from Winnie the Pooh. He came across Tigger, the tiger, a little bit later. He also found their mini-screwdrivers driven into tree trunks.

All that damage has now been cleaned up. The Kellers have rebuilt their house and moved in less than two weeks ago. Residents of Arrow Rock helped to raise money for the family and others ravaged by the storm, but the Kellers got help from another source.

Once the MU football coaches learned about the disaster, they decided to help. Hill checked with the athletic department to make sure the team wouldn’t violate any NCAA rules by donating money to the family. After getting permission, the coaches gave the Kellers a $1,000 gift card to Target, where the family bought a vacuum cleaner, microwave and other household necessities.

While recounting the story, Hill expressed a sentiment straight of towns such as Blackburn and Arrow Rock that dot the route between St. Louis and Kansas City, the places connected with a communal spirit embraced by the men wearing black and gold.

“They’re a part of our family,” Hill said.

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Susan Gill October 24, 2007 | 1:49 p.m.

I just thought I'd leave a note and say how delightful this article is! It was a lovely read, and I liked that I got to know one of the Tigers. As a Missourian alum, it's always great reading such wonderful writing still being churned out by the J-School. Keep up the good work!

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jennifer inzer October 30, 2007 | 2:08 p.m.

I just like to say that this is a very well written article and it helped me remember a little more about a town and area I have missed alot, Thank You.

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