COLUMBIA — Stryker Sulak could not completely pledge himself to Missouri when he came to Columbia as a freshman. He could not forget where he, and many of his teammates, come from.
Sulak decided to display his allegiance in his room. He got on eBay and bought a red, white and blue state flag with the single, lone star. It was as imposing as the starting 6-foot-5 240-pound defensive end himself. Students stopping by his room could not ignore it. “We wanted them to know it was a Texas room,” Sulak said, smiling.
Now the flag hangs in his bedroom. “Right when you walk in, you see it on the wall,” said Sulak, who grew up in Rockdale in east-central Texas.
The Missouri football team travels to Texas on Wednesday to start preparing for the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 in Dallas. But many players, including Sulak, are already in their home state. Practice ended Saturday morning, and the team immediately dispersed for Christmas. The Tigers are allowing players who live more than four hours away from Columbia to meet them in Dallas.
Chase Daniel will be close to the Cotton Bowl. Southlake, his hometown, is about 25 miles northwest of downtown Dallas. But many Texan players will be hours away. Coaches worked hard to recruit them in a state almost four times the size of Missouri, and the players brought their talent and pride with them.
Last month, coach Gary Pinkel revealed the team’s secret to success in Texas. “We use Garmin,” he joked, referring to a company that makes GPS equipment.
“Outside of Missouri, Texas is the state where we really put a lot of time and efforts into,” Pinkel said. Eighteen of the 110 players on the active roster, including five of 22 offensive and defensive starters, are from Texas.
Like looking for soccer players in Brazil, talent is plentiful in Texas. To find it, the Tigers fan out from the major cities and build relationships across the vast state.
Accustomed to getting lost, assistant coach Craig Kuligowski said he just bought a Garmin device. “If I’m not doing three U-turns, I’m not working very hard,” he said.
Kuligowski is one of five coaches assigned to recruiting in Texas. When Pinkel started at Missouri, the Tigers sent only two, but they have now extended their reach. After the Big 12 Conference Championship, Kuligowski made several trips to his assigned area in the southern and eastern parts of the state, which includes San Antonio, Corpus Christi and southern Houston.
When Kuligowski makes the trip, he arrives Sunday and leaves Friday, unlike other schools that fly in and out quickly. “We’re hunting and pecking and looking under rocks and doing all that stuff it takes to find good guys,” he said.
The Tigers’ persistence and patience has worked. “I think Sean Weatherspoon is a perfect example of that,” Kuligowski said.
The sophomore linebacker did not get much attention in high school. He was tucked away in Jasper, located more than two hours northeast of Houston, The major schools expressing interest in him included Iowa State, Houston, Tulane and TCU.
Now Weatherspoon is one of the best linebackers in the Big 12. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors from the media and second-team accolades from the coaches. He also leads the Tigers in tackles.
Weatherspoon took over from linebacker Marcus Bacon, who won first-team All-Big 12 honors and led the team in tackles last season. Where is Bacon from? Houston.
Texas’ football factory is obvious to anyone who has read or watched “Friday Night Lights.” “It’s the best setup for high school football in the country,” Kuligowski said.
Kuligowski also understands Texans’ pride, which remains dormant in recruits until they arrive in Columbia. “You get them out of state, and they go, ‘I’m from Texas,’” he said.
Weatherspoon is elated to go home. He hasn’t been back to Jasper since June. “We wanted the BCS bowl. But I’d rather be going to Texas, actually. For me, it was like this: I wanted to go to the national championship, or I wanted to go to the Cotton Bowl,” he said.
Like Sulak, Weatherspoon displays his pride. Last year he went to the mall with four Texan teammates — Tommy Chavis, Jared Perry, Kevin Rutland and Danario Alexander. They brought along their new gray hooded sweatshirts to get airbrushed. On the back, the state is outlined in black with the flag airbrushed across it.
This year, the new players from Texas were jealous because they couldn’t copy the fashion trend. This season’s hooded sweatshirts are black.
Weatherspoon recently ruined the sweatshirt, one of his favorite pieces of clothing. Like a running back eluding his grasp, he couldn’t handle his Philly cheesesteak. “I got a grease stain on it that wouldn’t come out, so I’m kind of upset right now,” he said.
But Sulak still has the most pride. He can’t resist any item decorated with his state’s colors. “My shower curtain’s a Texas flag. I saw it back home. I was like, ‘This is going back with me,’” Sulak said.