VAHE GREGORIAN

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is competitive in all things

Updated: 2013-07-28T05:33:52Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— Commencing a “nickel tour” of his office last week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ushered his visitor past portraits of famous Missourians.

Among them were Mark Twain, whose presence he feels “looking over your shoulder as you’re trying to transact state business,” and James Rollins, the founder of the University of Missouri whose extravagant beard compelled Nixon to quip that he also was “an original member of Duck Dynasty.”

Soon enough, Nixon turned to the sports memorabilia aligned by his windows, including a bat with an authentic George Brett signature.

Another bat bore a fraudulent Mark McGwire scrawl from the 1998 home-run frenzy. Amid his 16-year tenure as Missouri attorney general, he said, “We sued the guys who were doing it,” and the penalty proceeds went to the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

“And here’s my Lombardi Trophy — got one of those?” he said playfully, hoisting a replica with his name engraved on the back. It was given to him by the 2000 Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, a franchise he worked to help bring to the state and continues to take interest in keeping here through a lease dispute.

In the same window sill sits an autographed football from Mizzou that includes the name of former Tiger William Moore, a point of humor now to Nixon.

After a picture of Nixon’s son Jeremiah unsuccessfully diving to break up a pass on the lawn of the governor’s mansion was featured in the Jefferson City News Tribune, Nixon, a rabid MU fan, invoked Moore’s name in vain.

“Getting burned deep,” as Moore had in a loss to Kansas, Nixon joked to the Missouri Press Association at the time.

“I was apologizing to everybody for that,” he says now. “It was not a good thing to say.”

That wasn’t the only time that the fan in Nixon surged when it came to a matter of his dear alma mater’s athletics. Days after the Big Ten announced in December 2009 that it would consider expansion, Nixon waded in.

“I’m not going to say anything bad about the Big 12,” he told The Associated Press, only to add, “but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean, you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at. …

“If they want to talk, we should talk, and we should listen.”

The fallout was such that Nixon was publicly restrained when it came to the dynamics of Mizzou’s ultimate move to the Southeastern Conference. But don’t doubt that he was a force in the change.

“I was very well-informed of what was happening,” he said, smiling.


If you’re a sportswriter in Missouri, particularly covering Mizzou events, chances are you’ve had opportunities to speak with Nixon, who enjoys the sanctuary of a press box and is as informed as he is impassioned.

Or maybe you bumped into him, most likely literally, playing basketball somewhere, as I did in St. Louis in the late 1980s when he was a member of the Missouri Senate playing a game against a media team.

But sports are no mere diversion or reprieve for Nixon, who chuckled but declined to comment when asked about word around Jeff City that he hopes to be commissioner of a sport or a collegiate conference — or an athletic director — after his tenure as governor ends in 31/2 years.

Nor with speculation rife about his political future would he address that, preferring to stress the responsibility and privilege of being just the fourth person since 1821 to have a second term as governor of Missouri.

Whatever comes next, though, will inescapably be influenced by his love of sports, which were a fundamental part of shaping his persona and remain a part of his life rarely seen in someone of his stature.

Even if, or maybe in part because, he was no natural athlete.

He was cut from the De Soto High basketball team as a junior and as a sophomore football player was relegated to the “demeaning” role of having to play the saxophone at halftime since he hadn’t made the original traveling squad.

The ups and downs of sports helped him develop a sense of resilience and resolve that he summoned after he twice suffered losses in races for the U.S. Senate.

“It didn’t finish me off,” he said, smiling.

Sports helped frame him and drive him and arguably even inform his approach to governing. Certainly, they provide an unusual prism to view him through after more than 20 years in two of the most high-profile positions in the state.

Borrowing from MU athletic director Mike Alden, Nixon believes sports make a significant “front porch” for broader initiatives.

And he views sports as “connectors” for communities and stimulators for businesses, part of why he is a major fan of Kansas City’s Sporting Innovations tech firm, for instance, and why he signed a bill earlier this year authorizing tax credits for local sports organizations and governments to be host to amateur sporting events.

His engagement in the sports world showed up as a prime element of Nixon’s Joplin hurricane relief effort, one plank of which was enlisting the Chiefs, Royals, Kansas Speedway, Mizzou and the Blues, Cardinals and Rams of St. Louis to help raise donations and awareness, visit and even help work with the Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity.

Not that Nixon is perceived as universally embracing all sports enterprises. ...

Some proponents of the popular Tour of Missouri bike race blamed Nixon, a Democrat, for slashing the event in a spat with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, though the race technically was cut by the Division of Tourism in a budget shortfall and Nixon’s camp said it simply supported the decision.

