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August 9, 2007

Hard working man

This is just a sample of the type of coverage you will get every day throughout camp. Click here to start your free PowerMizzou.com trial

The plan is to beat the heat. That is why Gary Pinkel has moved the start of practices this week up an hour, to 7:15. This way, practice is done by 9:30 and players can avoid the heat of the morning sun as much as possible.

Apparently, Tommy Saunders doesn't care.

Nearly half an hour after practice is over, there is Saunders, without a football, working on his route running with Will Franklin, Forrest Shock and Lucas Null.

"That's the way he's always been," says Brock Christopher, who should know. Christopher and Saunders were high school teammates in Kearney, winners of two Missouri state football titles and runners-up in the state basketball tourney as seniors.

"He came here as a walk-on," said Pinkel. "He got a scholarship right away and he's certainly good enough to win a championship in the Big 12."

It would be easy to say that Saunders found that work ethic because he was passed over by Division One programs, because he had to earn a scholarship that more than 80 teammates had been awarded before they showed up on campus and put in the countless hours. But it wouldn't be true. Saunders came to Columbia with that drive and determination already built in.

"In high school I tried to work harder than everybody and we won two state championships and that showed me how much hard work can pay off," Saunders said. "My high school coach, Mark Thomas, I was more of a basketball player in high school and then he came in and taught me that drive and how far hard work could take me."

It has taken him not only to a full-ride scholarship at Mizzou, but also to a starting role on what is expected to be the most prolific offense in school history.

"I came here, I knew if I worked hard, if I could be the best receiver I could be, I was sure I could get on the field and play," Saunders said. "I didn't really try to earn a scholarship, I was out there just trying to be the best receiver I could be."

Of course, his coaches took notice.

"There's no question about it, he can make plays," said Pinkel. "He seemed to show up a lot on third downs. He's been great."

Saunders had 21 catches for 226 yards a season ago, both numbers that put him sixth on the team. He scored two touchdowns, and also returned a team-high 11 punts for 118 yards. But those are just numbers. Saunders simply doesn't pay much attention to them.

"Some games, they'll ask me to just block every single play and that's fine. I'm just going to do whatever's in the game plan for me. It doesn't matter," he said. "If they want me to catch seven balls, if they want me to catch ten, if they want me to catch one, it doesn't matter. I'm just going to be a role player and whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to do it."

"For Tommy, it's all about everyone else," Pinkel said. "It's all about his teammates, everything he does."

Which seems kind of odd if you ask Saunders about living in Kearney, a town of about 7,000 people just north of Kansas City. He grew up as an only child, so he says, "I was kind of spoiled." Saunders' mother worked in real estate and had no set schedule. So she would bring Tommy lunch every day at school. For two weeks, it was the same order, a spicy Italian sandwich with marinara sauce, parmesan and oregano from Subway.

"They just kind of got used to it," Saunders said, laughing that his hometown secret has been found out. "She would call up and they were like, 'Oh, a Tommy sub.'"

"There are a lot of people who recognize our faces," Christopher says of returning home. "He just walks into the Subway in Kearney and they make it for him."

It is one of the few things that is handed to Saunders.

"He's a tireless worker. He'll be in the weight room after practice, he goes in before practice. He'll do something in there. I don't know what he does, but he'll do something in there. He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever been around," Pinkel said. "When you get kids like that, the more you get like that, it's a great visual aid for the rest of your team on how to be a team player."

Done with his interview requests for the day, Saunders heads to lunch. Lunch today is not in Kearney, is not a "Tommy Sub." Instead, it's at the training table in the Tom Taylor building, where Saunders sits as perhaps the most unheralded starter on a team that is picked to win the Big 12 North.

After lunch, Saunders is off to the weight room. There is, after all, work to be done.

This is just a sample of the type of coverage you will get every day throughout camp. Click here to start your free PowerMizzou.com trial


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