When Connor Tollison and his parents set off from their hometown of Jackson on a college road trip in early 2020, they embarked with a series of stops that read like a shopping list.
Norman, Oklahoma; Columbia, Missouri; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Knoxville, Tennessee; and College Station, Texas, were a few of the many football-crazy towns that dotted their itinerary.
Then a late-night phone call cut their trip short in Oklahoma.
Hours removed from a visit with the Sooners, Tollison stepped out of their hotel room for a few minutes, and when he returned, he told his mom, Jeanna Hull, and stepdad, Chris Hull, they were going to Columbia the next weekend.
“We’re supposed to be in Alabama,” Hull remembered telling her son. “He’s like, ‘Nope, we’re going back to Mizzou.’ There was always a draw back to Mizzou.”
Tollison had always seemed destined to be a Tiger, at least to those around him. The lone in-state SEC school with a new, exciting head coach and history of producing NFL-caliber lineman? It felt like a match made in football heaven.
But who is Tollison, other than a talented kid from southeastern Missouri who grew up on the gridiron? Opposing coaches describe him as a “rare talent” who consistently dominated high school games. Friends and family call him goofy and laid-back ... but also driven.
As for Tollison himself? Well, his main desire is to be the Tigers’ next starting center, and he can take the reins when the season kicks off against Louisiana Tech on Thursday.
A kid from Jackson
Nothing may have dictated Tollison’s football career more than the piece of red tape stuck vertically across his helmet he played with growing up.
As someone who finds comfort in order, that single piece of tape — given to him as a second grader during his first practice of peewee football — was one thing Tollison couldn’t control. Reserved for players over a certain weight and height, Tollison was thrust into the trenches before he could figure out whether he had the desire to play anywhere else.
It was on his peewee-league team that Tollison met teammates he played with through high school. To this day he remains close with Bryce Norman, now a linebacker at SEMO.
Norman remembers Tollison being tall and lanky when they became friends in elementary school but noticed rare talent right away, even then. He has too many favorite memories with Tollison, on and off the field, to count but always goes back to the instant success of their youth travel team and the moments associated with it.
They won the first big tournament they competed in, the O’Fallon Tournament outside of St. Louis, but with them being young kids, Norman primarily recalls the shenanigans players got up to on the road, such as knocking on teammates’ hotel room doors late at night and running away.
Over the years, that goofy streak grew with Tollison and is the first thing his peers bring up when asked about his personality. His form of humor comes across as one-liners delivered at the oddest times, both in practice and before classes. Hull describes her son as witty and said in another life he could be a stand-up comedian because nobody ever knew what was going to come out of his mouth.
“Traveling in the high school buses, he would just say some stupid stuff and whatever comes to his head,” Norman said. “We all thought, ‘Who would think of that other than Connor?’”
But Tollison toes the line between goofy and serious perfectly and has always been well-loved in the locker room. That’s just “Connor being Connor.”
“You can never be in a bad mood around that kid,” Hull said. “Random things come out of his mouth which surprise you, but he’s a great kid. I know he’s mine, but it’s hard to ever be down around him.”
Becoming a Southeastern Conference-caliber lineman
For as long as Jackson High School running back Tony Williams had practiced with and played alongside Tollison, nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed during the 2020 MSHSAA Class 5 championship game.
“I saw (a defender) just absolutely fly across my face and Connor standing over him smiling real big,” Williams said.
A physical specimen, Tollison arrived at Jackson with obvious talent. His coaches elevated him to varsity as a freshman, and they groomed him at left tackle. By the time Tollison’s senior season rolled around, he was a solid, consistently dominant offensive lineman that towered above everyone else in the trenches.
Even as he grew, Tollison maintained the rare speed and athleticism that rivaled an average running back. Williams remembers many moments throughout his high school career in which he broke away for a large gain only to glance to his side and see his lineman with him almost stride-for-stride.
“Man, he’s fast,” Williams often thought to himself. “Or am I slow?”
That speed shocked his teammates and demoralized opponents, who knew a run to Tollison’s side of the field almost always guaranteed positive yardage.
“You think when you go against Connor, who is 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, that you’re going to go around him as a smaller, quicker guy,” Norman said. “What you don’t see is that he’s really fast for how big he is; he plays like a smaller guy.”
Tollison put every bit of his physical acumen on full display in Jackson’s 42-7 win against Platte County in the 2020 MSHSAA Class 5 championship game. Nobody could have scripted a more fitting end to Tollison’s prep career, as Jackson completed a 14-0 season and won its first championship.