While Nixon lets pass without comment a reference to political adversary Kenny Hulshof’s 2008 remark on St. Louis TV that he could beat Nixon on the basketball court and politically because “Jay can’t go to his right,” from his perspective, politics and sports are entwined.

“It’s competitive, and they keep score, and the games end and you go on to the next one,” Nixon said. “I think in this line of work you just can’t carry yesterday’s frustrations into today’s work, and like people in sports, it’s very public: If you make a mistake, everybody knows about it. And the clock’s always ticking. …

“You always have to be seeing the angles and looking ahead. You’re always trying to look down the field instead of just right where you are to that longer, broader horizon. And sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. The bounces don’t go your way, and, you know, you lose.”

Sports also helped Nixon understand the value of knowing who is with him. As an example, he recalled playing in a lawyers’ softball league just after he graduated from law school and taking exception to an opponent smacking a teammate in the face with glove and ball as he slid into second base.

“So I ambled out, shall we say, to second base to have a discussion with the shortstop, and I get out there and we’re getting after it pretty good, yelling and all that stuff,” he said, smiling. “And I look over to my left and everybody’s coming out of his dugout, and I’m there going at the guy.

“And all at once I get this weird feeling and I look around and … my team is still sitting in the dugout. I’m like, ‘Well, OK, it wasn’t that bad a play, let’s get out of here.’ So if people don’t have your back, you’re not going to be able to succeed.”

Nixon, who is apt to use sports analogies, said he’s learned on this job in particular what the cliché of “letting the game come to you” means.

“I never understood that, because I was always kind of a step slow, so I was always one of those athletes who had to really push, try to speed up,” he said. “Everything was faster, faster, faster, to try to get up to other people’s speed. But this job is one where I have to let it come to me and try to think strategically, not tactically.”


Nixon, 57, was raised “in a family of public servants,” as his official biography puts it. His late mother, Betty, was a teacher who served as president of the school board. His father, Jerry, was mayor of De Soto and a community judge.

For as long as he can remember, sports and the outdoors were a way of life. The family home became a neighborhood hub, with a field big enough for baseball behind it and a basketball goal at the end of an asphalt driveway.

“The goal was close enough to the wall of the garage that once you learned it, you could run up the wall and jump (off of it) and dunk, so I dunked a marble and a golf ball and a tennis ball,” Nixon said.

He remains proud of being part of an intramural basketball champion at Mizzou, and he recalls fondly the way he learned to get called for pickup games when he lived in the St. Louis area.

“I learned a little Pete Maravich: how to kind of spin the ball on all my fingers and stuff,” he said. “Because if you’re from Jefferson County, the only way you’re going to get picked up is if somebody thinks you can play a little bit. …

“That’s where I learned how to pass, too, I’d give the ball up. That’s not a problem with me. Anybody playing with me knows they’re going to get the ball if they’re open. I worked in the paint.”

And he worked anywhere in the great outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing. That holds true even now. Last week, Nixon completed the 100 Missouri Miles challenge with a 12.5-mile hike on the Katy Trail.

“We’d just get outside a lot,” said Nixon, who was a Distinguished Eagle Scout. “I was at the national jamboree in Farragut, Idaho, when Neil Armstrong — Eagle Scout — stepped on the moon (in 1969) and said, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ I was with 40,000 other Boy Scouts as that played out on a loudspeaker.

“And then to go back to the campsite and look and there’s the moon, it was really kind of a spiritually fascinating thing.”

Nixon says he comes from a family of better athletes, including his mother’s sister’s sons, Tom Carpenter, a two-way starter on the Mizzou team that played in the 1960 Orange Bowl team, and Jay Carpenter, who played basketball at Arkansas.

For that matter, his sons are better athletes: Jeremiah ran a sub 3-hour marathon when he was in high school, and Will is a golfer at Southern Methodist.

Nixon played about every sport he could find, some more successfully than others. He dabbled in soccer, for example, “but they kept raising all these colored cards whenever I played, and I could never quite figure the system out.”

He was a state flycasting champion as a teenager, believes he could have been a small-college tennis player and has run three marathons.

Knee trouble keeps him from playing much basketball anymore, but he still likes to end visits to schools with a free-throw shooting contest against a student. And if he shoots poorly, he looks to get to the Highway Patrol gym soon to brush up.

He has 31/2 more years of this, and he says he aims to put his all into it. There is a lot to get done yet.

And then, in politics as in sports, “When it’s over, it’s over. You go to the next thing.”

Just what that will mean is uncertain, and Nixon doesn’t have to know — or say — now. He just has to let it come to him.

“The clock is in fact running,” he said. “I don’t want to give anybody any excuse to think that I’m on some tour here like it’s the last lap of the game.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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