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September 16, 2010

Tatum's debut a long time coming

Andrew Gachkar graduated from high school in May of 2006. In the four years since, he has played in 43 games at Missouri, started 15 and made 134 tackles.

Josh Tatum graduated from high school in the same month. Last Saturday, he made the first tackle of his major college career.

"All my friends always give me slack," Tatum said. "They're like, 'You were this heralded recruit, five-star coming out of high school, and you haven't made your first tackle yet, dog.' That's always their thing with me."

Tatum's road to a college football field has been anything but a straight line. He was rated by some as one of the top 100 players in the country out of McClymonds High School in Oakland, California. He signed with USC. Tatum spent his first year on campus in Los Angeles rehabbing a knee injury from high school, but it seemed at the time a mere speed bump on the way to stardom for one of college football's powerhouse programs.

After that season, Tatum would leave the USC program. He doesn't offer up details of exactly why.

"I overcame the knee injury and got into it-well, not exactly got into it-but overame a lot when I was at USC," Tatum said. "I was let go and went to junior college for two seasons."

The next stop was the City College of San Francisco, where Tatum played two seasons for coach George Rush. He was a junior college all-American, making 120 tackles, including 15 behind the line of scrimmage, as a sophomore. The performance had him rated as one of California's top ten junior college prospects and a four-star linebacker according to Rivals.com. Tatum had offers from the likes of Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and Kansas, but chose to make Mizzou his next stop.

Fans rejoiced and big things were once again forecast for Tatum. He arrived in time for spring ball, which would give him a head start on his collegiate career. But Tatum missed half of spring with a back injury. It kept him in a red jersey and off the field through what was supposed to be his entire junior season.

"When I got a chance to come here and play and blew out my back, it was like, 'Oh my God. Am I supposed to be playing this game?'" Tatum wondered. "That's one of the worst injuries you can have. That's worse than the ACL, that's worse than any shoulder surgery. I had a herniated disk. I had full sciatica in my left leg. I couldn't feel anything from my knee to my toes for two months straight."

"When he first hurt his back, he was real down about it," said Jarrell Harrison, who was Tatum's teammate at CCSF and is now his roommate in Columbia. "I was the only one with him and I had to tell him, 'No injury's forever, so you can probably get back out there and help this football team.'"

Tatum went to Dr. Robert Watkins to have surgery in Los Angeles. He got back on the practice field in the spring of 2010, but clearly wasn't himself. He has floated between second- and third-string since then and still won't say he's all the way healthy. He said he hurt his hip in Missouri's second fall scrimmage and is still recovering from that, in addition to lingering effects from the back injury.

"I had to gain my strength back, I had to gain my speed back. And I'm still getting it back," Tatum said. "The back is 100 percent, to be honest with you, but everything else is still falling into place. Like the sciatica from my leg, I'm still not squatting up here."

But a season-ending injury to Donovan Bonner, an injury to Luke Lambert and the suspension of Will Ebner opened up some doors over the first couple of weeks of the season. Tatum did not see the field in the season opener against Illinois. But with the Tigers rolling to a 50-0 lead through three quarters against McNeese State, his chance finally came.

"When he first got in the game, he looked like he was too excited, so I had to yell from the sideline, 'Hey, calm down,'" Harrison said. "He looked good out there running and hitting people like I know he can and like I've seen him before."

On the first play of the fourth quarter, McNeese State completed a swing pass in the left flat. Tatum came up from his weakside linebacker spot and delivered a hit, dropping the Cowboy receiver for a loss of two yards.

"You know what? I'm just glad it was a tackle for loss," Tatum said. "I had been waiting that whole game. I thought, as soon as I get in, I'm gonna try to make them remember me.

"That first one, man, I got a lot off my chest. It felt good. Very good."

Tatum would add two more tackles, bring his collegiate total to three. It's not exactly an overwhelming number. It's certainly not the number he thought it would be when he graduated from high school four years ago. But it's a start. And for now, that's good enough for Tatum.

"Oh man, it was everything I could imagine," Tatum said. "You know, it's been such a long process for me just overcoming these injuries and finally getting out there Saturday, it was just great."

The debut wasn't without its bumps. Tatum was flagged for a personal foul, costing his team 15 yards with a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback.

"The personal foul, as my linebacker coach put it quite well, was embarrassing," Tatum said. "Being out there for the first time, I was a little overly excited. Emotions kind of got the best of me...It will never happen again. We pride ourselves around here on not being a penalized team. For me to add to that was unnecessary."

Where Tatum goes from here is unknown. Ebner is back from his suspension. Lambert will be back on the field in the next couple of weeks. Andrew Wilson had a breakout performance against McNeese State, making seven tackles. Playing time may be hard to come by. But teammates and coaches aren't counting out a player who has already overcome so much.

"Josh is a good friend and I was real happy to see him on the field. I really wanted him out there. He had to go through some injuries and go through some different schools, but he finally got out there," Gachkar said. "And he did good. I hope he keeps going up from here to the point where he's out on the field playing at a high level."

"Josh has overcome a lot of hurdles and to step on the field," added defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. "It was kind of exciting to watch him play. He was real excited about it and did a nice job for us."

The good news for Tatum is that he may have a little longer opportunity to make an impact. This is his fifth year out of high school and should be his last. But due to the injury that kept him out all last season, Tatum will apply for a medical redshirt at the end of the year. Both Tatum and Gary Pinkel said they feel very good about his chances to get a sixth year. So good that the Tigers list Tatum as a junior on their official roster, even though the application cannot be submitted until the end of the season.

So Tatum's long road to college football may get even longer. But this time, that's a good thing.

"It's a testament to the coaching staff, to my hard work, to the trainers staying with me," he said. "I felt like I gave it my all when I was in there and look forward to making many more plays for the Tigers."

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