Jeff Gettys trotted onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium and soaked it all in.
More than 80,000 fans.
Flashing light bulbs.
Big 12 North title.
The opportunity to play for the national championship.
“It was amazing,” Gettys said.
Amazing is the appropriate word to describe Gettys’ ride from walk-on to contributing member of the top-ranked football team in the nation. The 2006 Houston graduate, who turned down multiple scholarship offers to chase his dream at Mizzou, is living out a real-life fantasy with the Tigers.
Gettys has played in all 11 games as a starter on the kickoff return team. He’s been in the middle of a historic play – Jeremy Maclin’s 99-yard return that ended the nation’s longest dry spell – and historic games. Gettys was among the first players to take the field in Saturday night’s Border War against arch rival Kansas. The game – labeled “Armageddon at Arrowhead” – was easily the biggest in the 116-year history between the two schools.
Missouri’s 36-28 victory propelled the Tigers into the No. 1 position in the BCS standings for the first time in program history. The Tigers learned the news the next day at the team’s banquet – where Gettys’ magical year was made even better. He received Mizzou’s “walk-on of the year” award.
As much as he tries to enjoy the ride, Gettys can’t help put live in the moment. A victory Saturday night against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game – another first for the program – would propel the Tigers into the national championship game.
“It’s surreal. Everything has fallen into place for us to be in this position. Everything had to be just right and it has been,” Gettys said. “But it doesn’t mean anything unless we get it done this weekend. We’ll have to see after Saturday night.”
The pieces have certainly fallen into place for Gettys. Following a redshirt season where he spent most of his time on the scout team, Gettys was thrust into game action in the season opener when an injury had him on the kickoff return team against Illinois.
He never left. Alongside teammates Jon Gissinger and John Ruth, Gettys forms a three-man wedge that serves as the foundation of the return team.
It’s easy to find No. 53 on the field. He’s bouncing up and down, waving his arms and firing up the crowd. He often looks like the most excited guy on the field.
“I wouldn’t doubt that,” Gettys said. “You look around and try to soak it all in. You never know when God is going to take it away from you.”
Gettys has been around for many memorable moments, highlighted by Saturday night’s victory over Kansas. He danced around with his teammates and slapped hands with fans in celebration of the biggest win for Mizzou in decades. The victory made the Tigers the top-ranked team in the nation for the first time since 1960 and only second time ever.
A week earlier, Gettys was part of another historic moment at Kansas State. He was part of a scrum of blockers around the 18-yard line, where Maclin spun and took off down the left sideline. Maclin sped his way for a touchdown – ending a dryspell of 287 games and 979 fielded kickoffs since Ricky Doby returned one for a score in 1982.
“We all had that going through our head because (the coaches) have been preaching that it hadn’t happened in 20-something years,” Gettys said. “We’re just trying to block for our buddy and see if we can’t get him in the end zone.”
Gettys was the one surprisingly fielding a kickoff in his second career game. The anxious moment began when Mississippi’s kicker took a different approach to the ball for a pooch kick. It ended with Gettys, who had seen the move on tape, fair catching the ball.
“There weren’t many thoughts going through my head because it happened so fast,” Gettys said. “After the play, everyone was saying how scared I looked. Looking back on it, I really was.”
Gettys’ already memorable season got even better Sunday evening. At the team’s annual banquet – less than 24 hours after beating the Jayhawks – Gettys was named Mizzou’s “walk-on of the year.”
“I really didn’t expect it. When they called my name, it was unbelievable,” Gettys said. “It’s a real honor that the coaches realize what you do and all the hard work you put into it.”
There’s still some work to be done. Gettys and the Tigers square off with Oklahoma Saturday night with an opportunity to play in the national championship game hanging in the balance.
“It’s a good time to be a Tiger,” Gettys said.