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'Football players are normal people': At Mizzou's post-boycott game with a former Tiger

When the Tigers beat BYU after involving themselves in campus unrest and after head coach Gary Pinkel's cancer announcement, a former teammate was in the stands.

KANSAS CITY -- Lucas Vincent watched Missouri beat BYU from 22 rows up in Arrowhead Stadium, standing up for every play, wearing a Mizzou letterman’s jacket. A year ago he would’ve been playing, one of the "particular kind of human beings who likes to play on a defensive line," as he describes it.

Now he’s a high school coach and engaged to his girlfriend, a Mizzou senior from Chicago. He proposed outside of Arrowhead before the Chiefs played the Bears. Next season, he hopes to catch on as a graduate assistant for a college program. His dream scenario would be with the Tigers. When I ask where he wants to be in 10 years, he says he'll hopefully be the best defensive line coach in college football.

As a coach, you’re still at the 6 a.m. practices, but not in them. His knees and shoulders don’t hurt every day like they used to. But he is still hardwired. He rocks side to side with his hands in his jacket, and when Missouri’s defense lines up before a big play, he sometimes shakes his head like he’s snapping it into place, then stands still.

Vincent goes silent when play stops for an injury. This numb routine for a spectator carries its appropriate weight when standing next to a would-be teammate of the injured. It’s awkward watching Vincent watch defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr. writhe on the turf with a knee injury, especially when a fan one row behind yells, "PISS BREAK!"

"First, you're feeling the pain. You feel it, and then you immediately start figuring out if you can still play. You might be thinking that everyone is watching you, but all you want to do know is, ‘Can I still play?’"

It's like hitting a HUMANIZE button on your television remote. It would be great if X got the touchdown on this play because he’s worked his ass off. No better teammate. You wouldn’t believe what Y would say on the sideline. He’s hilarious. This lineman is stronger than that one. This one can’t handle a second move.

Vincent and offensive lineman Evan Boehm after Mizzou won the 2014 Cotton Bowl.

When linebacker Kentrell Brothers makes a touchdown-saving play on third down, Vincent cheers like a football player, not a fan. Attaboy yells, not celebratory wooos.

"It’s so funny to watch that guy do so well. I love him. Hard to describe, but he’s just such a funny guy. Such a strange guy to know," Vincent says.

Brothers is, according to Vincent,  a functioning Call of Duty addict. "He lives for it," Vincent says. This is an ailment common to several teammates. So are Netflix binges, in which group viewings of TV shows become unofficial team events. When Missouri played in the 2011 Independence Bowl, Vincent was too young to get into Shreveport's casinos, the sole recreational offering of North Louisiana in winter. Rather than sneak in to booze and gamble, this 300-pound defensive tackle packed his Xbox 360 and logged 100 hours building XP in Skyrim.

"You'd be really surprised at the amount of people on a football team that watch Japanese anime. We have different hobbies. I guess people would be shocked to know we’re just a bunch of college students who do things just like college students would."

Whatever point you're inclined to make about the actions of Missouri football players in the past seven days, you can’t argue that they’ve represented themselves in any manner that's foreign to college students.

"There’s something about the way we look at football players not as people. You look at them and you can’t see their faces through the helmets. They’re wearing pads that make them look bigger than they are.

"Football players tend to get dehumanized. People forget they're normal people that do everything they do."

* * *

Friday, Missouri’s staff would have to jump ahead of a growing news leak that the head coach would be retiring because of lymphoma. Gary Pinkel would have to tell his players 24 hours before a game that, effective at season’s end, he was no longer their coach.

"It was the most emotional 15 minutes of my career," Pinkel told the media Saturday night. "I really didn’t know how [the team] would respond."

The Tigers won, but Pinkel was ready to offer himself as the distraction, as the reason they could've lost.

In football terms, the 20-16 win over BYU keeps bowl hopes alive for Pinkel’s final season in Columbia. It might have also validated the actions of the players who chose to elevate a campus concern to a national dialogue. But had they lost, that rarely precedented amount of agency Missouri’s players exercised -- speaking independently of coaches or administrators and refusing to practice or play -- would’ve been used against them. It would've been used as a condemnation not just of their actions, but of college athletes as anything other than contracted labor.

"There would’ve been a lot of criticism, but when are we not facing that adversity? It’s a good thing that we did come out with the win, though," said wide receiver J’Mon Moore, the player who met with campus hunger striker Jonathan Butler before the team presented its concerns to Pinkel.

At any point, Pinkel could've commented publicly that the involvement of his team in the on-campus protest was negatively affecting efforts for BYU. He didn't, and his players loved him for it. Three days later, they found out he was fighting cancer.

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"It’s not an 'issue.' It’s a tragedy what Coach Pinkel’s going through," Moore said.

"That's what makes him so great. Even if he wasn’t a coach, he’s a great person. It was a lot of, I guess, confusion in [whether Pinkel would support the strike]. We didn’t know. But he did. At the end of the day, he stood by us and we stand by him. At the end of the day, we had the entire coaching staff standing with us. That took a big risk. For us as players, we have a great respect for this staff."

