COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri quarterback Brady Cook spent most of last season playing through a shoulder injury so severe it required offseason surgery. Yet because he never whimpered or complained, few outside the program even knew what he had to endure.
All most people saw was Cook's play fall short far too often.
So over time, the kid from St. Louis — the one who grew up dreaming of playing for the Tigers — became the whipping boy of fans pining for their program to return to prominence. Every mistake made was magnified, every failure of the team foisted upon him, and the drum beat for coach Eli Drinkwitz to turn to highly touted recruit Sam Horn grew.
At one point Saturday, before playing No. 15 Kansas State, some in a sea of yellow even booed their starting quarterback.
Cook answered them with the best performance of his career.
Despite spraining his knee late in the first half, Cook shredded the Wildcats' secondary, throwing for 356 yards and two scores. And in the final seconds, with the game tied and overtime imminent, Cook got the Tigers just far enough across midfield to set up Harrison Mevis, who kicked an SEC-record 61-yard field goal as time expired for a dramatic 30-27 victory.
“For sure, I hear it,” Cook said of the constant criticism, which should abate ever-so-slightly after Saturday. “This is my dream school. All I want to do is play quarterback here. I want everyone else to want me to play quarterback here."
His coach certainly does. And unlike Cook, who tends to harness his emotions when he walks off the field, Drinkwitz is perfectly willing to come out swinging in defense of his quarterback.
“That pissed me off when we booed our starting quarterback to start the game. That pissed me off," Drinkwitz said, "and he went out and played his butt off for that team. They need to get behind him. That's bullcrap. That should never happen.”
Yet it did. And it was motivating.
Just as motivating was his performance against Kansas State last year, though. Cook was battered all over Bill Snyder Family Stadium on a rain-soaked night, throwing for just 128 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 40-12 loss.
“Truly, this game was revenge,” Cook said. “This game meant a lot to me after what happened in Manhattan. We got put through the ringer. I'll never forget it. That played a big role in my preparation for this game.
“Yeah,” Cook added, "it was revenge.”
It also was that game a year ago when Cook hurt his shoulder, an injury he quietly played through the rest of the season. And as he worked his way back in training camp, Cook found himself in a competition with Horn for the starting job.
Cook held onto it, but he was somewhat lackluster the first two weeks. He had just 172 yards passing while splitting time with Horn in a season-opening win over South Dakota, then threw for 204 yards in a 23-19 squeaker over Middle Tennessee State.
Perhaps he was holding something back for the Wildcats. Cook's yardage total set a career high by a wide margin, helped along by some standout catches by Missouri wide receivers Luther Burden III, Mookie Cooper and Theo Wease.
“That's why he's the starting quarterback,” Drinkwitz said sharply. “Who are we still asking questions to defend Brady Cook right now? The dude is a good football player. He's a really good football player. Quit asking me about it.”
Perhaps it's time to ask what Cook and the Tigers can do this season.
They head to St. Louis this week to face Memphis with a chance to start 4-0 for the first time in a decade, since Gary Pinkel led them to the SEC title game, beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl and finished 12-2. The game Saturday will be played at the old home of the Rams and will be a homecoming for Cook, who played his prep football at nearby Chaminade.
“It's been a while since I've been in that dome,” he said, “and I've never played there. That'll be fun.”
Then comes the SEC grind and a chance for some real redemption.
The Tigers open at Vanderbilt before a high-profile matchup with No. 12 LSU. Then come games against Kentucky and South Carolina, two teams that, like Missouri, always seem to be fighting to escape the middle of the pack. The finishing stretch is tough, with games in consecutive weeks against top-ranked Georgia, No. 25 Florida, No. 23 Tennessee and Arkansas.
By that point, the Tigers could have some serious bowl aspirations, and maybe Cook will have won over the rest of their fans.