COLUMBIA, Mo. — It all made sense by Sunday. Barry Odom was unusually subdued after his team’s 32-point win over Troy on Saturday, and while his quarterback’s left knee was surely on his mind — those fears soon were put to rest — Odom already knew what everyone outside the program learned Sunday: Linebacker Cale Garrett’s season was done just as it started to peak.
Garrett, having an All-American start to the season, played most of Saturday’s first half with a torn pectoral tendon, an injury that didn’t reveal itself until halftime.
“He was pretty quiet (during the first half),” Odom said Tuesday. “Cale is normally pretty quiet. He kind of just goes and does his job. He did say his shoulder kind of hurt. But he said, ‘I’m fine.’”
Fine enough to make five tackles and intercept two passes in the first half, the second returned for a touchdown. But in the locker room, it became obvious that Missouri’s senior co-captain wasn’t right. As the second half started, Garrett and quarterback Kelly Bryant underwent MRIs, Bryant said Tuesday. Bryant came out of the game after MU’s final play of the first half when a Troy lineman tackled him late and below the knee. He sprained his left knee but returned to practice Tuesday and should play Saturday, against Mississippi.
Garrett wasn’t so fortunate. He underwent surgery Tuesday morning. The Southeastern Conference leader in tackles per game and interceptions will all-but certainly miss the rest of the season and probably won’t play another college game.
“When you look at it from a personal standpoint,” Odom said, “you hate it.”
Odom used the word “hate” four times in his 17-minute news conference Tuesday. He was careful not to dwell on a part of the game that impacts every team — Ole Miss, Saturday’s opponent, lost its best linebacker to ankle surgery last month — and instead tried to focus on Garrett’s contributions to a defense, a team and a program.
But for Odom, a former middle linebacker whose Mizzou playing career was ravaged by injuries, the emotional strings tied to Garrett were impossible to unweave.
“You hate it,” Odom said, “but you also pay honor to the work he’s done representing our university. He’s built our program.”
“It’s a team game,” Odom added. “We’re going to lose somebody else this week. It’s just the way the game is played. If you sit around and worry about who and how and what’s going to happen you lose an opportunity to prepare your team and keep going. I hate it. I don’t want it to sound like I’m minimizing (Garrett’s injury). I’m not at all. It’s devastating. But, man, we’ve got to be ready to go play. Whatever 11, we’ll have 11 on the field and the standard and expectation that they need to play with has been set.”
Garrett helped establish that standard for a defense that ranks among the nation’s top 10 in most categories through five games. Heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Ole Miss (3-3, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), Garrett leads the SEC with 8.6 tackles per game, three interceptions and three defensive touchdowns and leads the Tigers (4-1, 1-0) with five tackles for loss, including two sacks.
“If you just add to his tackles he might have won the damn Butkus Award,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said.
Garrett and Odom re-watched Saturday’s game to see exactly when he suffered the injury. Odom said Garrett figured it came on the first play of Troy’s third possession, a short pass that Garrett stopped for a 1-yard loss.
“You can see when he stands up he tries to move (his arm) around,” Odom said. “It was an awkward position. . . . He said, ‘I felt a pop then.’ It didn’t really set in what had happened until a few plays later.”
Somehow, though, Garrett was on the field for all 19 snaps the defense played the rest of the half, logging two more tackles, a quarterback hurry and two interceptions.
“Cale is a soldier, man,” defensive tackle Jordan Elliott said. “He’s the type who’s going to go until he can’t go anymore.”
For now, the Tigers have moved sophomore Cameron Wilkins into Garrett’s spot at middle linebacker. Junior Jamal Brooks, listed as Nick Bolton’s top backup at weakside linebacker, might get some work in the middle, too. Wilkins replaced Garrett in the second half Saturday and finished with a career-best five tackles.
After Tuesday’s practice, while Garrett was undergoing surgery, coaches and teammates spoke in reverent tones about the senior.
“Cale’s always been an inspiration for the defense and (Saturday’s game) just proved it right there,” senior safety Khalil Oliver said. “You know, it’ll be a little ridiculous if he’s not the first linebacker taken off the board (in the NFL draft.) He showed that game and this entire season that he’s one of the best linebackers in the country. And I don’t think anybody can deny that.”
Odom said he’d meet with Garrett and his family to talk about pursuing an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. That’s probably a long shot. To obtain a medical hardship waiver, a football player’s season-ending injury must fall within the first four games of the season. Garrett’s injury came in MU’s fifth game.
“I’m guessing (a waiver) would be difficult to come by,” Odom said. “But it’s worth a shot if it’s something they want to do.”
Odom wasn’t sure on the timeline of Garrett’s recovery but insisted this isn’t the end of Garrett’s playing career.
“He’ll recover,” Odom said. “Whatever weeks and months it is, he’ll beat that time frame. That’s just the kind of person he is. He’s going to play ball for a long time.”