JEFFERSON CITY • If the eyes are indeed the window to the soul, for Tony VanZant, the window is the eye to the past.
The offices for the Lincoln University football program are housed in a two-story building at 1106 Chestnut Street in Jefferson City. The rickety stairs creak under VanZant’s steps as he climbs them to the second floor. His office is down the hallway and to the right.
The Blue Tigers running backs coach squeezes behind a desk that takes up most of the room in what appears to be a converted frat house from another era. A computer sits on his desk, and just beyond the monitor, VanZant can look out the window and see Dwight T. Reed Stadium.
VanZant wouldn’t have the same clear view if he worked in any other room in the building. Perhaps he wanted it that way. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.
A few hundred yards outside that window lies the cruel reminder of what could have been — or what should have been if VanZant dared question his fate, which on this muggy July afternoon he does not.
A generation ago, VanZant was hailed as the savior for Missouri’s football program. The running back from St. Louis was the 1985 Parade Magazine national player of the year.
“Like Paul Christman before him, Tony VanZant could make the highways seem shorter again to Columbia from St. Louis, Kansas City and other points on the state compass,” the Post-Dispatch’s Bob Broeg wrote on Feb. 18, 1986. “A breakaway back could do wonders at the gate.”
Missouri’s preseason camp was scheduled to start in 18 days, but before he’d launch his college career, VanZant decided to play in the Missouri Lions Club All-Star Game in Jefferson City.
What unfolded in the state capital July 26, 1986 — 27 years ago Friday — still resonates as one of the great gut punches in Mizzou sports history.
VanZant blew out his left knee on his second carry.
“And he was never the same,” former MU teammate Damon Frenchers said.
Instead, VanZant missed the entire 1986 season and never fulfilled all the promise he displayed at
Depression soon took over. Years later, surely, regrets linger.
“I don’t regret it,” VanZant said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Would you play in the all-star game again?’
“I say, ‘Yeah. So what?’
“They say, ‘Why? If you’re the top player in the country, why would you risk yourself getting hurt?’
“But I could trip over a curb and get hurt. I don’t regret it at all.”
Now into his second decade as a football coach, VanZant, 45, has found peace with the injury that cost him stardom and possibly millions of dollars. Two years ago, when former Mizzou teammate and St. Louis Rams Super Bowl hero Mike Jones took over as Lincoln’s head coach, VanZant was among his first hires. VanZant had spent the previous 15 years coaching high school football in Saginaw, Mich., the town where he lived before moving to St. Louis in the sixth grade.
“I think I was already in Missouri when (Jones) hung up the phone,” VanZant said.
But it wasn’t until the new Lincoln staff got together for the first time on Chestnut Street that VanZant realized where his new office was located.
“It was the scene of the crime,” said Frenchers, Lincoln’s defensive coordinator.
Every practice, every home game, VanZant would be back at Reed Stadium. He hadn’t been there since the all-star game.
“We’re sitting around talking, and (Jones) goes, ‘What are you looking at it?’ ” VanZant said. “I said, ‘Man, that’s the field where I got hurt.’ Mike just dropped his head and said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Lee Johnson was at Reed Stadium the night of the injury. He was VanZant’s fullback at Hazelwood Central and had finished his first season at Mizzou. For years he lived with intense regret: Johnson played in the Lions Club game the year before. He had urged VanZant to do the same.
“We were like brothers,” Johnson said. “He was always in my hip pocket. He would grab the back of my pants as we were running through holes.”
VanZant ran through those high school holes for 6,138 yards and 91 touchdowns, including 2,736 yards and 36 scores his senior year. Greatness was inevitable at Mizzou, Johnson believed.
“He could stop on a dime, give you nine cents and in the next step he’s going 100 miles an hour,” said Johnson, now the coach of the San Antonio Talons of the Arena Football League. “He was phenomenal.”
