The difference between the Missouri Military Academy varsity football team and other programs is night and day.
That's because its roster is spread out across the planet, but there are a handful of cadets who've been on-campus and in the weight room all summer long in preparation for the upcoming varsity football season.
"My quarterback is in Mexico right now. My starting receiver is in Brazil. We just have a group of kids who are somewhat local from places like St. Charles and Iowa and even here in Mexico who come in," said MMA varsity football head coach Mitchell Jenkins. "We open the weight room Monday and Thursday nights for two hours. We have a lot of activities going on on-campus, but the administration always lets us have access to the weight room."
Because of the transient nature of any military academy, at times this group of dedicated cadets was as low as two or three. That changed on June 25th when some, but not all, of the students returned to breath some life into these efforts knowing it would benefit both themselves and the team come this fall.
"Our summer has gone well. Because of social media and technology I've got kids texting me and e-mailing me workout questions," Jenkins said. "I'd say the majority of the kids are sticking with the workout program we gave them before the season ended. We had a meeting right before the end of the school year and I talked about how we need to get better. At the beginning of last year we weren't in great shape. Our kids have shown a lot of enthusiasm since then and we've got great senior leadership."
The first challenge this group took on as a squad this offseason came on June 28 when MMA traveled to North Callaway for a 7-on-7 scrimmage. While this required players who'd been working together for just three days to quickly become a cohesive unit, Jenkins was pleased overall with what he saw from his team that evening.
"The guys have been holding each other accountable. Wrayvauze Givens hasn't missed a workout yet and is showing big gains already," said Jenkins. "One of the things Wrayvauze told me on the way home from North Callaway was how much he liked bonding and talking with the guys because they don't know each other. Most of them just met Sunday. On the way to North Callaway we talked ball and after we ate we only talked about the scrimmage. That's exciting. It shows me we're growing."
Heading into that scrimmage at the Thunderbirds Jenkins did have some misgivings about the fact this group had only practiced together once on Monday. Those worries didn't last long, though, at least partially because Jenkins and North Callaway varsity head coach Kevin O'Neal both played and coached under former Thunderbirds varsity football coach and current Athletic Director Mike Emmons.
"We knew we were going to make mistakes. That's going to happen. This is what summer is for," Jenkins said. "What was great was seeing the guys go full speed the entire time. You can't teach that. You can't coach enthusiasm and playing hard, and we played hard. We can correct running an out-route or where to drop when playing cover three. I can't correct our enthusiasm. It was off the charts. The guys were looking out for each other and coaching each other up, which is another part of our growth."
One of the cultural differences students at MMA face is that the team concept is so vital to everything they do that the athletes even have a uniform they wear just for training. Because of the time of year, even though these kids would still be wearing a t-shirt and shorts, doing so while donning the same gear simply emphasizes the value of the man next to them that much more.
"It's part of our military tradition. Everybody looking clean and proper," Jenkins said. "It's a brotherhood here. They spend almost every minute of every day together. It sounds cliched, but we're a family. My wife and 19 month old daughter are very involved. My wife makes cookies when we win, so hopefully we'll all get fat eating cookies this fall, but we invite the parents when they're in town to be a part of it. Every kid on this team knows something about me that has nothing to do with football."