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August 15, 2010
Stricker has a familiar story to tell
A poor African-American boy, born to a mother who cannot support him, is taken into a nearly all-white St. Louis suburb by Caucasian parents. Using his natural athleticism and lightning speed, he builds his reputation on Friday nights on the city's high school football fields. The local legend signs with the University of Missouri. He wears jersey No. 9. He redshirts his first year on campus.
If you think you've read this story before, hang on.
The exploits of two-time all-American Jeremy Maclin on the football field--and his heart-wrenching backstory off of it--are by now the stuff of Mizzou legend.
But this story isn't about Jeremy Maclin. See, there's another No. 9 who has risen out of a background most who watch him cannot imagine and up the depth chart in Columbia.
Kerwin Stricker was born in Granite City, Illinois. He spent the majority of his first seven-and-a-half years bouncing between "probably eight to twelve" foster homes. Then George and Lisa Stricker found him.
"We had heard something on TV called One Church, One Child, One Family and that's actually how we found him," George Stricker says. "We got him through the Division of Family Services."
Once again, Kerwin Stricker was uprooted. This time, though, was different. This time was the last. Stricker moved to Washington, Mo. with his adoptive parents. The Strickers had had two daughters of their own, but were not able to conceive another child.
"I moved into an all-white community which was a hard thing. I wasn't used to that," Stricker, now a redshirt freshman at Missouri, said. "Over a time period, my parents kept working with me and I ended up doing fine. I was a little behind in my schoolwork, but I ended up catching up. Thanks to my parents, they helped me get here."
George Stricker does not want you to think the transition was seamless.
"I think it was a tough transition for all of us. The first year was the most difficult," he said. "He's trying to get accustomed to us and we were trying to get accustomed to him. It's hard when you have an eight-year-old come into your house and start living with you. They don't know your rules, don't know anything about you. They have to learn all the rules. I could throw a look across the room to my daughter and she would know exactly what I wanted. He gonna be like what's going on?
"That takes time. A lot of time. You have to learn to accept their quirks and the different things about their personality that don't change. You have to love them in spite of that. If you have a baby you're kind of getting used to those things as they grow. Bringing an eight-year-old kid in, it's like a marriage. You have to get used to the other person."
Stricker started his prep career at Union High School. He was best friends with now Kansas quarterback Jordan Webb. He dabbled in football with Webb in middle school, but never really took to the game.
As a sophomore, Stricker transferred to Washington High. Jeff Duncan was the coach there, entering his ninth season.
"He found me in the hallway and said 'You need to come play football,'" Stricker said of Duncan. "I was like, 'No,' because I was really big into basketball and track. Those were my things."
"Being that he was a state medalist in track as a freshman, I knew who he was," Duncan, now in his second season at Parkway West, said. "He wasn't out for the football team, but the first day of school, I found him and introduced myself and said 'You're coming out for football.'"
In the end, the coach won out. Stricker joined the team about halfway through his sophomore season.
"He was just kind of a part of the team," Duncan said. "We would put him in different situations, run a fade, a quick pitch. Obviously, he played some JV as well. We were just getting him acquainted with everything."
"In high school," says current teammate and fellow St. Louis area product T.J. Moe, "All he did was run deep."
"T.J.'s right on point about that," Stricker said. "In high school, we threw the ball deep a lot. Then my senior year, I started working on my routes a lot more. I started to grasp those things."
Stricker continued to excel on the track, running the 100 and 200-meter dashes as well as the 110 and 300-meter hurdles. He even long-jumped nearly 20 feet. But as a junior, he started to emerge on the football field as well. Stricker caught 25 passes for 520 yards and ten touchdowns for the Blue Jays. Missouri jumped on him with an early scholarship offer.
"When Missouri recruited him, I had coaches from other teams going, 'Really?'" Duncan said. "I said, 'Guys, they're not worried about what he's going to do right now. It's the next two to five years.' You're not going to find a better athlete than him."
Stricker committed to Missouri after junior day in February of 2008, just about a year before he would sign a National Letter of Intent.
