Missouri’s Kevin Pendleton only remembers crying three times before Leap Day 2016.
He wept when his grandfather, grandmother and great grandmother died.
Then came Feb. 29 — two weeks before the Tigers’ first spring practice under new coach Barry Odom — and an uncontrollable stream of tears.
Pendleton’s longtime girlfriend, Chelsea Grigsby, caught him sobbing that morning before he headed to the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex, where he’d break down with teammates after a workout and again in Odom’s office.
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It was the day after Pendleton learned his mother had breast cancer. It was a revelation that rocked his world — and would again later when, after her initial surgery, she refused follow-up radiation and chemo treatments and the disease returned.
“He keeps his emotions bottled in for the most part, but this definitely hit him hard,” Kevin’s younger brother, Joe Pendleton, said. “I would definitely say it affected him the most (of her children).”
It hit Kevin hard.
“There was a lot of uncertainty those first few days, and it knocked the wind out of me,” Pendleton said. “I live with my girlfriend, but I didn’t even tell her that night.”
When Grigsby happened upon a tearful Kevin the next morning, he broke his silence then went to work out.
Three of Kevin’s teammates — Alec Abeln, Paul Adams and Andy Bauer, who hadn’t retired yet — also sensed something was amiss.
“When they asked me what was wrong, it hit me all over again,” he said.
Next, Kevin went to Odom’s office.
“That was right before our nightly drills, and when I was talking to him, I broke down again that same day,” Kevin said, adding particular emphasis. “I couldn’t believe it — three times in one day.”
Pendleton’s mother, who asked that The Star not publish her name for this story, hates football.
Her firstborn child, Josh, who is the oldest of Kevin’s seven siblings, suffered a concussion playing football as a child.
“If there’s a list of the top 10 people that hated football, she’s in the top three ever,” Kevin said. “She doesn’t like the things it does to a player’s body and she’s not a huge sports person, so she doesn’t understand why people love watching someone carry a hunk of leather around.”
Still, she never prohibited Kevin — a 6-foot-4, 335-pound starting left guard for the Tigers — from playing.
“She made it to a couple of his games at (Lee’s Summit) West and watches all the games on TV, but you still hear her let out a little screech anytime he gets hit or things like that,” Joe said.
Kevin’s mom attended her first Mizzou game on Oct. 29 against Kentucky, a moment he’ll forever cherish.
Away from football, Kevin projects a gentle persona — soft-spoken, thoughtful and quick to crack wise, perhaps about the offensive line’s pet fish, Boneyard — but that changes on the field.
“I’m a passionate dude and a fiery dude when it comes to football,” he said.
He played a limited role last season, appearing in only three games and logging 40 snaps, but Kevin’s flourishing in a starting role — notwithstanding a rash of false start penalties at LSU.
“He’s played his butt off,” sophomore quarterback Drew Lock said. “I know last year he could’ve played a little bit more for us, but ... he knew when his time came he wanted to excel. He’s done a phenomenal job.”
Odom said Pendleton has grown “an amazing amount” this season both as a player and leader, praising the attitude and toughness he brings and his skill communicating adjustments.
“When we started back in January, he took it upon himself to work into being a leader, not only on the field but in the classroom and in meeting room,” Odom said. “He’s absolutely done that. If you’re looking to point to an example of a guy who’s doing everything we’re asking him to do throughout the week, it’s him. On top of that, he’s playing well on Saturdays.”
Odom is doubly impressed Kevin’s ascendance has come against a backdrop of personal heartbreak.
After his mom’s diagnosis — “the biggest hit I’ve taken in my life,” Kevin said — he went home for her surgery in early March to remove the tumor.
Little did he know, another gut punch was coming when she refused follow-up treatment.
“When you hear the word cancer, you think all of the worst possibilities,” Joe said. “We had a lot of conversations when she decided not to continue getting treatment. I was really angry, and we talked with our sister (Amy), who is a nurse. It was tough. … It just felt like we wanted it more than her. That was by far the toughest part.”
