Food, family, traditions: How Missouri football players spent their holiday break

After being granted a four-day break, some players went home while others decided to stay in Columbia and rest up.

The 2020 football season has felt like a marathon to Missouri players.

They’ve spent most of their time at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex where they practiced, prepared for games and took tri-weekly COVID-19 tests. To prevent exposure to the virus, coaches limited players in where they could go and what they could do.

So as the calendar flipped from November to December, and players began to feel the effects of a season that started in August, freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. tweeted what was only so natural for a college freshman living away from home for the first time.

Nearly 600 miles from his home in Duncanville, Texas, Rakestraw grew homesick. He missed being surrounded by family, especially around the holidays. Pasta meals and protein shakes replaced specialty dishes such as his mom’s cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes or his grandma’s pecan pie.

“What I miss most is my mom’s cooking,” Rakestraw said. “Everybody misses their mom’s cooking; that’s something that I’ve always had. My mom, she ain’t really used to me being gone on Thanksgiving. So when I woke up, I was like, ‘Dang, I’m not with my family. I don’t get to see my little sister. I didn’t get to sit at the table and tell my mom what I’m thankful for.’”

Unlike any other season, players didn’t have a scheduled week where they could easily plan to travel home, something especially tough for those not originally from Missouri.

Whether or not the Tigers could play any given weekend came down to COVID-19 test results delivered 24 hours before a game.

“With the flexibility of the schedule, it didn’t allow for a planned trip home for a lot of the boys,” Missouri receiver Barrett Banister’s mom, Holly, said.

Players weren’t allowed to leave Columbia during Thanksgiving, but they were permitted to travel home for the holidays, at least for a few days.

On Sunday, a day after the Tigers returned from Starkville, Mississippi, the program officially released players for a quick holiday break with one stipulation: they had to be back in mid-Missouri by 6 p.m. Christmas day.

Some players chose to travel home and visit with family for the short time off while others decided to stay in Columbia and rest for the upcoming Music City Bowl. Here is how just a few of those players decided to take advantage of their four days off.

Barrett Banister knew how he wanted to spend his few days off: golfing.

As soon as the coaching staff released him, the redshirt junior loaded his bright red pickup truck with some personal belongings and his golf clubs and made the five-hour drive south to his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Holly Banister said that her son has been out on the golf course every morning and afternoon since returning home. He’s already played with his dad, brother, sister’s boyfriend and some of his best friends, who play for Arkansas’ football team.

“That’s all he wants to do in those few days that they get off,” Holly Banister said. “[He wants to] figure out how to get in some rounds of golf and who he is going to play with.”

Growing up, Barrett Banister would usually drive about three hours to Conway, Arkansas, each Christmas Eve to see his dad’s side of the family. There, he performed in the annual church Christmas play, where he’s been baby Jesus, a shepherd and has read plenty of Bible passages.

One of Holly Banister’s most unforgettable holiday memories took place on the drive back from Conway when Barrett was in third grade. That year, they drove home through a blizzard while a frightened Barrett couldn’t concentrate on watching the movie Elf, instead begging his parents to pull over to the nearest hotel.

“There weren’t any hotels,” Holly Banister said. “We were 30 minutes from home, but the visibility was terrible. It was a pretty scary return trip home.”

The Banisters weren’t able to make that trip to Conway this year due to COVID-19. However, they still celebrated the holidays like they always do, even if Barrett had to return to Columbia after Christmas morning.

After opening gifts, the Banisters ate a Christmas breakfast of vanilla cream french toast, spicy sausage and egg casserole, bacon, smokies and a bowl of fruit, all requested by Barrett himself.

Meanwhile, Rakestraw arrived in Duncanville Monday afternoon with plans to spend as much time with family as possible. For his mom, Shamika Jones, that meant making sure every tag is removed from gifts until Christmas morning.

“For some reason, he would always find a way to fall on a gift, to poke a hole here and there,” Jones said. “It would always be his gift that was open; it was not a coincidence.”

Rakestraw most likely didn’t sneak a peak at his presents there this year. He soaked in every moment with family, even if that meant spending Christmas morning opening gifts in red, green and blue reindeer pajamas.

Most importantly, he finally got to enjoy his mom’s home cooking. Everything, from the stuffing to the pecan pie, was prepared for a Christmas Eve feast.

”No one can cook like mom,” Jones said. “I know he was missing mom’s home-cooked meals, but during Christmas I’ll definitely be making up for that.”

Juneeka Byers didn’t know that it was possible for her son, Akial Byers, to come home for the holidays until he called her Sunday afternoon. Akial Byers struggled to make a decision at first. Until making the call, he was leaning toward finding a way to get to Fayetteville, even if only for a few days.

The senior defensive lineman is a family guy who had never spent Christmas apart from his mom and two brothers. But with a broken down car and no other easy way to make the commute down Interstate-44, his mom delivered a convincing message.

“That’s a waste of time,” Juneeka Byers told her son. “Just stay put until after the bowl game. I love you and would love to have you home for Christmas, but just rest up.”

Each year, Juneeka Byers spends the days leading up to Christmas cooking. She loves to cook for family, but also for anyone else who wants to join in the feast –– which often included Akial’s friends.

Instead of ham or potatoes, Christmas at the Byers’ household usually involved catfish and spaghetti. While her son didn’t get to enjoy his mom’s cooking on Christmas day, she did promise another catfish dinner when he returns home before New Year’s.

The current plan is for Akial Byers to fly home from Nashville after the Music City Bowl. While the closest he got to family on Christmas day was through Zoom or FaceTime, as soon as he gets home, Akial Byers plans to kick his football cleats to the back of the closet and prioritize time with family.

“We think about family,” Juneeka Byers said. “That’s what we are around the holidays, it’s about family.”

While Akial Byers had never been away from family during the holidays, Larry Rountree III is used to a delayed family Christmas –– it was his third since coming to Columbia.

The senior running back had always elected to stay on campus to prepare for an upcoming bowl game, which meant that last year –– when the Tigers couldn’t play in a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions –– was the only Christmas Day he’s spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, since 2016.

“If it were not for [the bowl sanctions], I’m pretty sure he would have stayed back to make sure he was prepped and ready to go for that bowl game,” Rountree’s mom, Benita, said.

Rountree planned to use the extra time off to rest up and prepare for the Music City Bowl, the senior’s final outing in a Tigers’ uniform. While he couldn’t physically be with family, Benita Rountree said that her son joined in the family Zoom call as they opened presents.

Before going to MU, Larry Rountree usually spent Christmas morning opening gifts with his mom before spending time with his grandma, aunts and cousins. Each year, there would be a fun family Christmas sweater competition, but Larry Rountree never participated because he wouldn’t be caught dead in one of the sweaters.

When he returns home around New Year’s, the plan is for him and his mom to hop in the car and drive around to family members’ houses to pick up gifts. The connection with his entire family is so important, even if he cannot be home on Christmas day.

“Every day I send him a text to let him know he’s on my mind,” Benita Rountree said. “Sometimes my family includes him on a group chat, but we know he can’t respond because he has so much going on. We just want to let him know that when he looks down at his phone, that’s what’s going on right now.”

For Larry Rountree, Akial Byers and all the players who decided to spend their time off in Columbia, those holiday traditions and time spent at home with family will have to wait just a few extra days. With the end of the 2020 season in sight, every player will soon be able to go home for a well-deserved break.

“Hey,” Juneeka Byers told herself. “He’ll be home in a couple days, he’ll be home for New Years.”

After a long and grueling season, rest and time with family is all the players needed.

Edited by Jack Soble |

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