Auburn's original Missouri connection is from parts unknown

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Auburn's original Missouri connection is from parts unknown

Auburn's ties to Missouri are so few and far in between that the school's first player from the Show Me State hails from parts unknown.

Just four lettermen in Auburn's 125-year history hail from the state of Missouri. The pioneer of that group, quarterback C.J. Johnson, is listed in Auburn's media almanac as being from an "unknown hometown." He played at Auburn during the 1900 and 1901 seasons, and he's one of just 11 lettermen in program history with the unknown hometown designation in the Tigers' record books.

"For four guys (to be from Missouri), yeah I didn't ever realize that," said former Auburn punter Steven Clark, the most recent member of that exclusive club. "That's pretty crazy."

This weekend, No. 15 Auburn (2-1) will make its first ever trip to Missouri (1-2). The two programs have only previously met twice with the first coming in the 1973 Sun Bowl (a Missouri win) and the most recent in an Auburn win in the 2013 SEC Championship Game. This year's Auburn team only ties to Missouri are tangential with defensive backs coach Greg Brown a former Missouri assistant and right guard Braden Smith from nearby Olathe, Kan.

Auburn has rarely recruited in Missouri despite having three current coaches who were raised in neighboring Arkansas including head coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn hasn't actively recruited a Missouri prospect since 2012 though it is looking at four-star 2019 prospects Isaiah Williams and Shammond Cooper from St. Louis' Trinity Catholic.

The lack of recruiting in the area is understandable when you consider two things.

For one, Missouri has produced, on average, 2.63 players per year with four-star rankings in the 247Sports Composite dating back to 1999. During that same span, Missouri has only produced three five-star prospects: defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson (who went to a JUCO before landing at Missouri) wide receiver Dorial Beckham-Green (Missouri) and defensive end Darrell Lee (Florida).

The other factor to consider is that Auburn's primary recruiting footprint covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida while reaching into other areas of the southeast. Despite the SEC's expansion to include Missouri and Texas A&M prior to the 2012 season, Auburn has not made the effort to recruit Missouri like it has with the more talent-rich Texas.

As Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton put it in August, he doesn't believe it's "very smart" for Auburn to recruit too much outside of its strongholds in those three states -- though the coaching staff still makes the effort to target high-quality players nationwide.

The last time Auburn signed a player from Missouri was 2010 when the team added Clark out of Kansas City. Clark, who always dominated local kicking camps, figured he would end up staying close to home for college, likely playing tight end or defensive end while also punting at some small Division II school. That changed in 2009 when he was invited to the Kohl's national kicking camp and "won just about everything," resulting in interest from several big programs, including Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern and Auburn. After taking a visit to the Plains for what came to be known as "The Rain Game" against West Virginia in 2009 -- his only time stepping foot in Auburn prior to enrolling -- Clark knew it's where he wanted to be.

He became the first SEC player in his high school's history, and the moment was celebrated by the local Kansas City Auburn Club, which currently boasts more than 300 members. The KC Auburn Club arranged a signing day party for Clark in the Park Hill High cafeteria, with Clark saying maybe 50 people attended the event.

That signing worked out well for the Tigers, as Clark was the program's first Ray Guy Award finalist in 2011 and was a semifinalist for the honor three straight seasons.

"I never even dreamed of playing college ball," Clark said. "I honestly didn't even know where Auburn was. When I was told I'd get a call from them, I had to go and Google it real quick. I know Bo Jackson played for the Royals, but I didn't know he went to Auburn, though. Once I pieced that together, I was like 'OK, that's some pretty legit stuff."

Prior to Clark, Auburn hadn't had a letterman from Missouri since defensive end Anthony Van Deusen, of Licking, Mo., in 1997-98. Van Deusen, who arrived as a walk-on, never saw the field during his two seasons, but coach Terry Bowden awarded him a scholarship during the 1998 season. Before Van Deusen, it was George Wolff, of St. Louis, back in 1937-39.

Auburn's record books show nothing more than a single line on Johnson, the school's first from Missouri. A small section of Page 228 of the media almanac, which includes all-time players from Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska and New Jersey reads like so:


C.J. Johnson..........QB..........1900-01

There's more to the program's first Missourian, however -- including a recorded hometown.

Archives of "The Glomerata," Auburn's official yearbook, show Collins James Johnson was originally from Palmyra, Mo., a small town with a population of just 2,323, according to the 1900 census. Palmyra hasn't grown much in the years since. According to the 2010 census, it has a population of 3,595.

Johnson was a sophomore at Auburn -- at the time called Alabama Polytechnic Institute -- in 1900. Along with being on the football team, Johnson studied civil engineering, was a member of the Nu Chapter of the Kappa Alpha fraternity and also served as the junior class vice president in 1901, according to the 1901 "Chrysalis."

During Johnson's sophomore season in 1900, Auburn went 4-0. The following season, the Tigers finished 2-3-1 while playing in the SIAA (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association). Auburn started the year 0-3 but turned it around with a 17-0 win against Alabama in the Iron Bowl -- the last time the rivalry game was played in Tuscaloosa until 2000 -- with Johnson at quarterback.

The win was documented in the Birmingham News under the headline "A Tiger Claws Alabama." It marked just the second time the newspaper used the Tigers nickname, but the first reference in the Iron Bowl series.

The next game was Johnson's shining moment. He started at fullback against LSU in a 28-0 win in Baton Rouge, La., and scored a touchdown on a fumble return that made it 17-0. He added another touchdown late in the game, which was described in the Nov. 27, 1901 issue of the Orange and Blue as a "game won by the cleanest and most gentlemanly team with whom (LSU has) contested this season."

The season ended in a 0-0 tie against Georgia in Atlanta's Piedmont Park in the eighth edition of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. For Johnson, the charter member of that rare group of Missourians at Auburn, it marked the end of his playing career. The club wouldn't add another member for more than three decades.

"That's something special," said Clark, who takes pride in being part of such an exclusive group. "Honestly, I think everywhere in America loves football, but definitely wrestling and basketball are a lot bigger up in Missouri than it is in Alabama, where football is king."

from Auburn Sports Impact

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