"It was exciting finding out he was actually being offered and we went with him and he actually sat down with coach Pinkel and actually accepted the offer," George Stricker recalled. "Coach Pinkel telling him he was a Tiger, from that moment on, and that he was real happy to have him as a Tiger. That was really touching."
"I feel like everything started to click for me when coach Duncan sat down and had a private talk with me. He said, 'You can do a lot of things that most kids can't,'" Stricker said. "My sophomore year I wasn't all that great because I had never played receiver. I was carrying the ball out here like a sandwich, all the way out here running with it. He worked with me and I just kept working harder and harder at it. Thanks to him, I'm here."
After winning the 300-meter hurdles at the Missouri state track meet as a junior, Stricker caught 27 passes for 670 yards and ten more touchdowns as a senior. By that time, he had become the tenth-ranked player in the state of Missouri and the No. 89 receiver prospect in the country. That February, he would become just the second football player ever to sign with a Division One school from Washington.
"You feel so proud for him and how he's worked. But you're also proud for the school and the community," Duncan said. "It does a lot for your team and your school. The kids that were playing with Kerwin that were freshmen are now juniors and they can say, 'Hey, I played with that guy.' I think sometimes people don't realize what a big deal that is. We've always tried to make a big deal about it."
Stricker redshirted last year, but had a strong first few days of fall camp this week. After Jerrell Jackson broke his wrist, Stricker sits second on the depth chart at the H-receiver position behind Moe. After practice, the classmates always talk about the workout.
"He's got the locker right next to mine. We'll go in there after practice and I'm sure he'll ask me a couple questions or I'll ask him a couple questions," Moe said. "He wants to play, he wants to get started, he knows you've got to work your way up. You can't just run out here and start. He's trying to work his way up.
"He's a great teammate. He's one of those guys you can go to and say, 'I need you to get my back on this,' and he's got you. You can't say that about everybody."
"My goal for this year is just to be a team role player. That's all," Stricker said. "If T.J. or Jerrell gets hurt, I'd like to go in. If Jerrell moves to the outside receiver and T.J. is starting, I want to be a role player for the team. That's my goal this year."
His parents have a tough time being as patient.
"I think it was a little humbling for him and it was hard for us," George Stricker said of the redshirt season. "I think he should be a star player now. I'm not biased at all. I know that he's going to be a great athlete for them. It might take a little bit, but I know that he's going to be perfectly fine."
"He has yet to see where his potential can carry him," Duncan said. "That's what (the coaches) see and that's what I still see in him. The sky's the limit for him."
It is perhaps a cliché, but something becomes a cliché because it is true. Regardless of what happens on the football field, Kerwin Stricker has won. He has won because he is here.
"Let's say if I was still in the foster home, I wouldn't be here right now. I'd probably be out getting in trouble with some other kids," Stricker said. "George and Lisa Stricker, I'm real thankful for them."
"I hope that we were able to give him an opportunity that he was not able to have," George Stricker says of his and his wife's role. "But he had so much natural talent that I think he would have made something of himself even wherever he was. He has so much natural talent."
As for that other number nine? Maclin was a two-time all-American and one of the greatest players in Missouri history. He is now in the NFL. Perhaps Stricker can follow those footsteps. Perhaps not. But Maclin's story is one that Stricker knows well.
"He came from hard times, moved in with an all-white family when his mom couldn't provide for him," Stricker said of Maclin. "That's kind of what happened with me. I find that a little bit inspirational right there."
And, now, the inspired has become the inspiration.
"We have two other boys. A 14-year-old, Isaiah, and a 12-year-old, Noah. My wife searched out and found our son Isaiah on the Internet and we actually got him from California. He was only four. Noah we got as a newborn, carried him out of the hospital," George Stricker said. "Isaiah just started playing football this year. He's in eighth grade and he really wants to talk to Kerwin about this or talk to Kerwin about that. We're really hoping Kerwin can at least get away for the evening and see the first game. Isaiah would like that."
"Whenever I go back home and everybody walks through the hallways of the school, they see my name," Stricker said. "I want other kids to know you can do the same thing I did. I want everybody to see, it doesn't matter what color you are, how fast you are or anything. If you work hard enough, you'll get it."
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