Downing's determination pays off with first touchdown
It had been a while since Kris Downing received a phone call from her oldest son. When she texted Dawson Downing, a running back on the Missouri football team, he replied that he couldn’t talk, he was too busy.
That’s how Kris knew something was up last November. Dawson’s days are often busy as he juggles the demands of football and his pre-medicine studies, but he still finds time to call his mother almost every evening. Kris figured Dawson was upset about something.
Eventually, Dawson opened up to his parents: He had been jumped in the running back pecking order by true freshman Simi Bakare. The coaching staff had made it clear that it planned to burn Bakare’s redshirt by playing him in more than four games, and that he would play ahead of Dawson. The news became more bitter when Tyler Badie, who had also vaulted up the depth chart early in his true freshman season, injured his ankle against Florida on Nov. 3 and the Tigers needed a new third running back. (Badie ultimately missed just one game.) As Bakare saw the field for a series in a close home win over Vanderbilt then handled nine carries against Tennessee, Dawson, then a redshirt sophomore, couldn’t help but feel like those snaps should have gone to him.
“It bothered him a lot,” said Kris. “We had a lot of discussions, because he knew going in that they were going to burn Simi’s redshirt. … It was a bad couple of weeks there.”
“I have to be honest,” added Dawson’s father, Ken Downing. “I encouraged him to look at other places.”
That’s where Dawson, who his parents say has always taken motivation from being told he can’t do something, drew the line. Just to earn a scholarship at Missouri, always his dream school, he had proven a lot people wrong, and he was determined to do so again.
Now, less than a year later, Dawson’s determination is being rewarded. He has established himself as Missouri’s third running back behind Badie and Larry Rountree III. Saturday against Ole Miss, he carried the ball six times and broke free for a 54-yard touchdown, the first score of his college career.
“Throughout the work that he has done, he has earned playing time,” head coach Barry Odom said of Dawson. “Not just mop-up duty. He’s earned time throughout the game, and he every week continues to get a little bit better.”
Dawson’s dreams of scoring touchdowns in a Missouri uniform far predate his arrival on campus. Ken played safety at Missouri in the 1970s, and he and Kris made Dawson a Tiger fan at a young age. When Dawson was seven or eight years old, Kris recalls, her parents babysat Dawson for a weekend. Dawson’s grandparents, both Kansas fans, tried to take Dawson to a Jayhawk football game. Dawson rebelled at the idea.
“He absolutely refused to go,” Kris said. “‘I’m not going to Lawrence.’ They had to say, ‘No, Dawson, you’re going, you can’t stay here by yourself,’ and he said ‘I’ll be fine. I’m not going to Lawrence.’”
Years later, as Dawson emerged as the starting running back for Bishop Miege high school in the Kansas City area, his dream of playing for Missouri actually started to look realistic. Downing rushed for 1,955 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior, then 1,904 yards and 42 touchdowns as a senior. Yet no FBS schools extended a scholarship offer. Dawson’s only offers came from a few Ivy League schools and local Division II teams, such as Emporia State and Northwest Missouri State.
Ken said he was surprised no local Division I coaches expressed interest, and not just because he’s Dawson’s parent.
“I’ve watched football and played at the professional level, and you hear it all the time from parents, ‘Well, my son can do this,’” Ken said. “It wasn’t that. I watched him score 42 touchdowns in a season, and I’m going, no one wants to look at that?”
But Dawson wasn’t discouraged. As usual, he turned the lack of interest into motivation, and he set his mind to proving he belonged on college football’s biggest stage. As his parents were packing to take him on an official visit to Northwest Missouri State, Dawson walked into their bedroom and told them he had made his college decision.
“He came upstairs and he said, ‘I’m not going,’” Kris recalled. “And we kind of looked at each other, and we looked at Dawson, and we said ‘What do you mean we’re not going?’ And he said, ‘I’m walking onto Mizzou.’ He said, ‘I can do this, I can play Division I football.’”
Not only was Dawson motivated to prove that he could simply play Division I football but, against the recommendations of the academic advisors, he wanted to study health sciences as an undergraduate in anticipation of applying to medical school. He hopes to one day be an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine.
Dawson said it takes regular 12-hour days to accomplish all of his football and academic responsibilities, but he’s been named to the SEC academic honor roll each of the past two seasons. Ken said he has a cumulative grade-point average of 3.8. He recently applied for a double-major, adding a biology degree to his health sciences studies.
“This semester has been difficult,” he admitted. “Just been a lot of time trying to stay up on football, watch film, and then study and have time for all that and figure all of that out.”
After redshirting during the 2016 season, Dawson saw his first game action in 2017. The highlight of his season came during a blowout of Connecticut, when Dawson lowered his shoulder and bowled over a Huskie defender. The play was ultimately called back due to penalty, but Dawson finished the game with 60 yards on 10 carries. He carried the ball 20 times for 121 yards on the year.
