The road to royalty for Mr. Mizzou

Sixty-five years after arriving on campus, John Kadlec is the grand marshal of Missouri’s 101st homecoming.
John Kadlec, pictured in his office at Mizzou Arena, is this year's Homecoming grand marshal. Kadlec was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

It’s a Monday afternoon, the start of a full week for the grand marshal of Missouri’s 101st homecoming, and John Kadlec is making time for a stranger.

The stranger wanted to meet, and Kadlec called the stranger himself. Kadlec, whose face can be seen on the bronze busts of him the school keeps in trophy cases on campus with the bases reading “Missouri Sports Legend,” said he would be happy to talk.

He had a meeting for breakfast at 5:30 that Monday morning and, shoot, he doesn’t get up that early anymore unless he’s going duck hunting or heading to the Lake of the Ozarks to fish like he has been for the past 35 years. He says he has some engagement with chancellor Brady Deaton later in the week.

“I guess they want me to appear somewhere every day,” he said.

His voice could be heard from the end of the hallway in the office space at Mizzou Arena. It’s the office of Kadlec, now serving as a special assistant to the athletic director.

Eventually, Kadlec finishes a phone call that sounded friendly and a woman named Debbie ushers in the visitor. The voice, jolly and booming, rises with the portly man out of his leather chair. “Well, hey!”

The conversation would go on for an hour. Much of it would have to do with the black and white man in a frame on the wall, the man named Don Faurot, whom Kadlec would say he owes much of his life to, from the time he got to campus in 1947 to now.

Debbie would poke her head in twice throughout, apologize for interrupting and remind Kadlec that he had a lunch commitment within the hour. Kadlec would nod—“I know, I know” — and he would go right back to his visitor. He would make contact with his eyes, which are difficult to see, hiding behind lids that cusp upward like a horizon, like the way a child becomes when he is so filled with joy.

The man they’ve come to call Mr. Mizzou controls his own time and he’s on his own schedule now, and he tells stories as if he could tell them for 100 more years.

Eighty cents an hour for driving a truck of ice and fuel around. That was all well. Growing up in St. Louis, that was what his old man did.

But he had football. Earl Jansen stopped the freshman Kadlec at Cleveland High School in the hall. Jansen, the school’s B-team football coach who would become a top Big Eight referee, told Kadlec to come down to the football equipment room after school. 3:15.

A day later, Kadlec brought a signed parent consent card back to Jansen, who traded Kadlec pads and a uniform.

“I had no idea how to put the crap on,” Kadlec said.

"He says, ‘You’re not gonna be like me,”’ Kadlec said. “He said, ‘Maybe you’ll make a dollar and a half an hour.’”

Jansen put Kadlec next to the center and told him he was a guard and “that’s how it all started,” Kadlec says. He was introduced to competition and he acquired a craving for it.

His mom wanted him at a Catholic school the next semester and so he played for the brothers at St. Mary’s High School for three seasons. By the end, there was a scholarship offer from Tennessee. He wanted to play for General Robert Neyland.

But mom demanded a Catholic school again, and Kadlec would play every game as a freshman at Saint Louis University.

Now Kadlec stops himself, as if this is the part from his great memory that he’d like to abandon. At the end of his freshman season, he told his coach he would be leaving the team.

“I flunked out,” Kadlec said quietly. “I didn’t go to class. I was there to play football and he was very disappointed in me.”

Kadlec doesn’t know why his coach did what he did next. His former coach was friends with Faurot at Missouri and his former coach was persistent, Kadlec says. Not long after he had begun driving a truck again, Kadlec was offered a scholarship from Faurot, who came to visit the Kadlec family.

“Why coach took me, I don’t know,” Kadlec says.

He was ready to turn it down, too. He was ready to get back to his truck.

But his father told him there was no option.

"He says, ‘You’re not gonna be like me,”’ Kadlec said. “He said, ‘Maybe you’ll make a dollar and a half an hour.’”

Every so often, Kadlec shifts his gaze back to the frame on the wall while he talks.

“I was very fortunate to have him as my mentor,” Kadlec said of Faurot. “I learned a lot from him. How to make a decision and not look back. If you’re wrong you’re wrong. … He was quite a guy, quite a guy.”

Faurot took a chance on the kid that flunked out. And the kid got to the practice fields that are now Stankowski Field, where the intramural leagues are played on campus, and he fell in love with it all. With the friends he made staying in “temporary dorm No. 4” in that first summer. With the meals at the training table (“We had nothing to compare it to!”). With how Faurot ensured a memorable trip every year, including a tour of Truman’s White House. With the 26,000 that roared when he took the field to a full Memorial Stadium.