Vincent found out about the cancer in real time. First, a reporter called Friday morning, trying to verify the rumor. Then the university released a statement in the afternoon. That he didn't know didn't surprise him, because each team fosters its own internal lock on outside communication.

It's how Michael Sam's sexuality remained private until Sam was comfortable telling his team, and then remained a locker room secret. Some knew, others assumed, but no one speculated, and never outside of the team.

"We knew. We just ... knew," said Vincent. "He hid it, but not to the extent where we didn't know. He had roommates that played on the team. So we'd be at the house hanging out, and guys would come over. It was always like, 'OK, hey, you do you.' Take care of the field, the weight room, the class room, and what you do with your personal time is up to you."

Pinkel could foster such security because of his own personality, eschewing the spotlight that seems almost mandatory for a head coach's success in today's game. Shortly after a Jumbotron tribute to Pinkel at Arrowhead, the coach appeared with his players to run out on the field. The camera framed squarely around him, Pinkel couldn't have looked more uncomfortable knowing he was the evening headliner.

"Oh yeah, that's not him at all," Vincent said in the stands. "He's the most team-first guy on the entire team."

Vincent and linebacker Markus Golden douse Pinkel after the 2015 Citrus Bowl.

During Thursday team meetings, Vincent said Pinkel would add a non-football "Pinkel Point," in which the coach would give courtship advice to his players about the opposite sex.

"I think people don't know how old school he is. He's a man's man, that type of guy," Vincent said.

Pinkel Points were kind of like finishing school seminars condensed into weekly tips.

"'When you're with a woman, walking down a sidewalk, make sure you're the one walking closest to the street.' Opening doors, stuff like that, but he was serious. You knew he was serious because he would always do the same thing."

* * *

Vincent is biracial, born to a white mother and a Samoan father. He was born in North Carolina and grew up first in rural Kansas, his mother remarried to a white man. Around the age of five, a girl in his class told him she couldn’t play with him because he was brown. One day he told his mother Genia he wished he was his parents’ color. The family began looking for a community where Vincent could grow up around families like his.

That town was Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City where Vincent became a star defensive end at powerhouse Olathe North. He grew up dreaming of playing at Oklahoma, the power program in his part of the country. But the night he and his family returned from visiting Norman, Vincent told his parents he’d be a Missouri Tiger, the team that felt most like a family to him.

Other than Bill Snyder's Kansas State, Vincent’s family felt no program came close to the atmosphere Pinkel’s staff had created. During official visits, parents of prospects were taken to a room where graduate assistants and staff would leave and active players would come in. Parents were allowed to ask the players anything, and the players were allowed to speak with total freedom.

Genia remembered a white player from Southern Missouri, "kind of a country boy," talk about introducing his teammates to deer hunting as soon as the season opened.

"We’re listening to a white player tell us about taking black kids from other parts of the country hunting. You knew right away that as a team they did everything together, regardless of who they were."

When we first meet over the phone, Vincent is quick to qualify his appreciation for Missouri and his time as a student and athlete as something entirely different from the experience of those who started the on-campus protests.

"I think because of the visibility of football players, you're not getting an accurate read on what it's like to be a regular student or regular black student."

Monday, Vincent's fiancée, who is white, tweeted in support of the protests using common hashtags, which were heavily followed by both supporters and detractors. Naturally, something awful happened next.

"Basically, she said just because you don't see a problem doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And then this guy quote-tweeted her and said, 'Great opinion from a coal burner.' I was just like ... Wow. People get really bold on the Internet."

A family friend contacted the guy's employer, which responded that he was no longer employed. [As of this writing, the tweets are still up, and the person is still at it, either indifferent to his circumstances or eager for attention.]

Vincent relays this story with the utmost calm, and not the kind of measure you strive for after being angry. He seems entirely at peace with the interaction.

"It doesn't do you a lot of good to be pissed off about something you can't control. Sure, yes, I was pissed off when it happened. But then it becomes more sadness than anger. And I'm a big believer in karma."

As Vincent talks, Tiger fans behind us begin armchair quarterbacking Missouri's run blocks vs. BYU, wonderfully oblivious to how unknowledgeable they must sound to one person among them. A few rows in front us, a lesbian couple in black and gold embraces. Ten rows down from them is a man cheering for Missouri while wearing a camouflage cap and a long sleeve t-shirt with an American flag graphic reading, 'IF YOU STOMP MY FLAG I’LL STOMP YOUR ASS.' Intermingled among all of this are BYU fans content to keep to themselves.

Save for the conversation, Missouri and BYU played as much or as little of a football game as any two teams in the country on Saturday.

Whenever current Missouri players are asked after the game about the power they exercised in the protest, the answer is the same:

"It’s not about power, it’s about bringing awareness to a cause," Moore said.

I ask Vincent if he can fathom playing for a college team that has now twice helped redefine cultural conversations in the United States.

"To be honest, I don't think about it like that, even now. It's just people being who they are and people accepting someone for who they are. For us it wasn't a hard concept. I mean I'm not going to lie and say that absolutely everyone was ok with (Sam), but there wasn't anyone that didn't respect who he was a person. There wasn't anyone on the team who would say something to him about his choice."

Photos by Steven Godfrey; Jim Dedmon, USA Today; Ronald Martinez, Getty