PowerMizzou - How Mizzou football gave back to Miss V
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How Mizzou football gave back to Miss V

To an outsider, Vonda Cordes probably looked out of place in the Missouri locker room.

A petite, blonde woman old enough to be the players’ grandmother, she stood next to Eli Drinkwitz as he addressed the Tiger football team following its 48-35 win over North Texas on Oct. 9. But when Drinkwitz called the players’ attention to Cordes, they whooped and cheered.

“Miss V!”

Drinkwitz, his visor turned backward on his head, presented Cordes the game ball, an honor usually reserved for a player who had a particularly strong performance or a coach for whom the victory carried extra significance. Cordes, Drinkwitz’s administrative assistant, wiped tears from her eyes. The players swarmed. Offensive lineman Zeke Powell eventually lifted her onto his shoulders in the middle of the throng.

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For Cordes, the moment — like much of last fall — elicited a potent mixture of emotions. The longtime staffer felt strange suddenly standing in the spotlight. The support of the players brought joy and encouragement. But the reason for the locker room celebration, the apprehension, loomed.

The following Tuesday, Cordes would undergo surgery to remove cancer from her breasts.

The surgery proved successful. Cordes never had to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. She’s been cancer free for more than four months, and she’s back to work now. But it’s not business as usual for Cordes, who has worked in the Mizzou football offices for more than 20 years. Her battle with cancer showed her how much she’s appreciated, how many lives she’s touched. It also revealed the importance of the type of support she received from the Missouri locker room. So, after a lifetime of working behind the scenes, Cordes feels compelled to share her story.

“There’s a lot of women that need support and strength,” Cordes said, “and hopefully they’ll know that there’s a lot of people out there behind them and for them.”

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Administrative assistant Vonda Cordes received the game ball following the football team's win over North Texas on Oct. 9.
Administrative assistant Vonda Cordes received the game ball following the football team's win over North Texas on Oct. 9. (Mizzou Athletics)

Ask a few current players what, exactly, Cordes’ job responsibilities are and you’ll likely get different answers. Sixth-year senior slot receiver Barrett Banister said “she’s up taking care of all the stuff so we don’t have to deal with it.” Safety Martez Manuel admitted he doesn’t really know what Cordes does, but he knows “she’s an OG around here.”

Manuel has that right. Cordes has been employed by Mizzou athletics longer than anyone on the current roster has been alive.

Norm Stewart hired Cordes as an administrative assistant in 1995. She still maintains a relationship with Stewart — shortly after Drinkwitz was hired in 2019, Cordes arranged a dinner between Drinkwitz and his wife, Lindsey, with Stewart and his wife, Virginia. When Stewart retired in 1999, football coach Larry Smith asked Cordes if she wanted to transition to the football staff. Cordes accepted, becoming, essentially, the assistant for all the assistant coaches.

Long before the days when college football support staffs numbered in the triple digits, Cordes essentially took care of everything that wasn’t on-field coaching: booking travel for assistant coaches, managing the program’s finances, arranging tickets for players and their families. When Gary Pinkel took over for Smith in 2001, he kept Cordes in that role, and then when Barry Odom succeeded Pinkel in 2016, he made Cordes the head coach’s personal assistant. Her responsibilities in her new role are similar. She maintains the head coach’s appearance and event schedule, books any non-recruiting related travel, accommodates NFL scouts when they come to Columbia, works with director of football operations Andy Lutz and director of equipment operations Mike Kurowski to make sure everything’s in working order inside the team’s South End Zone facility.

“She’s basically in charge of this building, making sure it runs properly on a day-to-day basis,” Drinkwitz said. “And she manages my day to day organization and calendar, but really she manages the entire coaching staff’s calendar and keeps us all in line.”

While not included in her official job responsibilities, Cordes also makes a point of getting to know the players on each Missouri team. Drinkwitz called her the team mom. From thoughtful gestures like getting the defensive players new notebooks when Blake Baker took over for Steve Wilks earlier this offseason to simply conversing with players, she has a way of letting players know she’s there for them. Nearly 15 years after the conclusion of his college career, former Missouri tight end Martin Rucker still has a relationship with Cordes.

“She was always there for anything you needed,” Rucker said. “She was a little piece of the glue, if you will, in the office there and with the team.

“You’ve got kids from all over the country and even all over the state. With me being from Missouri but being two-and-a-half hours away from home, she was somebody that I could always count on, regardless of whatever it was that I needed, to give me help, to figure it out.”

Cordes, too, described herself as a mother figure. She recognizes that, while playing college football in the SEC provides a lot of perks and publicity, it also comes with heavy pressure. Cordes sees herself as someone players can come to and talk about those pressures, or anything else going on in their lives.

“They need to be able to talk about things and hang out or, like, I’ll ask them about their classes or whatever,” she said. “Or I’ll ask them, how’s everything going? And there just has to be this comfortability knowing that if they need support or help or they just need to talk, that they have the ability to do that. And then they know that I’m rooting for them, in their corner.”

