IRVING, Texas — Lorenzo Williams insists it’s nothing personal.
Shreveport, La., is a fine town, he says. Nice people. Plenty of Cajun food to sting the nostrils and enough casinos to make a college kid go broke.
But it isn’t Dallas.
“When I went to the Independence Bowl, that was my first bowl game so that was the biggest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Williams said Thursday after Missouri’s first Cotton Bowl practice in Dallas. “And then coming here, the first thing is you walk into the hotel, and it’s a city. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Williams and teammate Martin Rucker have been the cornerstones of a revival in the Missouri football program. During their five seasons on the team, the two senior co-captains have been through it all. Today they will play their last games as Tigers against Arkansas, but their passion and leadership is likely to have a lasting effect on the future of this team.
And it all started in Shreveport.
A disappointing experience
Rucker and Williams quickly became friends as redshirt freshmen in 2003. Back then, Williams (now a defensive lineman) was a 225-pound linebacker and Rucker was a physically imposing tight end with tons of upside. The two went head-to-head every day in practice.
Off the field, their bond tightened. They moved into the same residence hall and hung out in their down time, watching TV and going places together.
Neither Rucker nor Williams had a hand in Missouri’s 27-14 loss to Arkansas that year in the Independence Bowl. Relegated to cheerleading duty, the two watched helplessly from the sideline as Arkansas running back Cedric Cobbs gashed the Missouri defense for 141 yards and a touchdown.
It was their first taste of experiencing a bowl game, and the loss left them bitterly disappointed. They decided that going to a bowl game was not good enough. In a locker room filled with complacency, the two vowed to change the culture of Missouri football.
“I try not remember anything about a loss,” Williams said, “but the game showed where we were and how far we still needed to go. We knew if things were going to change, we’d have to be the ones to do it.”
Learning to lead
They had no idea how hard it would be. The Tigers came into the 2004 season ranked No. 18, but under poor senior leadership and a frosty coach Gary Pinkel, the team was upset by Troy in Week Two and stumbled to a 5-6 record.
“I think it was a huge learning experience,” Rucker said. “The (Independence) Bowl game, and then even the next year when we were supposed to be really good and we didn’t live up to the expectation. I think all those things were definitely building blocks to the success we’ve had this season.”
“It was just the attitude,” Williams said. “At first we wanted everything, but some guys weren’t willing to put the work in the first couple of years I was here.”
That next summer, Williams was on the field when Aaron O’Neal died during a voluntary workout. It was a traumatic experience for him, and he began to take a more active leadership role.
“That’s when the team came together,” he said.
Rucker, meanwhile, was doing his leading on the field. He became a one-man wrecking machine who could block, catch and bulldoze over defensive backs. He led the Tigers in receptions and receiving yards his sophomore year and was named First-Team All-Big 12 by the league coaches his junior year.
Rucker could have left for the NFL after his junior year. Pro scouts told him he would have been a late-round pick. But he didn’t go. He didn’t want to abandon his teammates.
“I knew we had some special people in the locker room,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Back then, I knew it could happen.”
When it was time to name this year’s senior captains, there were no surprised faces to learn that Rucker and Williams, along with seniors Pig Brown and Jason Ray, had been voted co-captains by their teammates.
Rucker and Williams remembered what it was like spending their winter vacations in Shreveport or El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl, and they wanted more this year. They wanted to play for a Big 12 Championship. They wanted to win in November. They wanted to play in January.
They immediately went to Pinkel.
“That really started with the seniors,” Pinkel said. “We discussed the things you have to do to win at a higher level.”
Unlike the seniors of years past, Rucker and Williams provided leadership to the underclassmen. Their tireless work ethic rubbed off on them. If they saw one stray, they were quick to lasso him back to the herd.
“A lot of guys come in, and they were the big man on campus in high school,” Williams said. “But they don’t know the first thing about working hard.”
They quickly learned, and the team reached new heights this year. The Tigers had their first 11-win season and reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1960. They also won the Big 12 North Division and faced Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship.
And they’re playing in January.
Today, Williams and Rucker will play their final game as Tigers against the team that fueled their desire for greatness five years ago. It is the same matchup, but this Tigers team couldn’t be more different from the one that faced the Razorbacks in 2003.
This team expects to win.
“In the past everybody was all happy we get to go to a bowl game. If we win, ‘All right,’ but if we lose, ‘We still got to go,’” Williams said. “But definitely not now. The program has definitely switched to where we expect to win every game.”
And that might be their greatest accomplishment of all.