Tight end Sean Culkin will be among Missouri’s 16 seniors suiting up for the final time Friday.
That revelation smacked him like a ton of bricks Sunday as he prepared for his last week of Tigers football practice.
“It’s just crazy,” he said. “This program has had such a positive and direct impact on my life. Take away football, it’s just the skillset that I’ve learned and how I approach life on a day-to-day basis. I’m a completely different person than I was in high school.”
Culkin, the lone senior who’s started more than one game for Mizzou’s offense this season, has molded himself into a well-rounded tight end and he’s enjoying a career year.
Culkin has 23 catches for 282 yards, both career-highs, and also snagged a career-long 25-yard reception this season.
The only thing missing is a touchdown.
Culkin — a chiseled 6-foot-6, 250-pound specimen dubbed “Thor” by teammates — found the end zone each of the last two seasons, but he’s been shut out as a senior.
His last chance arrives at 1:30 p.m. Friday against Arkansas, a game that will be televised on CBS.
Culkin was a glorified wide receiver when he arrived in 2012 from Indian Rocks (Fla.) Christian School, but he’s worked hard to become an effective blocker in pass protection and the run game.
That dedication to being a complete package — Culkin’s taken great pains to learn “what all 11 guys are doing on every play” — is mirrored off the field as well.
“He’s a great person all the way around …,” Tigers tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley said. “He plays the guitar and plays the piano. He makes A’s and B’s in every class. He really tries to learn instead of just trying to get through the class.”
The void he leaves from a leadership perspective and with his meticulous preparation might prove harder to fill than his on-field production.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s been a leader in that room both on and off the field, teaching me all the little things,” sophomore tight end Kendall Blanton, a Blue Springs South graduate, said.
Whether it’s pointers on technique as a pass-catcher and blocker or tips on being a better student, Blanton has leaned on and learned from Culkin’s example.
“The only way you get guys to follow you is through what you do on and off the field,” Blanton said. “He is a prime example of what a football player should be like and what a leader should be like.”
That’s not easy to replace.
“He’s going to be missed very much …,” Finley said, “but, at the same time, by setting the example that he has, he’s raised those guys along with him.”
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, considering the importance Culkin puts on his faith and service to others.
During high school, he participated in mission trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador and spent another spring break assisting with tornado relief in Alabama.
“Faith is really important to me,” said Culkin, who has already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance and banking. “That’s how I was raised and it’s got a lot of significance in my life.”
While he’ll clearly be missed, Culkin stressed that he’ll also miss “the opportunity to come out here every day and work and grind with my brothers.”
“I take pride in the way I handled myself and who I am as a person,” Culkin said. “Anything you do in life, anything that’s important to you, when it gets recognized and commended by your teammates and friends, it’s a credit to your hard work and a huge compliment.”
Culkin won’t have any regrets Friday when junior Alec Abeln and sophomore Paul Adams carry him off Faurot Field trailed by sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, who’ll carry Culkin’s white rock from the “M” in the north end zone.
“I’m going to have to find a good (rock) for sure …,” said Culkin, who plans to return to Florida after the semester to train for a shot at the NFL. “I’m going to find the heaviest one they’ve got and make (Lock) get a little bit of a work out. I want to see those biceps work.”
Lock won’t mind a bit.
“Sean’s been huge in my growth here as a person and an athlete,” he said. “He’s been through it all with me. He’s been there when I’ve cried. He’s been there when I’ve been super happy and whatnot. If I can get him a win on his last night and then go up there and pick him out a rock, that’s obviously a sacred thing here. I’ve seen it done my whole 20 years of living. To be able to do that for such a special guy to me, It will be really cool.”
THREE MORE STORYLINES TO WATCH
RUN-GAME CONNUNDRUM: Freshman running back Damarea Crockett is suspended after he was arrested Sunday on alleged marijuana possession. That leaves junior Ish Witter, who has 157 carries for 738 yards with six touchdowns as the workhorse back. Sophomore Nate Strong (15 carries for 85 yards) and senior Alex Ross (24 carries for 71 yards) also are likely to see extended action.
MOORE OPPORTUNITY: Junior wide receiver J’Mon Moore ranks second in the SEC with 877 receiving yards. He only trails Mississippi senior tight end Evan Engram, who has 926 yards, and could finish first in the conference during the regular season with a big finish against Arkansas.
DEFENSELESS: With two young defensive tackles, sophomore Terry Beckner Jr. and freshman Markell Utsey, sidelined by ACL injuries, Mizzou’s interior defensive line rotation is thin. Seniors Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta and junior A.J. Logan won’t get much rest, so it will be imperative for the Tigers’ defense to get off the field as quickly as possible.