Vahe Gregorian

Tale of two injuries at Mizzou reminds that now is always the time

Some saw it as just football, others as an outrage. But whatever the intent of Troy defensive lineman Travis Sailo, his wince-inducing hit Saturday on Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant was delivered late and low and from behind and had a nauseating season-ending sort of look as Bryant recoiled.

Bryant felt the pop in his knee and tried not to think about the worst, like a torn ACL or a broken fibula, but he found himself saying a “little, quick prayer,” anyway.

He figured he was probably OK when he was able to walk into the locker room, but who knew what the MRI was going to show a few hours later at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute (MOI)?

Meanwhile, linebacker Cale Garrett also felt a pop, in his pectoral tendon, when he made a tackle pulling a ball-carrier down by the jersey earlier in the first half of MU’s 42-10 victory.

On the sideline, he’d say that his shoulder “kind of hurt” but that he was fine. The fact he subsequently had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown in a third straight game supported that.

But by halftime, it was apparent something was really wrong, and who knew what his MRI at MOI would reveal?

For the most pivotal players on each side of the ball for Mizzou, entering the defining stretch of the season, each of these could have gone either way but for an inch or two otherwise.

As it happened, Garrett was undergoing what will likely be season-ending surgery Tuesday … as Bryant practiced and declared himself 90 percent healthy and suggested no doubt he’ll return Saturday.

That’s when MU (4-1) will try to extend its best start under fourth-year coach Barry Odom when it takes on Mississippi (3-3).

Add it all up, and this could have gone twice as well or been doubly bad, depending on how you look at things.

But it’s still what Odom called devastating to lose Garrett, the Kearney High product to whom he referred Saturday as the “heart and soul” of the team and on Tuesday went as far as to say had built the program.

Just the same …

“We’re going to lose somebody else this week; that’s just the way the game is played,” said Odom, who like Bryant downplayed any suggestion Sailo had tried to hurt Bryant despite how it might have looked. “You can’t sit around and worry about who and how and what’s going to happen, (because) then you’re losing an opportunity to prepare your team and keep going.”

So the comforting news is that Bryant, the transfer from Clemson, will continue to lead an offense he appears to be getting more comfortable with by the week — which has been eclipsed by the defense being dominant since a bizarre 37-31 season-opening loss at Wyoming.

Not only have the Tigers held their last four opponents to a total of 31 points, they’ve also actually outscored them with 35 of their own.

Garrett, this week’s Southeastern Conference defensive player of the week, had much, but hardly all, to do with that. Beyond his three touchdowns and four interceptions and SEC-leading 8.4 tackles a game, his leadership presence loomed large as both signal-caller and motivational force.

But this group is plenty stout otherwise. And the latter part of Garrett’s impact figures to remain intact even as he has been ruled out indefinitely and will be replaced in the lineup by sophomore Cameron Wilkins.

Odom called Garrett on track to being an All-American, and that applies in more ways than one.

You can say “next man up” all you want, but when it’s someone as essential to your program and very makeup as Garrett has been, it comes with a different sort of criteria.

It would be foolish, Odom acknowledged, to think you can just say, “OK, well, let’s just move on and go play the next one.’ ”

“It’s hard, but this game is hard. Life is hard,” he said. “And you deal with it.”

Like this: Referring to Garrett and other injured players, Odom said, “Pay honor to the work that they’ve done … and his legacy on looking back on the things that he’s been able to accomplish here. The standard that he set on the way. It’s the way you’re supposed to prepare and play.”

According to Bryant, Garrett’s standard is ongoing. You’d never know from his demeanor the other day that he was going to require surgery, he said. And Garrett already has made it clear he will be around to lend guidance and support for the brotherhood “we are doing it for,” Bryant said.

That’s one step towards galvanizing a group that could droop instead.

“He has a really good spirit about him,” said Bryant, adding that Garrett told him “how he was going to bring the young guys along.”

Moreover, Odom will doubtless point to the example of Garrett’s work ethic and love for the game and the toughness exemplified in how he kept playing through the injury that ultimately made any potential return this season highly doubtful.

“You know, he kind of waited until we had a break (apparently halftime) until he got (the shoulder) checked out,” Odom said, adding, “There’s a lot of you can describe Cale as. And kind of just in a nutshell, that’s just the way he’s approached his opportunities (at MU).”

Making him an example, not a martyr, Odom will draw on that as an impetus for all of his players to prepare a little harder, accept a bit more on their shoulders and seize the moment.

Because you never know when your time will come: whether opportunity awaits, or that pop in your knee or shoulder means the end of your season. Or not.

Because now is always the right time.

In this case, for Bryant to be grateful for his fortune, Wilkins to appreciate this chance and Garrett to embrace his ongoing place with a team he can still influence.

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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.
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