Baker senior class missing familiar face
One after another they ran through a cordon of teammates to midfield, where they embraced friends and relatives prior to their last football game at Liston Stadium.
These were Baker University's seniors, veteran players who had formed the nucleus of the Wildcats' first trip to the NAIA playoffs in 15 years.
There was linebacker Spencer Curran, the team's leading tackler. Along came Herb Askew, the 'Cats' pacesetter in interceptions with five. And Philip Weinmaster, a four-year starter at defensive tackle.
On offense : hey, wait a minute. Where's Richie Bryant? Where is the Heart of America Athletic Conference's leading rusher with 1,284 yards and the NAIA's leading scorer with 25 touchdowns?
On the roster, Bryant is listed as a senior. Has been all season. What's going on here?
"Uh, I kinda had a talk with coach and went through my options," Bryant told me, "and I know we'll be pretty good next year, too, so I decided to come back."
And when, I asked him, had he made this decision?
"Two days ago," he replied.
Bryant is a senior academically, but instead of concluding his eligibility by running track during the spring semester, he'll skip track and use his last semester to play football next fall.
When he was in high school in Louisiana, Mo., a small town not far from Hannibal on the Mississippi River, Bryant played football, but didn't think he had any future in that sport.
"I was big on track then," he said.
So Bryant went down the river to St. Louis and enrolled at Florissant Valley CC, a school that didn't even have a football program. Later he was encouraged to visit Baker University, and everything seemed to click.
"I'm a small-town person, and I liked the small-town atmosphere here," he said.
Mainly, though, Bryant came to Baldwin City for track. He has been clocked at 10.75 seconds in the 100-meter dash and is a 25-foot plus long jumper. He also went out for football.
As a BU rookie two years ago, Bryant looked like a track athlete trying to play football, gaining just 213 yards in limited duty. Last year, he shared the tailback job with senior Frank Owens and rushed for 633 yards.
Then, with Owens gone, Bryant made his quantum leap to stardom, surprising just about everyone by becoming one of the most explosive football players in the NAIA ranks.
"He's fast for someone who weighs 205 pounds," Grossner said, "and he makes people miss."
Bryant is strong, too. He has touched the ball more than 200 times this season and hasn't lost a fumble. And no one questions his toughness, not with him playing the last month with slight cartilage damage in one knee.
Did I mention his versatility? He can also catch the ball. Five of his 25 TDs have come on passes from quarterback Mack Brown.
"Richie means everything to the team," Brown said. "Every time he gets the ball you think there's a chance he'll score."
Baker wouldn't be in the playoffs without Bryant, that's for sure.