Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football programs and when Gary Pinkel took the job at Missouri back in 2000, he promised to keep Missouri's top prep players in state. Early in his tenure, Tiger fans had their doubts, but then a super-recruit from southeast Missouri jumped on the Tiger bandwagon. They called him "Super Mario."
In Jackson, Missouri, high school football is a little different. In the town of 12,000, it is not uncommon to see more than 6,000 fans fill up the stands at Jackson High School Stadium.
"It's just like that town in 'Varsity Blues' because basically the whole town shuts down on Friday night," said Mario Whitney, former Jackson running back.
The stadium is called "the pit" and on Friday nights, high school heroes are made, but one stands above the rest: Super Mario.
"Mario Whitney didn't run, he glided through people," said Stu Garrison, a Jackson fan.
"It's the first time we've ever seen world-class speed in Jackson, Missouri," said Dan Stover, Jackson PA announcer.
"He did some things that were pretty much super-human," said Carl Gross, a Jackson coach.
"There was nothing he couldn't do on the football field," Garrison said.
"Wow...it was unbelievable," Gross said.
"He was no doubt the best I've ever seen in high school," Stover said.
Touchdown runs from 1999 through 2001 made Mario Whitney a national recruit.
Carl Gross coached Whitney at Jackson and he stills roams the Indians sidelines. He said tackling Mario was like trying to tackle smoke.
Mario averaged more than nine yards per career in his career, still a Missouri high school record. In his senior year, he rushed for more than 2,700 yards and 43 touchdowns, including 463 yards in one game.
"And I got all-state. And USA Today named me Missouri's player to watch. So I thought maybe I can make a run at this and go somewhere with it," Whitney said.
"Physically, there's no doubt about it. He was a terrific player. He won the 100 meters and 200 meters at the state track meet his senior year, set a state record in the 200. He had just unbelievable strength and speed," Gross said.
Mario led the Indians to conference and district titles in 1999 and 2001. For those performances he received a lot of attention from the big names in college football. Tennessee, Florida and Michigan all offered Mario scholarships, but he decided to take a chance on Gary Pinkel's Missouri Tigers.
"They said they were going to build the program around me, which to any 18-year-old kid sounds really good. It will make you want to go to school there," Whitney said.
The Missouri coaching staff knew they were getting a special player.
"One of his goals was to win the Heisman trophy. That's what he said to me. For one, I thought he was talented enough to do that and he would have to work really hard to achieve that. But that really stood out to me as to what his goals were in life," Missouri running backs coach Brian Jones said.
So if the Missouri coaching staff thought Mario Whitney had all the tools to win the Heisman trophy, why isn't his name all over the Tiger football record book? Find out next week in the final part of "Super Mario."
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