The football-obsessed kid from Webb City, Missouri, kept his prized possession proudly hanging on the bedroom wall for years: a signed photograph of his 4-year-old self, Trystan Colon-Castillo, beaming alongside Grant Wistrom.

Wistrom was Colon-Castillo’s hero. The pride of southern Missouri’s Webb City (neighboring Joplin), Wistrom was a star defensive end for the St. Louis Rams. He helped lead them to two Super Bowls and the 1999-2000 championship — a little too early for young Colon-Castillo to remember. But as he fell in love with the sport, his fandom gravitated toward Wistrom. He watched the Rams on TV whenever he had the chance. It was a matter of pride in his hometown.

“Every time Grant Wistrom would come back to Webb and do his little (football) camp,” Colon-Castillo said, “I’d be like, ‘Mom, we gotta go, we gotta go.’”

Now, Colon-Castillo finds himself on the other end, and he doesn’t take that for granted. It’s a weird sensation experienced by all of the Missouri Tigers around this time of year, when they gather in Devine Pavilion to meet fans and sign autographs at the annual preseason ‘Meet the Tigers’ event.

“I’m a big empowerment guy; I always love giving back,” cornerback Christian Holmes said. “To be able to sit here and take the helmet off, let them see who I am, see who they are, I love it.”

Holmes grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a huge fan of Mississippi State football. Growing up, he would go to Starkville with his family to see the team and meet the players. It was a testament to the importance of college football teams in shaping small-town cultural identity.

“As a kid, it’s a fantastic moment to get up and shake hands,” Holmes said. “You don’t really want to talk, you’re really scared of them. But now being in the role where I’m the guy kids come up to see, it’s a blessing.”

“It’s be a good chance for the young guys (on the team) to see how much we actually mean to these people,” Colon-Castillo said.

So just how much does MU football mean to Columbia and to Missouri?

Ask the Hales. The family of Mizzou superfans has been tailgating at home games for years, and they try to travel to one road game per season. They have come to the ‘Meet the Tigers’ event every year since it started, and they don’t even live in Columbia. No, the Hales are 2 1/2 hours away in Mountain Grove, Missouri, near Springfield.

They marked the wrong date on their calendars this year. Husband and wife J.T. and Jeanette Hale, 54 and 56, made the trip last Sunday and were greeted by construction work on Faurot Field’s south end zone. They turned the car around and went home. But ever upbeat, the Hales still returned for the real thing six days later. (That’s 10 hours total of driving between the two trips.)

But the family’s most dedicated tradition is also their strangest.

Standing in the longest line of all at the MU indoor practice facility — the line for Kelly Bryant autographs — daughter Nicole Hale, 24, held a near-3-foot action figure. In a previous life, it was Superman. But all that was left to prove it was the ‘S’ logo on the belt, now painted gold and black.

The rest was also painted — transformed from one super hero into another. It was Bryant, Missouri’s celebrity graduate transfer quarterback.

At the other end of the line, the life-sized Bryant was a hit with the kids, his ball cap precariously perched sideways on top of his hair, a child-like grin spread across his face. He took pictures and signed posters. When the action figure reached him, the grin somehow widened.

Jeanette, Nicole and J.T. walked away with the figure signed in two places: the helmet, and the butt.

The Hales have done their action figure Mizzou makeovers for years. It started with a Captain America made into an ambiguous Missouri player. It has developed over time. Last year, Drew Lock was one of the McFarlands — “his muscles weren’t big enough to be Superman,” J.T. said — and Terry Beckner Jr. was the Hulk, whose muscular features apparently were an accurate match.

This year, a new Hulk was painted to become linebacker Cale Garrett.

“That was sick,” Garrett said. “I wish I could keep it.”

So went ‘Meet the Tigers’ day at MU, with the Tigers sharing the love with the state they represent and feeling the love back in all kinds of weird ways.

  • Bennett Durando covers Missouri football for the Columbia Missourian. He is an MU junior from St. Louis, studying sports journalism. Reach him at bdurando@outlook.com, or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700.

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