Until Jefferson City. VanZant can still point to the exact location where he went down. He picked up 5 yards on the play but fell to the ground without absorbing any contact from a defender. He sat the rest of the game as a precaution. Initially, Mizzou’s medical staff diagnosed the injury as a sprained left knee.
Three weeks later, doctors discovered a torn ligament and cartilage damage during arthroscopic surgery. VanZant’s season was over before it started. He’d undergo reconstructive surgery later that month.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Tigers coach Woody Widenhofer said at the time.
VanZant delayed his enrollment at Missouri and stayed in St. Louis for the fall. Frenchers still believes that was a crucial mistake.
“When I saw him in January, he had a noticeable hitch to his stride,” Frenchers said. “That hitch comes from not rehabbing the right way. … Every day sitting on that couch at home, looking at your bad knee and thinking what could have been, that’ll send anyone the other way.”
VanZant sank into what he now admits was severe depression.
“I thought about giving up on everything,” he said. “Life, period. Sitting in the dark, not doing anything. Just contemplating.”
He didn’t seek counseling or therapy. Back then, there were other ways to cope.
“Let me say this, there wasn’t a drink he turned down,” Frenchers said. “You hide (depression) in the bottle sometimes.”
VanZant made his Mizzou debut in 1987, but while other running backs carried the load, VanZant never touched the ball more than eight times in a game. He missed most of the 1988 season after suffering damage to his other knee.
In 1989, he briefly moved to wide receiver under new coach Bob Stull but didn’t play enough to earn another letter until 1991. For his college career, he carried the ball 51 times for 203 yards and one touchdown.
“The explosiveness wasn’t there,” said former Mizzou quarterback Phil Johnson, now an attorney in Kansas City, “but you’d hand him the ball and watch him run, and you could just see he had that ability to set up blocks and find space where a lot of people can’t. It just made you wonder what he was like when his knees were good.”
VanZant tried to stay upbeat, but it wasn’t easy, even when he got a letter in the mail from former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree, whose career fizzled after a great freshman season.
“I just didn’t want to be around anyone,” he said. “My girlfriend at the time, I didn’t even want to talk to her. I just wanted to be alone.”
His sadness extended to others, too.
“Tony kept telling me, ‘It could have happened any time,’” Lee Johnson said. “But I carried guilt for a few years because of that.”
At some point during his time in Columbia, VanZant was in a grocery store and had what he described as a life-changing experience. An older man who never identified himself recognized VanZant.
“He said, ‘It happened for a reason,’” he said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying at the time because I was frustrated, just down and out. He said, ‘Maybe it’s not meant for you to play. … Maybe the Lord has something better for you to do.’”
VanZant never asked the man his name. He never saw him again. He never forgot his message.
“I went back home and got in that stage (of depression) again,” he said. “But all I could hear was that man talking. It snapped me out of it. I started thinking about coaching. It got me going.”
As the Blue Tigers prepare for their third season under Jones and his staff — they’ve gone 2-20 the last two years — VanZant believes he’s found his calling as a college coach. He’s a tireless recruiter, Frenchers said. Recruits don’t remember his time at Mizzou, but most recognize his name, especially in St. Louis.
“No one’s seen me since I’ve left,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I thought you were dead.’”
Through coaching at Lincoln and a Facebook account, VanZant has reconnected with old friends and teammates from St. Louis and Columbia. He follows Mizzou football closely and has a special interest in sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who like VanZant came to Mizzou hyped as the country’s No. 1 recruit. Like TVZ before him, Springfield’s DGB is known simply by his call letters.
Meanwhile, when the Blue Tigers hold their home opener Sept. 28 against Pittsburg State, Frenchers will look over at his friend and colleague and wonder. A sense of sadness washes over Frenchers every time Lincoln plays a home game.
“I don’t know if anyone else sees it,” Frenchers said. “On game days, everybody’s hooting and hollering trying to fire the kids up, and I look over there and he’s kind of walking a little slow. That’s him thinking, ‘Gosh almighty.’”