Brian Garner was talking to one of his many friends in Columbia a year ago, when the man he “admires most” walked into the room. It was Gary Pinkel.
Faced with the chance to meet the former MU football coach, Garner was equal parts nerves and excitement.
“Coach, could I ask you a favor?” Garner inquired. “I would be honored if you would sign my leg.”
Garner hoisted his right leg up on a long folding table and gave him a marker. In what Garner describes as the “highlight of my year,” Pinkel took the marker and signed his name.
“Pinkel’s wife was taking the pictures, but he signed it too fast,” Garner recalled. “She said, ‘Gary do it again.’”
And Pinkel did.
Garner’s right leg, a wooden prosthetic he has needed since he lost his limb at age 4, has become a walking yearbook of MU memories.
Since 2011, he has collected 189 signatures from athletes and coaches, including quarterback Drew Lock, running back Ish Witter and Olympic wrestler J’den Cox.
Garner has gathered most of the names during the elaborate tailgate parties he stages during home football games. That, and a life’s work in patient care, has given him the stamina and strength to face adversity.
“I feel 161 when I get out of bed,” Garner, 61, said. “But I feel like I’m 12 years old when I’m at Mizzou. Nobody at Saturdays at the Zou has more fun than I do.”
More than one definition
Garner, who grew up in southern St. Louis, was born with a rare birth defect in his hip, called proximal femoral focal deficiency, which tends to shorten a leg. His was amputated when he was 4.
“Honestly, I’m 61, and I remember that surgery like it was yesterday,” Garner said. “I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember that.”
It was cold, he remembers. After being wheeled down a long hallway to the operating room, he stared at the pink-green walls until a man dressed in scrubs scooped him up and laid him on a table.
“I remember complaining to him how cold I was, so they put a sheet and blanket from somewhere close on me,” Garner said.
When the surgery was over, he lifted up the blanket to see a big ball of gauze wrapped in elastic where his leg used to be. Even in the dark, he saw that his leg was gone.
Though Garner was dealt a physical obstacle, he said he has never felt like an outsider.
He credits his no-frills mother with his no-nonsense upbringing. When they went shopping, she insisted he walk up from the sidewalk to the house without help. If her son wanted to get inside the house, he could climb the steps himself.
“My mom is the reason I think I’m so well-adjusted. She would never show me favoritism,” Garner said. “My butt got kicked just like all the other kids did.”
Garner’s home life influenced his relationships with classmates, friends and even his high school baseball coach, who affectionately called him, ‘Woody.’
He was determined to find the sweet spot between embracing his disability without it defining him.
“My artificial leg is responsible for making me who I am,” Garner said. “But if somebody tried to lump me into a category of being handicapped and all that, I would take offense to that.”
He began to call attention to his leg six years ago when his family made their annual trip to the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida. As people crowded the gate with balls and T-shirts for autographs, Garner’s son Kurt gave him an idea.
“Dad, why don’t you have them sign your leg?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
But when three Cardinals signed his leg, Garner knew he was onto something. He got signatures at every Cardinals spring training camp before adding MU athletes four years ago. Garner says he’s embarrassed to think that it didn’t occur to him sooner.
He hits up the Tiger Walk prior to games, the locker room afterward and always carries two permanent markers in order for “preparation and luck to meet.”
“I have never, ever been turned down,” he said. “I never interrupt people at dinner or guys after the game if they’re talking to family. I wait until the opportunity presents itself.”
The opportunity arises so often that Garner is literally running out of room on his leg. Now he carries six neoprene sleeves to slip over his calf for added space.
Whether it’s putting his leg up on a light pole for basketball player Michael Porter Jr. at an alumni game or hopping down a line of MU volleyball players at the Black & Gold game, Garner will shape-shift into an ideal autographing angle.
He doesn’t have a dream list, though he’s quick to note, “If I crossed paths with Taylor Swift, hell yes, I would ask.”
A tale of tailgating
It’s game day in Columbia, and Garner has been up since 5 a.m. to make the two-hour drive from his home in Imperial in time to prep his tailgate party.
During the week he’s figured out the menu, made a checklist of the decorations he needs and methodically packed his car. It’s so full that no one else can ride with him.
Garner is at the gate of the handicapped lot by 7:30. He is almost always among the first five people in line for a spot in the corner of the Hearnes Center.
By 8 a.m. he and a few friends are assembling the tents, arranging chairs and setting up the food.
Garner’s tailgate smells like chicken marinated with sriracha, pineapple and honey mustard. The tent is decked out with MU memorabilia — a flag, oversized stuffed tiger and a chalkboard that reads, “My Happy Place.”
It’s not unusual for him to spend 15 hours at the stadium on a football Saturday. By the time he’s cleaned everything up and talked with the players at the locker room two hours after the game, the parking lot is nearly empty and the highways are clear.
But the Sunday after a home game, he says, he can barely move.
“My wife always says, ‘You know you’re crazy, don’t you?’”
“Yes, dear, but I love the tailgating. I love these guys.”
Although Garner graduated from Southeast Missouri State, he’s found many of his most treasured friendships and experiences at MU.
Garner’s devotion to Tiger football began in November 2007 when he attended the KU Border War game at Arrowhead Stadium with his son. He said he sat, riveted by the game, in the rain, sleet and snow.
By the end of the day, he was hooked, and his wife encouraged him to get season tickets for himself and his son. That way, he would have something to occupy his winters other than “moan and wait around for baseball.”
A decade later, Garner has yet to miss a home game and averages about 11 per season, skipping just one away game a year. This year he didn’t travel to Athens to see last weekend’s game against Georgia.
He switched his license plate to read SECFB the day after MU joined the Southeastern Conference. When he can, he also supports MU gymnastics, volleyball and basketball — if he can get season tickets this year.
“The last five years have been the best time of my life. I’m having way more fun than I ever did in my 20s or 30s,” Garner said.
His wife “feeds his addiction” by helping him with travel arrangements for away games, while his daughter and “cohort in crime” Lauren, 29, says her father’s game-day traditions give them a chance to bond.
“It’s our little thing that we do together,” his daughter said. “He’s in 60s now, so I worry about him. But as goofy as he is, this is seriously keeping him young.”
Positivity in pain
Garner brings the same spirit and energy to MedResources, a company in St. Louis where he’s worked for 13 years.
The company makes medical devices and provides care to “help people get back on their feet.”
Garner’s job includes finishing the fabrication on leg braces and ensuring the new devices are a physical and emotional fit.
Sharron White, a client care specialist at MedResources, describes him as an “animated, down-to-earth, genuine person who takes a very passionate interest in helping the people that we help.”
Garner said he is so involved in his patients’ care that some don’t even discover he has a disability until he lifts up his pant leg.
“When people hide behind their disability, that just makes me so mad, I could die,” he said. “So, if I can use my leg to help another adult or child get past this situation, then my life on this earth has been made.”
He has gone through five prosthetics since he lost his leg in 1960 and now wears a model he was given in 1979.
In trying times for even the most dedicated MU fan, you’ll still find him in a leather MU chair in his office, connecting with fans online via his own Mizzou Tailgating page. The walls are lined with photographs taken with athletes and ticket stubs preserved under glass.
When football season is over, he faces surgery on his left leg to repair a torn meniscus cartilage in his knee. Garner asked his doctor to delay the surgery until after MU’s final game against Arkansas.
“I do not want to miss my Tigers playing football even for one game,” he said. “I’m going to ride this pony until I can’t ride anymore.”