COLUMBIA — Sometime in the spring of 2011, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel sat down with cornerback Randy Ponder and broke his heart.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
“We actually told him after his second year here that we didn’t think he was going to get a scholarship,” Pinkel said.
Ponder had been a star at Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Okla., so he was frustrated. He even told the Tigers’ coaches he planned to leave.
“Coming from high school, everything was easy for me,” said Ponder, now a senior at Missouri. “When I got here, I felt like I had to work twice as hard to get a half-step ahead.”
Such is the life of a walk-on. Ponder turned down scholarships from Tulsa, New Mexico, Air Force and Houston believing he would earn a scholarship at Missouri.
With those dreams dashed after his redshirt freshman season, Ponder explored other options, which were limited mostly to junior-college programs by that summer. He also called his mother, Jackie Long, whose advice prompted a change of heart.
“She said that if I run away from this, I’m going to run away from everything else in life,” Ponder said.
Instead, he kept plugging away.
“In life, there’s a lot of things that are not going to go according to your plans or the way you thought they should have gone,” Long said. “He thought things would be different and he felt like he could play, but there are a lot of things in life that won’t go your way and you don’t just run away. I said, ‘I didn’t raise you that way, and this is all part of growing up.’”
Ponder played in all 13 games as a sophomore, including three starts, and finished with 37 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups.
“Basically, my back was against the wall,” he said. “I just had to come out swinging. I wanted a scholarship, so I just had to go out there and get it.”
At the end of the 2011 season, Pinkel sat down with Ponder again. He had earned a scholarship.
“It was an answered prayer, so we screamed and just thanked God,” Long said.
Ponder rewarded Missouri’s coaches by winning the most-improved cornerback award the next spring and went on to make 45 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups in 12 games, including two starts last year as a junior.
“He persevered,” Pinkel said. “I just think he was determined that he wanted to get a scholarship here. He had to show more and do more, and he started doing it. That ended up being a real positive thing for us.”
As a senior, Ponder, who already has earned a health sciences degree and plans to pursue a master’s in diagnostic medical ultrasound, locked down a starting cornerback job opposite E.J. Gaines. His 25 tackles rank seventh for No. 14 Missouri, 6-0, this season.
Ponder also has an interception this season — his finest moment as a Tiger — picking off Aaron Murray late in the fourth quarter that helped seal a 41-26 road win Saturday against then-No. 7 Georgia.
“I’m surprised I’m not still hoarse because we jumped, hollered, screamed and it felt like I was in the play with him,” Long said. “After it was over with, we were all worn out. It was thrilling.”
Still overjoyed after the game, Long went to talk to her son with tears welling in her eyes.
“Mom, are you about to cry?” Ponder asked.
“No,” she said, “I’m just so proud of you. There aren’t too many people who could do what you did, because it’s easy to retreat, and it’s easy to pack it up.”
But that’s not the man Long raised.
“I’ve learned a lot about not accepting no as an answer and how to keep fighting when it comes to my dreams and goals,” Ponder said. “I stayed focused and humble and hungry, and it shows that hard work pays off.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.