As a result, when Cordes needed support in her corner, she found an army.

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Cordes’ life has revolved around college football for the past 23 years, so it makes sense that, when she recounts the timeline of her cancer treatment, each event relates to a Missouri game.

It was the day before the Tigers traveled to Boston College, Sept. 24, that Cordes first learned she might have cancer. During an appointment, her doctor noticed something out of the ordinary and performed some tests. A few days after the team’s overtime loss, Cordes got the news: She had Stage One breast cancer.

A cancer diagnosis is never easy to receive, but in Cordes’ case, the news was especially troubling. Her mother had died from breast cancer years earlier.

“The minute that you get told that you have the same thing that your mom passed away from, your whole world changes,” she said.

Hopeful that they could remove the recently-formed cancer before it spread, Cordes’ doctors wanted to perform surgery as soon as possible. They scheduled the procedure for Oct. 12, the Tuesday after Homecoming, when Missouri would host North Texas.

So Drinkwitz brought Cordes into the locker room following Missouri’s win. Before presenting the game ball, he told the team that she’d have surgery Tuesday.

“She ain’t alone, is she?” Drinkwitz asked the locker room.

“No sir,” the players thundered back.

“Who’s with her?”

“We are!”

Cordes said the support of the locker room meant the world to her. But it meant something to the players, too. Manuel said playing for Cordes galvanized the team. “I feel like any time you have something that you’re playing for, those games are the ones that you’ll remember forever,” he said.

Powell said rallying around Cordes meant a little extra to him because his grandmother had survived breast cancer. He didn’t tell that to Cordes until a few weeks later, but he made sure that he was the one holding her on his shoulders for the team picture.

“It really meant a lot to be there for her, because she’s always there for us,” Powell said. “And me personally, my grandmother had went through the same thing that she went through, so that meant a lot to me, and you’ll see me in that picture being the main one trying to hold her up, helping her go through what she was going through. We as a family didn’t want her to be alone in that process.”

The following weekend, Missouri’s players and coaches wore shirts that said “Play for V” as they walked into Memorial Stadium for a matchup with Texas A&M. Just four days removed from surgery, Cordes couldn’t attend the game, but she watched from her brother’s house. Her voice wavered as she remembered her phone buzzing with photos of the shirts, plus messages of encouragement from former players and NFL scouts she’d gotten to know. Rucker was in Columbia that weekend, touring the South End Zone complex with his family. They stopped into Cordes’ office and left a sticky note on her computer that read “The Rucker family is praying for you.”

“You know that everybody is behind you,” Cordes said. “And not only the players, but the wives of the coaches and everybody, they all had those on that day, and they were sending me pictures. … And that’s huge with cancer. That is huge. Your support system has to be huge.”

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On Nov. 10, one month and a day after receiving the game ball and three days before Missouri would host South Carolina, Cordes stood in front of the team again. Again, she sent the players into a frenzy.

The doctors had removed all the cancer during surgery, she told them. She wouldn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments. She was cancer free.

“I said, ‘You know what? You all were my team to support me, so let’s go out and beat South Carolina this weekend,’” Cordes recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m behind you all.’”

That’s been the strangest and, at times, most challenging part of the past six months for Cordes: standing in the spotlight. She’d spent virtually all of her first 26 years at Missouri working quietly in the background. Since her cancer diagnosis, she’s seen photos and videos of herself receiving the game ball garner attention on Twitter. She was honored on the court before Missouri’s women’s basketball game against Arkansas on Feb. 13, the team’s annual “pink game” to support breast cancer awareness. She returned to work part-time in November, and players and coaches constantly ask how she’s doing.

Cordes stressed that she isn’t looking for the limelight, nor seeking pity. She feels an obligation to share her story. In the months since she returned to work on a part-time basis, she’s had several players, like Powell, tell her about their own experiences with family members battling cancer. At the women’s basketball game, she met the grandmother of star Hayley Frank, herself a breast cancer survivor. She wants people to know that breast cancer can be beaten, and she wants those battling the disease to experience the support she felt from the football team.

“It’s an emotional thing for me,” Cordes said. “... A lot of those things you have to keep private. But then after it all comes into play, you also know that you have to be strong for all of the other women that are going through it. You have to be strong for all of the women that have survived. Because you’re in a whole other group of people, a whole other team.”

While Cordes might not want the attention, the players she’s formed bonds with at Missouri, both past and present, are eager to celebrate her. The type of reception she received in the locker room after the North Texas game and the flood of messages from former players and coaches show the impact she’s made on the program, even if players don’t know exactly what she does every day.

“It’s so deserving,” Rucker said. “She’s been there through different coaching regimes, she’s been there through good seasons and bad seasons and had to deal with all the personalities that come with both, and still continued to do her job at a high level. … And so it surprises me none for her to say that she doesn't want any of the credit or any of the spotlight for it, but it’s absolutely much deserved and well deserved for her, and overdue for her to get some spotlight and some shine.”


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