Paul Zenner never expected to be here, in a parking lot just south of Memorial Stadium, talking to reporters before his son hopped on a bus and headed back to South Dakota.
He thought his son, Zach Zenner, was good enough to play college football, but he wasn’t sure it would happen.
“I was hoping that he’d at least get a shot at D-II,” Paul Zenner said.
Still, after his son has run for over 2,000 yards in two separate seasons and has begun his senior campaign with a chance to become the all-time leading rusher in NCAA Division I, Paul Zenner can hardly believe it.
“Work hard, rewards will come,” Paul Zenner said. “And they don’t come tomorrow, they might come a year from now, they might come four years from now. A lot of hard work without any promise that it was going to end up where it is now.”
Saturday against Missouri, the rewards were 103 yards and two touchdowns on 17 rushes. Zenner, the most prolific active player in the Football Championship Series, took a bobbled snap 75 yards to the end zone on the Jackrabbits’ first play of the season.
“Fresh legs,” Zenner said.
Paul Zenner focused on the video board, hoping to see a replay.
“Wasn’t that cool?” the father asked, already knowing the answer.
Zenner has done this before — going for big yards against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. He ran for 202 yards last season against Nebraska, 186 against Kansas in 2012.
His father and his coach, John Stiegelmeier, both said that Zenner doesn’t care about stats. That he doesn’t know what his numbers are, that the accomplishments are secondary to winning, something South Dakota State failed to do in the 38-18 contest.
“If I could have zero yards and we could win that’d be fine with me,” the running back said in the Jackrabbits’ de facto media room — a small tent next to the locker room, a barren plastic table decorated with Gatorade bottles.
Other than his initial big run, Zenner ran for just 28 yards on 16 carries. He also caught seven passes for 41 yards.
Stiegelmeier said that the goal for his team when coming into games against bigger opponents like Mizzou is to keep the game close and scare the opponent.
Some mistakes prevented the Jackrabbits from doing that — three turnovers and the surrendering of a kickoff return for a touchdown to Marcus Murphy. Some bad luck — an injury to senior captain and quarterback Austin Sumner — hurt, too.
Faurot Field was the biggest stage Zenner will play on all season. After he leaves Columbia, his foes won’t be in the Southeastern Conference, they’ll be in the Missouri Valley Conference. They’re Youngstown State and Northern Iowa, Indiana State and South Dakota.
“It’s an honor to be here, and an opportunity to play at this level,” Zenner said. “I’d rather lose to Missouri and win every conference game than the opposite.”
To do that, the Jackrabbits will have to rely on Zenner. Stiegelmeier said Sumner is expected to be out six to eight weeks.
Zach Zenner will be up for the challenge.
“Those participation trophies,” Paul Zenner said, “those were never his thing.”