COLUMBIA — Before each game, beginning with Missouri’s spring game earlier this year, left tackle Justin Britt scrawls “Navy” on the palm of his left glove and “Noelle” on his right glove.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
It’s a reminder to Britt that he’s playing for something bigger than himself, bigger even than the “Mizzou” on his chest.
Britt became a father Dec. 4, 2012, and the birth of his daughter, Navy Noelle, has changed him.
“He found out, like all of us when we have kids, priorities change real fast,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “It was neat to see that that was real easy for him.”
Britt, a native of Lebanon, Mo., has never been a rough and tough guy, at least away from the football field (or the wrestling mat in high school), but fatherhood has brought out an even softer side.
“He’s always been a gentle giant, but he sings her lullabies and he’ll put flowers in his hair, anything he can do to get a giggle out of her,” Britt’s fiancée and Navy’s mom, Alicia Bratten, said. “I’d say he’s softened up a little.”
Britt’s teammates also have noticed a difference.
“I haven’t had personal experience with the coming of age of fatherhood,” senior left guard Max Copeland said. “I’ve gotten to learn about that with being Justin’s friend and teammate, and it’s an interesting transformation. It’s this maturity aspect that grows.
“Not to imply that the maturity wasn’t there before, but it’s different. And also this sense of family that he understands on a level that we don’t. We can learn from him — not just for being better teammates, but for the future being better dads.”
Maturity is also the first thing mentioned by Britt, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus only a few weeks before Navy arrived.
“It’s like a switch flipped on and something happened that made me mature,” Britt said. “Throughout the whole past year, with having my injury and then having my daughter, I feel like it’s matured me more as a man than I was before.
“All my teammates might go out to eat or hang out, but I have to go home and take care of my daughter. After practice, people are hanging out, but I’m hurrying up to get out of there to go home and take care of my daughter. Whatever I’m doing, I do it and do the best I can, but then I go home to be a dad.”
Navy occasionally makes appearances at the Tigers’ training room — melting the hearts of Britt’s battle-hardened teammates, who pave the way for the nation’s 12th-best scoring offense (41.8), like crayons in the August sun.
“We’ll go up there and show them how she’s walking and stuff, and they’re all like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how big she is,’” said Bratten, who bakes the offensive line cookies every Thursday before the 9 p.m. meeting. “They’re all like her uncles.”
Britt’s goal remains to play in the NFL and, at 6 feet 6 and 320 pounds with a reputation as an oftentimes devastating blocker, he’ll probably get that chance.
“It didn’t change my goals, because my goal was to go to the NFL … or if things didn’t work out, coach at the college level,” Britt said. “So, my goals are still there, but my mind-set and attitude about getting there, what I have to do to get there and who I’m doing it for has changed.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.