“I flunked out,” Kadlec said quietly. “I didn’t go to class. I was there to play football and he was very disappointed in me.”

By the time he graduated and had considered taking a job at Mehlvile High School back in St. Louis after interviewing, he couldn’t pull himself away from the program he started at right guard for the past three years. In 1951, he went into his coach’s office to tell him about pursuing a master’s in education.

Faurot told Kadlec he would pay him $75 a month to be a graduate assistant for the freshman team. Kadlec told Faurot he was not living far from campus with his wife, Dolly.

“He said, ‘Well, don't tell anybody, but I’ll take care of your rent,'” Kadlec said, flashing a boyish smile.

Sure enough, it was Faurot giving him another shot. And Kadlec would go on to assistant coach at Missouri for another three decades.

“That was a great break for me,” Kadlec said of the graduate assistant position. “As I look back, maybe I shoulda started out in high school. But, then again, I think to myself…”

He stops for a moment.

On the wall, there’s a framed photo of an offensive line shuffling, a rendering of Dan Devine’s famous sweep formation Kadlec came to know in the '60s, when the Tigers were once the No. 1 team in all the land. There are small portraits of players, one of them the NFL Hall of Famer Roger Wherli, whom Kadlec said is the best player he ever coached. Nearby is a football signed by the 1972 Fiesta Bowl team.

And there’s Faurot of course.

Kadlec remembers how intimidated he was of the future Hall of Fame coach that came to rescue the college dropout. Kadlec would help lead the fundraising for the $86,000 statue that now stands before the gates of Faurot Field.

On an October Friday in 1995, Kadlec would be by the side of Coach’s hospital bed. Faurot told Kadlec the importance of controlling the ball in the team’s upcoming game against Colorado.

And before Kadlec left, he bent down, kissed his coach on the forehead and told him how much he meant to him. Faurot died two days later.

Sixty-five years later since arriving on campus, Kadlec considers decisions and here inside his office he considers this:

“What can I say I did wrong?”

Up in the press box, Kadlec grew 16 years older, his hair more thin, white and sporadic as it is now. He commentated alongside current play-by-play man Mike Kelly.

Kelly recalls Nov. 1, 1997, when Missouri became bowl eligible for the first time in 14 years with a win over Colorado. He looked over at his emotional partner, who was on the verge of tears.

“He’s one of those guys that will refer to it as his institution and his football program and he doesn't say that lightly,” Kelly said. “He sincerely believes it.”

Kadlec says he enjoyed it but doesn’t offer to what extent. He thought it would just be a one-year fill-in at the request of then-Athletic Director Joe Castiglione. Castiglione beckoned for his return. A replacement was never brought in.

“What can I say I did wrong?”

And Kadlec couldn’t leave it. Just couldn’t. Not until he arrived home in Columbia at 6:30 a.m. from a trip in Reno, Nev., and went to mass with Dolly sleepless an hour later.

“I walked out of church and I said, ‘Doll, I’ll tell ya something, babe: This is it,’” he said. “It was a great decision.”

He spent a season in retirement beside Dolly, whom he met at SLU.

He always told her that he would be the first to go and that she would be just fine. At the end of March last year, just a month after the two celebrated 60 years of marriage, Dolly died unexpectedly at their home.

Actually, there was in fact a class he went to during his one year at SLU. There was a “beautiful blonde” in Spanish class and he asked her three times for a date before she finally agreed.

“That was fate,” Kadlec says. “Fate has a part in my life, you know.”

And he really must be going now. It’s 11:54 a.m., nearly an hour since he began speaking with a stranger. He had lunch scheduled with an alumni representative.

The homecoming parade was set for Saturday.

But preparing to host his visiting four children and his four grandchildren was most important. He would be turning 84 years old the next day and they would be celebrating.

He was going to turn down the grand marshal honor before his children swayed him.

“It's a wonderful honor that they would think of me because there are many famous people that graduated from Missouri that they could’ve asked,” he said.

Perhaps that’s true. And perhaps it’s true that he is so modest and believes so deeply that the school has provided to him, and not the other way around.

Perhaps he can’t see himself walking away now after shaking his visitor’s hand firmly one more time, giving a pat on the shoulder, saying that the pleasure was his.

At the parade, that will be John Kadlec at the forefront of Missouri’s new homecoming century, a man smiling and waving, the truck driver now being escorted through the heart of the town, the one they call Mr. Mizzou, the reason for all the people cheering.

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