Missouri senior linebacker Eric Beisel’s belief that he’s a reincarnated gladiator wasn’t merely shtick for SEC Media Days last month.
It’s also become central to the Tigers’ theme for the 2017 football season, “First to Finish, Last to Fall!”
The phrase is loosely borrowed from “Ben-Hur” and feeds into Beisel’s gladiatorial persona.
“I love it,” sophomore cornerback Christian Holmes said. “Eric, Zeus, whatever you want to call him, he’s a warrior and I love it.”
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Holmes isn’t alone.
“Beisel is whatever he wants to be,” junior linebacker Terez Hall said. “He is Zeus, the red-bearded gladiator, a great guy — whatever you want to say is.”
During the offseason, Beisel emerged as Mizzou’s leader. He took control of the team’s workouts before spring practice, set the tone during those 15 workouts, and remained a rallying force throughout the summer.
He suggested reorganizing the team huddle with the freshmen positioned closest to the coaching staff.
Beisel also hatched the idea for the team motto, which was selected after a vote by players on the eve of training camp.
Missouri hopes to be the first to finish in the SEC East this season and the last to fall when the dust settles on the college football season.
“It dates back to the gladiatorial circus and is a play off that, but we put our own twist on it and made it a little bit more original,” Beisel said. “That’s something that we’re going to ride into the season and that’s going to be a forecast of what we do this year.”
It’s an idea that resonates with the rest of the Tigers, who appreciated the symmetry between ancient Greek chariot races that lasted for 12 laps and the upcoming 12-game regular season.
Senior defensive end Jordan Harold explained that one chariot-racing strategy was to pick off an opponent lap by lap, thinning the field and surviving the race.
“It’s about winning basically …,” Harold said. “Even though we’re in the back, we’re down there, we’re coming from the underdog to try to get where we want to be.”
It might seem over the top, but Missouri struggled to get on the same page as a team last season and the result was a 4-8 finish.
Beisel doesn’t want a repeat and the Tigers have fallen in line behind him.
“Eric Beisel, the man is phenomenal and one of our top leaders since I’ve been here at this school,” senior running back Ish Witter said. “He’s bringing everybody together and has got everybody to buy into this (First to Finish, Last to Fall) thing.”
That wasn’t always the case.
There was always a cult of personality around Beisel, thanks to the Zeus moniker, his impossible-to-miss beard and his role as the State of Missouri flag bearer before games, but he was hesitant to be a vocal leader before Michael Scherer’s injury last season opened the door to a starting role.
“A lot of guys only feel like they can lead if they’re playing, but he’s a guy that’s really taken this team — not only on the defensive side, but the team in general — and has really been that vocal leader,” Tigers defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said. “He’s doing it by example. He’s committed to the program, he’s committed to his teammates and he’s really changed the leadership and direction of what this team has been.”
Missouri’s defense struggled last season, allowing more than 512 yards and 35 points per game in SEC play, but Beisel — and by extension the Tigers as a team — won’t stand for a repeat in 2017.
“Sept. 2 (against Missouri State), we’re coming to play and we're going to dominate,” Hall said. “We’re going to be a whole lot better. It’s not last year’s team.”