Platte County head coach Bill Utz has his own memories from the night his then-undefeated Pirates ran into the Jackson buzzsaw. Even amidst an all-around talented offensive line, Tollison stood out as Jackson scored a rushing touchdown on the second play of the game.
Two seasons removed from that ill-fated December afternoon, Utz couldn’t emphasize the difficulty of creating a game plan for the then-senior enough — not solely because of his physical attributes, but because of his consistency and how he made his dominance “look routine.”
“There’s a reason he’s an SEC lineman,” Utz said. “He’s athletic for his size, next-level live, and on top of that has every tool you could possibly need.”
After the game, Platte County defensive lineman Keaton Smith called Tollison the best offensive lineman he had ever faced.
“You don’t see those guys that often,” Utz said. “They’re special. There are always a handful of kids who will fit that mold, but to have that physical girth and size is one thing; to play like an undersized guy, that’s where it gets rarer.”
Making a college decision
The after-school conversations between Tollison and Hull are about what one would expect from a kid nose-deep in football and a mom yearning for any glimpse at the life of her growing son.
She asked about her son’s day and heard the same standard answers: “Yeah, yeah,” and, “It was good.” Little did Hull realize how much Tollison was doing to control his own destiny.
When he wasn’t playing or watching football, Tollison locked himself in his childhood bedroom and called coach after coach and recruiter after recruiter to circulate his name among those in the college game — sometimes talking to up to seven a day. He also cut his own recruiting film before sending it to any coach who would take it.
“I didn’t realize until after the fact how much (Connor) did in his own recruitment,” Hull said.
The first major offer to come through was from SEMO; then the ball started rolling. Everything began to feel real on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, when Hull checked her phone and saw that her son received offers from Memphis and Ole Miss.
“When did this happen?” Hull asked her son.
“Like 15 minutes ago,” Tollison replied.
Life soon became almost too overwhelming, as he received offers from Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Alabama in quick succession. Even as offers flooded in, Tollison couldn’t get Missouri off his mind.
From a logistics perspective, the decision to play for Missouri made plenty of sense. It’s the in-state SEC school with a fresh coaching staff and is within driving distance from home. Tollison even has family ties to a Missouri Golden Girl. But nothing is ever a sure thing, and up until making an unofficial visit in 2019 to watch the Tigers play Florida, Tollison had never been to a Missouri football game.
A winter visit to Columbia in early 2020 and dinner at Shiloh Bar & Grill with offensive line coach Marcus Johnson as well as then-Missouri offensive lineman Case Cook went a long way toward selling him on new coach Eli Drinkwitz’s project in his home state.
Topics of conversation that night included Cook’s experience in Columbia, teammates, the locker room atmosphere, Johnson’s coaching style and more. Flash forward a year later, and Cook and Tollison were teammates both taking snaps during the 2021 spring season. Like many of his past teammates, Cook immediately noticed Tollison’s natural talent, even if he was certainly raw.
“You could tell that (Tollison) had some growing up to do in terms of playing O-line in the SEC,” Cook said. “But he was extremely athletic, and you could see he had the instincts to be a good player and the focus to get locked in to what he had to do so he could play at a faster pace.”
Off the field, Tollison was described by Cook as a sponge who often sat in the film room with him after spring practices even before he was a full-time student at MU. Although Tollison was quiet, Cook knew his young teammate was going to be all right based on the number of questions he continued to ask throughout their sessions.
After playing two games as a freshman, Tollison is being asked to make another leap in his development in 2022 and has large shoes to fill. Primarily an outside tackle through high school, Tollison is competing for snaps at center as the Tigers look for a player to replace Michael Maietti, who graduated after the 2021 season.
As Tollison competes for the starting role, Drinkwitz, Johnson and the rest of Missouri’s coaching staff have challenged him to put on some weight so that he can further hold his own against SEC defensive lineman.
“It’s something you can’t take lightly, even though it might seem like a pain to gain weight,” Cook said. “It seems stupid to be a little fatter, but those things happen to you where you get beat man-on-man and you realize you need to gain some weight.”
As Tollison enters his second year in Columbia, it leads to one simple question: Who exactly is he?
To those who know him best, Tollison is a man of contradictions. He’s aggressive ... but plays with finesse. Larger than life ... but quick. Laid-back ... but driven and hungry for control of his future.
This season, Tollison hopes to take more strides in his development and is a player worth monitoring come Missouri’s season-opening game Thursday and beyond. A kid from Jackson, a city near Missouri’s Bootheel, Tollison hopes to follow in the footsteps of the several talented Missouri offensive lineman before him.
“We’ll see good linemen. We see good linemen all the time,” Utz said. “But do they check every box? To see a highly ranked offensive lineman that has all those tools, it’s not as common as what you would think.”