Kevin desperately wanted to change his mom’s mind.
“Her mom went through pancreatic cancer and had to wear a bag and all that stuff,” Kevin said. “She had a real battle and still ended up passing away, but I think that scarred my mom. She didn’t even want to mess with it.”
Kevin reminded her of things she had to live for, including her four grandchildren, and eventually convinced her to meet with a radiologist in March before she balked again.
“Whenever I would try to talk to her about the cancer, she would get upset and agitated,” Kevin said. “I was having trouble understanding why she would not want to do the treatment and just give in. I’m about to be a junior in college, and Joe’s about to go to college, my sister just graduated from college. Everybody’s having good things come up in their life, exciting things to be around for. It was frustrating when I felt like she didn’t want to be around for it.”
Missouri associate director of athletic performance, Erich Anthony, shared a similar experience with his father, which helped alter Kevin’s perspective.
“It made me understand I still need to be there for her … and not judge her for what she wants to do, but instead help her in whatever way I can,” Kevin said.
He calls his mom almost daily, uncertain how many more of those calls he’ll get to make, so it was soul-crushing when Kevin learned in August that his mother’s cancer had indeed returned and spread.
“They found three more tumors,” he said. “The doctors think it’s probably spread because she didn’t have the treatment. That was another big moment where it hit me and the worst fears that I had came to life right there.”
Kevin has made football a refuge, and Anthony occasionally walks through the stretch line to whisper “escape” in his ear, a reminder to compartmentalize and focus.
“It’s a skill that I was, unfortunately, able to perfect,” Kevin said. “I don’t know if she’ll see me graduate from college. I don’t know how long she has left, and she doesn’t know how long she has left.”
His mom won’t have the new tumors removed.
Instead, she’s focused on her art and squeezing joy from life rather than endless doctor’s visits.
Kevin said she’s a talented painter and cherishes the three-panel piece she did of a tiger lying in a meadow for his 21st birthday in September. He still struggles to cope some days, but he’s accepted the situation and is learning from her perspective.
“Now, she’s just focused on living every day to the fullest and maximizing each and every day that she can,” Kevin said. “It’s really kind of amazing. She finds beauty in the smallest stuff.”
Vanderbilt at Missouri
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Columbia
TV: SEC Network
Other story lines
1. RISING HARRIS: Missouri junior defensive end Charles Harris ranks fourth on the team and leads the defensive line with 43 tackles, including 7 1/2 for a loss with 5 1/2 sacks. He’s on pace for 57 tackles, which would actually be one more than last season. With two sacks at South Carolina, Harris moved into 17th place on the Tigers’ career sacks list with 14 1/2 . He needs 2 1/2 more in the season’s final three games to reach the all-time top 10. Harris also is five tackles for a loss from MU’s top 10 in that category.
2. CROCKETT CRANKING OUT YARDS: Running back Damarea Crockett already owns a Mizzou true-freshman record with three 100-yard games this season, including two of the top three individual games. He set a true-freshman record with 156 yards against Middle Tennessee, breaking Brock Olivo’s mark of 151 yards against Kansas State in 1994. Crockett also set the freshman record for rushing touchdowns with his eighth score on a 29-yard run at South Carolina — passing Brad Smith, who had seven as a redshirt freshman in 2002 — and passed Olivo for the true-freshman rushing mark in a season. Crockett has 109 carries for 683 yards, eclipsing Olivo’s 614 yards as a freshman.
3. MASON MAKING PLAYS: Wide receiver Dimetrios Mason, who had team-highs of eight catches for 88 yards at South Carolina, leads all SEC freshman by averaging 3.8 receptions per game. He also ranks third among freshman pass-catchers in Mizzou history with 438 receiving yards, which only trails Jeremy Maclin (1,055) and Chase Coffman (503). Maclin was a redshirt freshman.