Former Mizzou Running Back is Back in Mid-Missouri
COLUMBIA - In a unique twist on Missouri football history, a former Tiger is back in Mid-Missouri decades after his playing days.
Missouri football just finished one of its most successful decades in history. But only a quarter century ago, it was mired in one of its worst when a recruit named Tony Van Zant was expected to change it all.
The lights, the grass, the stadium: a memorable place for Tony Van Zant.
"I could just hear the crowd when I first walked out here," Van Zant said.
But it represents more than just one moment of misfortune.
"Unlimited potential," former teammate Damon Frenchers said.
And unfulfilled expectations.
"If i can take it all back and put it the way it's supposed to be, that I want it to be, we'd a been the National Champs, but things happen," Van Zant said.
Just don't call his story a tragedy.
"I didn't run too many people over, but I ran by a lot of people. I was never caught from behind. I had a lot more speed," Van Sant said.
Tony Van Zant was one of the best running backs in Missouri High School football history.
"Tremendous talent. Explosive speed," Frenchers said.
"When I was a freshman, all the dust came off the ground and they started calling me smoke and that's how I got that name," Van Zant said.
Smoke played at Hazelwood Central. He ran for more than 6,000 yards and had 91 touchdowns in his high school career. He earned National High School All-American honors and Parade Magazine's High School Player of the Year.
The nation's No. 1 recruit could have played anywhere, but he picked Mizzou.
"You know, I'm going to do something for mom this time. I'm going to stay at home so she can come and watch me play at home so that's why I chose missouri," Van Zant said.
But in the summer after his senior season, Van Zant played in the Missouri All-Star game, and one play changed the course of history.
"Newsflash. Mizzou top running back Tony Van Zant injured his knee," Frenchers recalled.
"Just a freak accident. No one ever hit me. I went to make a cut, and I didn't think it was as bad as it was at first because I got up and walked off the field," Van Zant said.
Van Zant missed the 1986 season rehabbing. He returned to the field in 1987, and played his true freshman season.
"I wasn't 100 percent. I knew that, but I was good enough to play," Van Zant said.
The next year, Van Zant hurt his other knee and he sat out the 1989 football season with a medical redshirt.
"I started getting down on myself about a lot of things. Is this for me?" Van Zant explained.
In his Missouri career, Van Zant carried the ball a total of 52 times for 214 yards and one touchdown.
Those who saw him play before and after the injury say he was never the same.
"It's like a racehorse. He was a full fledged thoroughbred that broke a leg," Frenchers said.
"I was bitter about it for long time, but I had to realize things happen for a reason," Van Zant said.
Van Zant says he still thinks about the play every day.
"I do. It's always if I coulda, woulda type things. You never know. What would I be right now if I never got hurt?" Van Zant said.
The question has no answer.
He went on to coach high school football in Michigan. But this winter, former Missouri teammate Mike Jones offered Van Zant a return to Mid-Missouri as the running backs coach at Lincoln University.
He now coaches on the same field where he played that career changing all-star game 25 years ago.
"I was like, you know this is the same field I got hurt on and he just dropped his head. He totally forgot about it," Van Zant recalled.
Van Zant coaches players who've never heard of him until they Google him.
"I put his name in on YouTube, and I saw he played for Mizzou and broke one for 45 yards. Pretty bad man," said Lincoln sophomore running back Deon Brock.
A bad man who was dealt a bad card.
"It's a tragedy if he would have let it destroy him. He used that to motivate himself. He became a coach. He's doing a great job now, and I think he's going to come full-circle because of that," Jones said.
"Some dreams are taken away for a reason, but you have to have something to fall back on and do what you want to do in life. If you stop, you're only defeating yourself," Van Zant said.
Tony says that summer day in 1986 isn't the worst day in his life. Instead it's when his dad and mom passed away.
He says football comes and goes, but you can't replace your parents.