When Missouri joined the SEC in 2012 (along with former Big 12 running mates Texas A&M) there was a lot of speculation in the media and from within our own fan base about how we would stack up in the best football conference in America.
Year one in the SEC was an unmitigated disaster for Mizzou. Injuries and inconsistent play made our team stick out like a sore thumb in a conference full of football titans. Then, against all odds, found ourselves with merely one loss on our record as the season neared its climax. Our team seemed to be riding a wave of positive momentum that no sports writer or fan could have even fathomed before the start of the season. And with the SEC East Championship on the line, Missouri turned in a dazzling defensive performance, holding the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, to a career low in offensive production. Winning that game and rushing the field with my little brother and sister while Queen’s “We are the Champions” blared in the background was a defining moment for me as a life-long fan of this team. We had punched our ticket to face off against Auburn for the SEC Championship the next weekend in Atlanta and I knew deep down in my heart that I had to be there.
When I got home after the Texas A&M game I immediately began scouring the web for SEC Championship Game tickets. I had no clue how I would get there or who would go with me but I knew that attendance was not optional for me. Sites like stubhub and ebay were selling pairs of tickets for upwards of $600 a pair. This was going to be a chore. I called upon every connection I had within the Mizzou football family (including begging a few football players’ mothers) but had no luck initially. Truthfully, after about 24 hours of searching I had given up. It was not in the cards. I had no one to go with and no way of securing tickets unless I stole someone’s identity and quickly applied for a platinum card. The next day my friend Thomas called me.
“I think we can get to Atlanta, if we left right after work Friday.” Thomas exclaimed without so much as a hello. And that was all I needed. Thomas had provided the spark that I had been sorely missing to make this happen. After all, Thomas is my most trusted friend when it comes to road trips and game attendance. He is the one friend who has never let me down and I knew that I couldn’t let him down. So I spend the next several hours on the internet trying to find tickets again. I posed on Mizzou Football message boards, watched ebay auctions like a hawk and made more phone calls. I developed a few solid leads before going to bed that night. It looked like I was going to have to shell out $250 at the least per ticket but this was now a mission, and this mission would succeed.
Naturally, as the week progressed and our departure date neared, rumors started spreading of a giant ice storm that was basically smack dab in the middle of our path needed to get to Atlanta. Family members tried to talk us out of going, but it was too late. I would have missed my own funeral for this game and sadly that is a theory that would be tested on this trip. To brighten spirits, our friend Paul decided he wanted to tag along on our trip and try to scalp a ticket outside the stadium. Paul likes everything to be last minute and frequently flies by the seat of his pants in all situations. We figured having another guy to split the gas money was a good thing as well as another driver should we encounter this ice storm. And encounter it we did. We started hitting icy roads as we crossed the Illinois border into Kentucky. We counted almost fifty cars that had slid off the road and were now sitting in precarious positions. For the next four hours, our top speed would be 40 miles per hour as we creeped along. Once the roads cleared up, I tried to take over driving for a while. I figured sleep would be an after through on this trip as getting our happy asses to Atlanta was the primary focus. With Paul and Thomas cozy and asleep, my own eyes began to cross as visions of uninterrupted sleep danced through my head. After about an hour of risking lives, I decided to pull over for a brief rest.
We pulled into Atlanta the next morning about six hours before the game was set to start. It was grey and heavily overcast. Our tanks were all running on empty as we had acquired about 90 minutes of sleep between the three of us during our brief stop the night before. Suddenly, as I saw the Georgia Dome flash before me, I acquired a burst of energy. Today, we were going to be the SEC Champions. Not Alabama, Florida or Georgia, and certainly not Auburn who had lucked their way to this game anyway. The anticipation started to set in. If we win this game, it was almost a certainty that we would play for the BCS Championship Game the next month, which was a feat Mizzou had never accomplished. We parked near the dome and immediately went to SEC Fanfest which always accompanies the game. Throngs of Auburn and Mizzou milled around the fan fest, sharing stories and offering predictions. Children played various football related games, merchants hawked various SEC related merchandise and my friends and I took every bit of it in.
We decided to enter the Georgia Dome early. Our trip to Atlanta was obviously going to be a quick one and we wanted to savor every moment of being in that stadium and soaking in that atmosphere. Paul had found a reasonably priced ticket although he would be sitting on the other side of the stadium from Thomas and I. We parted ways with Paul and found our way to our front row seats. As the stadium began filling up, I noticed more and more Auburn orange in the seats. In fact, it was everywhere. It looked like Mizzou would be severely outnumbered with regards to fan support. The Georgia Dome video board continuously showed Auburn’s miracle victory over Alabama from the week before to wild and thunderous applause. By the time the stadium was at capacity it was clear that Auburn fans were still in the majority, probably to the tune of about 75 percent of the Georgia Dome. But that didn’t matter, Missouri had faced adversity all season. By the time the National Anthem had been played and the teams had been introduced, I was pretty confident. I looked down on the sidelines and about twenty feet from where I was, former Auburn star running back Bo Jackson was standing awaiting kickoff.
The game was back and forth. We couldn’t stop them and they couldn’t really stop us. Missouri quarterback James Franklin hit our star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham for a key first half touchdown pass and cornerback E.J. Gaines would score on a defensive touchdown to help keep the game from getting out of reach. But Auburn was really starting to run the ball. I mean REALLY starting to run it. Running back Tre Mason seemed to run through the Missouri defense like a knife cuts through hot butter. When he was not making hand-offs, quarterback Nick Marshall would fool Mizzou’s defense and take off running freely for large gains.
As the second half wore on, they were starting to beat us down and led by a couple scores. Missouri would continue to fight back valiantly and tried to match each Auburn touchdown with one of their own. In the end, Missouri just could not stop the Auburn Tigers. Tre Mason ran for 300 yards by himself and Auburn would amass 600 yards on the ground as a team. The final score would be 59-42 Auburn. Thomas and I stood in our seats, stunned. We knew that we would be making the long drive back to Kansas City with a devastating loss on our minds. We decided to slump out of the Georgia Dome with a couple minutes to go because we could not bear to witness Auburn celebrate the SEC Championship win. A few hours later, Michigan State would upset Ohio State, a result that would have sent Mizzou to its first ever BCS Championship game appearance had we knocked off Auburn.
“Are you still glad we came?” Thomas asked me as we reached the car.
“Wouldn’t trade it for anything.” I said as we began our 12-hour journey back to Missouri.