Markus Golden’s journey as a Missouri football player nearly ended before it started.
He quit football as a high school sophomore, putting a record-breaking career as a running back and linebacker temporarily on hold.
A few months later, in spring 2008, he was expelled for a semester.
“He was getting into fights and arguments,” said Golden’s mother, Rhonda Golden. “He just wasn’t happy. … It’s like he hated the world. He didn’t want to talk to anybody and didn’t want anybody talking to him.”
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
That image stands in stark contrast to the Markus Golden who has been embraced by Missouri fans the last two seasons, a defensive end with 8 1/2 sacks in his senior year who’s widely hailed as the heartbeat of one of the nation’s best defenses.
“Markus has really come a long ways, and I’m very proud of him,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s been a G.I. Joe from the day he got here. He loved being at Mizzou. He loved the discipline. He loved it all and had a great attitude about it.”
Six years ago at Affton High School in St. Louis, that wasn’t the case.
Golden said he was bothered watching his mother struggle to make ends meet, and having no control of the situation made it worse.
His grades also suffered, so it didn’t matter that Golden made more than 100 tackles and rushed for more than 2,200 yards and 30 touchdowns as a high school senior.
Academics kept him from an NCAA scholarship and threatened to keep him from ever suiting up for Missouri, his dream school.
“I can remember us sitting in the counselor’s office at his high school and a counselor actually told him that Mizzou was not a reality for him,” Rhonda said.
Golden never lost faith. Neither did his mother.
“I always knew Mizzou is where I’d wanted to be,” he said.
Scope is an alternative school run by the Mehlville School District in suburban St. Louis.
It’s where Golden landed the second semester of his sophomore year.
It also might have been the best thing that happened to him.
“He’s the most humble person in the world based off that experience,” said one of Golden’s older brothers, Sherman Golden. “He learned what it felt like to lose everything, but he came back stronger than ever, and that’s what we see today.”
The time away made Golden appreciate his opportunities at Affton. He’d seen a vision of his future that he didn’t like and re-committed to his dream of playing at Missouri.
He credited his mother’s guidance for helping him stay on course.
“My mom was going to push me and wasn’t going to let me quit, so I had to make it,” he said.
Rhonda said she demanded accountability.
“We lived in a bad neighborhood but always told Markus he needed to be a leader,” she said. “You don’t let somebody come tell you, ‘Come sell drugs.’ If you do that, you’re being a follower. I’d say, tell them, ‘Hey, why don’t you come play basketball with me?’
“That’s how I kept my children out of trouble, always encouraging them to be the leader and not follow somebody else down the wrong path.”
Golden was in seventh grade when Sherman received his first scholarship offer from Mizzou.
He was the youngest of Golden’s two older brothers and also served as something of a role model.
“When my brother got that offer, that and seeing Brad Smith play back in the day, that’s what made me want to come to Mizzou,” Golden said.
It became an all-consuming ambition.
“When Sherman got that offer, it proved to Markus it was within his reach,” Rhonda said. “He knew it was possible.”
When Golden received his own scholarship offer from the Tigers, he didn’t take any more official visits to other schools.
He had to detour through junior college, but Golden thrived as a freshman at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, racking up 90 tackles, including 26 for a loss, with 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and two interceptions as a freshman.
The Tigers remained interested. Midway through that season — on Dec. 10, 2010 — Golden took an official visit to Missouri.
“Markus walked from the tunnel out onto the middle of the field,” Rhonda said. “He became so emotional. He was jumping up and down and yelling, ‘Ma, I’m going to play here. I promise I’m going to play here on this field.’”
Those memories flooded back last week while she watched MU’s 21-14 win against Arkansas. Golden walked through that same tunnel at Memorial Stadium and hugged Pinkel before running onto Faurot Field for the final time during Senior Day festivities.
“(Last) week, from the game Friday up to the banquet Sunday, has been so emotional for me,” she said. “With everything he’s been doing these last few years, I knew it was coming, but the reality of it all has hit me. I am so overwhelmed and so overjoyed, so proud of Markus and seeing the man he’s become.”
Golden arrived at Missouri in 2012 after redshirting a year at Hutchinson to focus on academics.
Two seasons later, he became only the second transfer in Pinkel’s 14 seasons at Missouri to be voted captain, joining Pig Brown in 2007. Golden goes out of his way to make sure his teammates take as much pride in playing for the Tigers as he does.
“I make them,” he said. “You’ve got to have pride in this program. If you’re going to be my teammate and be part of this program, you’ve got to have pride.”
It helps that Golden — a converted linebacker who led Missouri’s line with 55 tackles last season as he blossomed into one of the SEC’s best defensive ends — backs up his words on the field.
“He’s a freak, man,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “He’s an animal. I’ve never seen anybody stop him. He’s just got that mindset that nobody is going to stop me, and he’s got that motor where he just keeps going and going and going.”
Golden finished with 6 1/2 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss last season, then built on his breakthrough year with 16 tackles for a loss and nine quarterback hurries despite a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him against Indiana and limited his productivity until the last three weeks.
Despite the fact that he primarily was unanimous All-American Michael Sam’s backup last season, Golden had a chance to leave for the NFL as a junior.
“I’m glad I came back,” said Golden, who projects as a possible first-round pick. “I wouldn’t have left this program with an extra year left. I couldn’t have done that.”
Not after all he overcame to get to MU.
“Mizzou gave me a lot,” he said. “I was able to come to college and be able to get a degree. I’ll leave here with a degree and be the first in my family to graduate (from college).”
Of course, the final chapter of Golden’s career with the Tigers is yet to be written. And there’s nothing he’d like more than to go out as an SEC champion by beating No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“We’ve changed this program, especially in the SEC. We’ve been able to prove we belong,” he said. “You can’t make anybody respect you … (but) if we win a championship, you have to respect championships and you have to respect teams that win championships.”