One day after fall camp the following season, Odom called Dawson into his office. As a reward for his contributions as a freshman, Odom offered Dawson a full scholarship. Dawson, as humble and soft-spoken as he is determined, kept the news off social media, but he did call his high school coach, Jon Holmes, and his parents. Holmes said Dawson tried to downplay the news, but his voice betrayed his excitement. Two years after betting on himself and passing up on scholarship offers to walk on at his dream school, Dawson had affirmation that he belonged at Missouri.
“I could tell he was really excited because I knew how hard he had worked for it,” Holmes said. “Him and I had talked that spring about, hey, here’s what you need to do in the summer to get this, this and this, and he felt like he was going to be able to earn one, and he was very excited once he did.”
But just like he wasn’t satisfied simply being on the Missouri team, Dawson harbored goals beyond earning a scholarship. He wanted to play, and while he embraced his various special teams roles, he wanted to play running back. Kris said perhaps the most painful moment of 2018 came when Bakare scored a late-game touchdown against Tennessee in Week 11. Dawson, who had yet to find the end zone, was happy for his teammate, but Kris said the family couldn’t help feeling like it should have been Dawson in the end zone.
Instead of following his father’s advice and transferring, Dawson did what he’s always done: put his head down and work. The coaching staff took notice. Kris, a member of the Kansas City Tiger Club, said that during a meeting this fall where the coaching staff spoke to club members to preview the season, running backs coach Cornell Ford raved about Dawson’s improvement. At the same meeting, offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, whom Kris had never spoken to previously, pulled her aside to tell her what a good offseason Dawson had. Kris recalls telling Dawson about the encounter and saying, you’re not actually improving, right? The coaches are just finally noticing you. No, Dawson said. He said he’s made strides in several areas during the offseason, including learning the playbook better.
“He just made plays, consistently, over and over again every practice,” Ford said. “If it wasn’t at the running back position, it was in passing. He made a number of big catches for us all summer. I mean, he just consistently made big plays at the position all summer, and when we came out of camp, we felt like, yeah, he can help us.”
As Missouri’s third running back, Dawson may not receive a high volume of carries, but the coaches say his role is important. He serves as a change-of-pace from the quicker Rountree and Badie and, most importantly, can be trusted to know his assignments and fight for every yard late in games. Each of his 26 carries this season represents one less hit absorbed by Rountree or Badie, which has helped keep both fresh through the first half of the season.
“You need three backs,” said Dooley, who described Dawson’s game as bringing a “heaviness” to the Missouri backfield. “I’ve always felt that way in this league. It’s a physical league, and one guy can’t do it, and even two it gets hard.”
For the fourth time in Missouri’s six games this season, Downing saw at least five carries against Ole Miss. When he burst through a hole on the right side of the line of scrimmage around midfield, Rountree, watching from the sidelines, said he leapt into the air with such excitement that his vertical could have been measured at 45 inches. Ole Miss defensive back Jaylon Jones caught Dawson around the 10-yard line and tried to pull him to the ground, but Downing, exhibiting the same determination that earned him a scholarship and the job as the Tigers’ third running back, dragged Jones for a few yards and eventually extended the ball across the goal line.
Kris, watching from the letterwinners’ tent in Memorial Stadium, accidentally toppled a table in her excitement. Right guard Case Cook was the first teammate to reach the end zone, and he grabbed Dawson by the chest and lifted him into the air in celebration. As Dawson returned to the Missouri sideline, a swarm of teammates greeted him, patting him on the helmet. The reception was so overwhelming, Dawson said after the game, that he didn’t know the play was being reviewed until the officials made an announcement confirming the score.
Ford said Dawson’s score elicited such jubilation because of the way he treats his teammates and because everyone around the team knows how hard he worked to get to that point. Odom called Dawson “one of the reasons that are program is moving the direction it is.”
“He never bitches, he never moans about anything,” Ford said. “Sometimes he gets plays, sometimes he doesn’t, but he’s always there, and he’s got a yes sir, no sir attitude about it, and I think guys appreciate that around him. And they see him working. So I think that’s why they were, as we all were, ecstatic for him that he finally got that first touchdown on the board. It’s just the first of many.”
While he may not show it publicly, no one was happier than Dawson. In order to get to the point of scoring a touchdown for his dream school, he had passed up scholarships at lower levels to prove he could play FBS football, worked for two years to earn a scholarship at Missouri and overcome the disappointment of being passed on the depth chart by two true freshman — all while studying to be an orthopedic surgeon. As he met with reporters following the team’s practice on Tuesday, a grin crept across Dawson’s face.
“When it’s that long of a process and that long of a situation — I mean, I’m still smiling from Saturday,” he said. “It really does mean a lot. It’s huge.”