Imagine playing a team that just dealt with a situation in which a fellow student went on a hunger strike, precipitating the need as a whole to make a public statement about the manner in which your fellow students were reportedly being treated.
On any college campus, protests happen all the time–in fact, almost daily. But at the University of Missouri, its football team took the extraordinary step of banding together, standing in solidarity while refusing to play any more games until its school president was removed from office.
At first, you look at the move that the players made as one that smacks of immaturity. Maybe insolence. And possibly, ignorance because the Missouri Tigers were 4-5 and needed two more wins to become bowl eligible.
However, when you look more closely at the issues facing the school–and the team–well, you understand more of the message that the kids and the team were trying to send by aligning in protest with the gentleman on his hunger strike. In fact, it might be the first time a Division I, Power 5 Conference team took such a step to ensure that the right thing be done–in their humble opinion.
So how on Earth did it even get to this point at an institution of higher learning? Well, after these allegations of racism were reported at Missouri, the school’s administration did nothing. In a state where Ferguson is not only a tragedy, it’s an everyday reality, the powers that be at this proud campus turned a blind eye to the problems going on within yards of their offices.
Racism is never a good thing, particularly in this information age when your opinion can be shared on social media in a matter of milliseconds with millions, if not billions of people around the world. But when students are using social media to share messages of hate and bigotry in the eyes of 30 black Missouri football players, it adds another layer to a region already tensed and focused on identifying and eliminating racism by any means necessary.
It’s a scary proposition these days in the state of Missouri, one that in context applies a certain amount of pressure on all of the people involved, be it white, black or otherwise.
In this case, the court of public opinion in a matter of speaking eventually convicted Tim Wolfe, Missouri’s president and forced him to step down for his alleged ignorance–less he look like a fool–and so with this news, the game would go on Saturday against BYU.
That BYU happened to be Missouri’s next opponent was rather ironic, considering how insolar the Provo, Utah campus seems to the outside world. In the end, Missouri won 20-16, ending quite possibly the most tumultuous week its football program has ever seen. As for BYU, well, it couldn’t help but be taken aback by everything the Missouri players had handled and how calm their opponent remained in such times of adversity.
After a tight first quarter in which neither team got much–Missouri hit a field goal to go up 3-0–each team hit chip shots in the second quarter, giving the Tigers a 6-3 lead at halftime. BYU got its first lead of the game in the third quarter on an Algernon Brown 11-yard run, going up 10-6.
Then Missouri retook the lead early in the fourth on a pass reception and slammed the door on a BYU comeback for good when it sacked Tanner Mangum, forcing and recovering a fumble that it later converted into points and a 20-10 lead.
“I think our team was resilient, we fought hard, but had a few critical mistakes. A few penalties and turnovers at the wrong time,” said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “In a close game, you expect those things to make the difference.”
But taking a stand on the field when it mattered most wasn’t all the Tigers had on their side on this day. They had added incentive from an unfortunate announcement that Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel was forced to make the day before the game.
Pinkel, who miraculously kept his team together and focused during all of this off-field controversy, announced the day before the game on the team bus that he was stepping down at the end of the season due to something he’d hidden from the team: he had been battling cancer. Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, as a matter of fact.
“I was an absolute wreck emotionally just being honest with those guys,” said Pinkel, who’s been Missouri’s coach for 15 years. “I really felt bad, because I didn’t know walking out of there if our guys could be able to focus enough to even have a chance to win a football game against a good team like this.”
The team to which Pinkel was referring was of course BYU, a squad that had already knocked off Nebraska and Boise State and took UCLA to the wire at the Rose Bowl and yes, the Tigers were able to hang on for a tough victory.
The Cougars came into this pivotal game riding a two-game winning streak with a slight asterisk: Neither of the teams BYU played were Power 5 Conference teams, the likes of which BYU (now 7-3) hadn’t played since that pivotal loss at UCLA.
And so to say that this game against Missouri within the confines of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City had added meaning, well, you just didn’t understand the whole story.