Vahe Gregorian

The meaning of Drew Lock’s return to Mizzou

Mizzou QB Drew Lock’s final message to Tigers fans after Liberty Bowl loss

Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had a special message to Tigers fans after the teams’ 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Dec 31, 2018.
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Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had a special message to Tigers fans after the teams’ 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Dec 31, 2018.

The symbolism was glaring for the cynical — and maybe even tempting for some others of us: Quarterback Drew Lock’s stellar career at the University of Missouri, including a momentous decision to come back for his senior year, effectively ended a foot or so short of what was shaping up as a beautiful finale against Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve day in the Liberty Bowl.

But the decisive moment in the 38-33 defeat was merely an anguished last scene for Lock, not a valid verdict on his return. And MU’s loss in a game it never would have been in without a superb performance by Lock (373 yards and three touchdowns) will ultimately stand as merely incidental to his legacy.

If the finish was more bittersweet than fairy tale, the journey and the destination are more telling.

Even if there were wins left on the table (three losses by a total of eight points) and plays Lock would like back, this was win-win for everyone involved: Mizzou football, fans, coach Barry Odom and Lock himself.

That’s why, a year after he considered rejecting the NFL Draft Advisory Board’s recommendation he stay in school, Lock on Thursday at the family home in Lee’s Summit sat on a couch signing a contract with agent Tom Condon as a likely first-round NFL Draft pick and potentially the first quarterback to be chosen.

“Oh, man, what a year. I loved every second about this year,” said his father, Andy. “First of all, I saw Drew grow a lot this year. It was really rewarding and nice to know that the decision you made as a family was the right one.

“There was a lot of uncertainty when you make that decision, so many unknowns. Are you going to stay healthy? Is the right (offensive coordinator) in place? Will you have as good a year as the year before?”

His son answered by helping usher Mizzou forward (from four wins to seven and eight since the 2015 mess) and enhance Odom’s job security such that Odom was rewarded with a contract extension. The growth of the team the last few years, Drew Lock said Monday, was “mind-boggling, really,” and that includes in the quarterback who completed only 49 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions with just four touchdown passes as a freshman.

Playing with a certain ferocity to rebut skeptics of both him and MU, Lock made sweet strides in his own game that elevated his status from an apparent second-day draft pick to what figures to be a prime selection spot despite throwing fewer touchdown passes than the year before (from 44 to 28) as he finished his MU career with 99.

He bolstered his profile by demonstrating ample athleticism (witness his nimble third-and-12 and third-and-16 passes for first downs against Oklahoma State) and a knack for the broader spectrum of the more pro-style offense incorporated by new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley.

Meanwhile, he was a terrific ambassador for the program, evident anew after his final game. When Odom was asked to sum up what he’d meant to MU football, Lock leaned toward him and told him he didn’t need to answer the question.

“And that maybe says who Drew Lock is,” Odom said, proceeding nonetheless to say “he’s changed Mizzou football in a lot of ways, all positive” and calling him “as Mizzou of a guy as you can be.”

To that end, as Liberty Bowl officials tried to end the news conference, Lock was compelled to interrupt and thank, among others, the thousands of fans who came to Memphis for the game.

“I know it wasn’t always the smoothest ride, but for those of you who stuck by us, thank you for sticking with us,” he said before lending an endorsement of Odom and adding, “You all mean the world to me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t change a second of what went down here.”

Neither would his family, some 40 of whom from both sides surrounded him after the game, proud of what he’s done and who he is.

And bittersweet as the end was, perhaps the defining moment of the decision to return was a few weeks before.

A week after Mizzou had collapsed late to lose 15-14 to Kentucky, a game that left the Tigers 4-4 and made you wonder how they’d recover, MU went to The Swamp and stomped then-No. 13 Florida.

One of the criticisms of Lock had been the disparity in his performances against ranked and unranked teams. After he threw for three touchdowns and 250 yards in the 38-17 victory, his father and mother, Laura, greeted him from the stands in a moving scene captured by Adam Cole of The Maneater.

Choking up for maybe the only time in this four-year drama, Andy Lock moved toward his son and told him, “This is a moment in life that you’ll never forget.”

A moment among many that say so much more about his season and the decision to return than the very last one does.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.