COLUMBIA, Mo. — During pregame warm-ups ahead of Mizzou’s home opener against West Virginia, cornerback Adam Sparks walked onto Faurot Field with an unusual piece of equipment: a copy of “Battlefield of the Mind” by Joyce Meyer.
The whole Sparks family is reading the book together. Adam’s mother, Janelle, said the book is about refocusing your thoughts and “winning each battle any time you are faced with something.”
Sparks is no stranger to mental battles. At 6 foot and 180 pounds, he’s one of Missouri’s smallest defenders and is used to being doubted because of his size. He’s never let it stop him.
“In high school, (opponents would) always try to run at me a lot,” he said. “I just wasn’t scared of them. It is what it is. If you’re coming at me, it’s me against you. I’m not (going to) let you embarrass me.”
“I think he understands because he’s been that size his whole life. He’s obviously learned how to overcompensate for his size,” cornerbacks coach David Gibbs said. “He’s not little. He’s just not big. But he’s extremely strong and explosive, and I think that gives him a chance to get leverage. He’s just more aggressive than most guys.”
How is it possible the smallest defensive back on the team might be one of the secondary’s most physical tacklers?
“That same question has come up a number of times,” Tigers coach Barry Odom said. “But he’s got a knack for it. He’s not afraid to put his face in there. And I’m proud that he likes to play that way.”
Sparks had to fight another battle last season, when he missed the last six games after he sustained a leg injury in the Tigers’ loss to Kentucky. Being sidelined and unable to contribute for so long took a toll on him.
At first, doctors didn’t know what was wrong with Sparks’ leg. Each week, they re-evaluated to see if it felt good enough for him to play. But each week, it stayed the same. At the end of the season, Sparks discovered he had a stress fracture and would need surgery to have a metal rod put into the leg.
The recovery process was grueling. Sparks had to work through physical therapy while watching from the sidelines. He said his teammates helped the time go by faster, and he was determined to make a full recovery quickly.
“I feel like the hardest part was not playing in the middle of the season, knowing that I had, like, half the season left to go,” he said.
His mother, who had been with him for his surgery, said she was amazed at how quickly he started to heal.
“I was there a week, and by the time I made it home, he sent me a video of him walking without crutches,” she said.
Both Sparks parents believe their youngest son learned from his time on the sidelines. He had to be able to stay positive and patient. His grades improved. His mother said he became more connected to his faith.
“The biggest thing is that football is not forever, but character is,” Sparks’ father, Kenyatta, said. “We love that ‘Mizzou Made’ (program) because they not only teach them how to be phenomenal athletes, but they teach them how to be great men and to be productive in society. He’s found his own way of doing it as well by developing great self-awareness.”
Sparks’ recovery progressed ahead of schedule, but doctors and coaches didn’t want to put him back on the field too soon. In the first game of his junior season, he saw only a few plays on special teams. Against West Virginia, though, Sparks’ role expanded.
“The bounce back that he had from that last game was evidence of the maturity he has mentally and his physical approach,” Kenyatta said, “because it’s obvious that he was lasered in.”
In the third quarter against West Virginia, Sparks tackled Mountaineers receiver Tevin Bush for no gain. It wasn’t a game-changing hit or a critical third-down stop, but to Sparks, it meant the world. It was his first tackle in six games. He finished the game with five total tackles, including 2.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
As Missouri (1-1) prepares for Saturday’s visit from Southeast Missouri (1-1), senior DeMarkus Acy, junior Christian Holmes and sophomore Jarvis Ware remain the team’s top cornerbacks — Ware missed the WVU game with a sprained ankle — but Sparks’ return gives the unit experience and depth.
Sparks had one word to describe the feeling of being back: “Finally.”