When the Ozark Tigers football team lost in the state semifinals last November, senior Cody Lindsay was the last one off the field, and it would at least a half-hour before he would remove his helmet.
He knew it might be the last time he played a meaningful football game in his life.
But later, after a three-hour bus ride down from the Kansas City area and a sleepless night back home, Lindsay decided he didn’t necessarily have to hang up the football pads forever.
“Definitely, falling short that game, kind of hit me real deep,” Lindsay said. “But then again, it made me realize after that (that) maybe this isn’t the right choice. Maybe there’s something left after this season with college football.
“That’s when I realized I wasn’t done. I was the last one to walk off the field, and it hit me.”
Despite ranking as one of the state’s best wrestling best wrestling prospects and even at one point having drawn the watchful eye of collegiate powerhouse Iowa, Lindsay instead chose to play football, at NCAA Division II Missouri Western.
It’s the kind of audible not many high school seniors can call, and one of the many reasons why Lindsay has been chosen as the News-Leader’s Male Athlete of the Year.
Lindsay raged his way to a bountiful list of personal accolades, yet also greatly influenced the Christian County school to a banner season to earn the award, chosen by the News-Leader sports staff.
An undefeated wrestling season and an unexpected run to the Class 5 state semifinal in football made for a strong senior season. Lindsay is the second Ozark male senior to win the 10-year-old award, joining Matt Jordan in 2007-08.
With three male and female winners in award history, Ozark now ties Glendale for the most recipients.
When Ozark built its $5.1-million football complex in 2007, complete with new-age artificial turf and a football fieldhouse among the many upgrades, the district was likely hoping for big-time athletes like Lindsay to fill the place on Friday nights.
The 2012 Tigers, filled with athletic skill position players, overwhelmed opponents throughout the regular season and into November, taking a back seat locally only to another Webb City juggernaut.
Lindsay, a 6-foot-3 and 210-pound bruising linebacker and running back, was the catalyst of it all.
But the football team’s run was supposed to end in the quarterfinal on a Saturday afternoon outside the Kansas City area against the top-ranked team in the state, Lee’s Summit West, a team littered with Division I recruits and state championship expectations.
The News-Leader picked the Titans by 17; our Massey Ratings did three points better, picking LSW by 20.
But the Tigers led throughout most of the game. And when Lee’s Summit West took a 23-19 lead with 2:33 left, it looked as if Ozark’s monumental upset bid would fall short.
Then along came Lindsay.
Not only was he built like a Greek god — his high school wrestling coach’s words — but Lindsay motivates teammates in a way that football coach Mark Bliss says he has not seen often in his 25 years of coaching.
“He has the ‘It factor,’ ” Bliss said. “The other kids were on the field, he raised their level of play. I can think of three kids in my entire career that I can say that about. It’s one of those subliminal, confidence things.”
This is a coach who has won four state championships, and Bliss placed Lindsay right in that top group with Eric Pauly, who became a standout linebacker at Colorado State, and Rodney Coe, a defensive end now at Iowa State.
So it came as no surprise that players such as little-used Chandler Robertson made plays you wouldn’t expect, and then David Salazar completed a handful of passes into the wind during the 2-minute drill.
And it surprised exactly zero passionate Ozark faithful when Lindsay took the biggest play of the year, the “18 speed option” toss right from Salazar, and ran it in for the game-winning 5-yard touchdown.
Best friend Cameron Glenn, an All-Ozarks center who will be Lindsay’s roommate and teammate at Missouri Western, said it was a play Bliss installed three days ago.
“All I saw was David about to get wrapped up, and then Cody slipped by two guys, then he was running in and holding the ball up,” Glenn said. “It was awesome.”
That drive and that win could be somewhat of a turning point for football in this region, which has largely looked up to schools from St. Louis and Kansas City come playoff time.
Lindsay was a driving force on the field and a calming influence off it, Glenn said.
“He’s a competitor, and he’s fierce,” Glenn said. “He’s a complete goofball outside of football, but knows exactly when to kick it in to gear.”
On the mat, Lindsay finished with two state championships.
After winning state as a sophomore, Lindsay was limited as a junior, taking third.
Jesse Zeugin, who wrestled in college and also now fights professionally on the mixed martial arts circuit, always has been impressed by Lindsay’s strength. And he should know, given he has mentored one of the area’s strongest athletes.
A year ago, in his last season at Rogersville, Zeugin oversaw Joe Zimmer, now wrestling for the University of Nebraska. Zimmer built his upper body into something you’d see in a video game character, with muscles bulging from behind his neck and shoulders.
Lindsay’s body size isn’t quite a mirror image. But he is ripped.
“The guy is quick, explosive and unbelievably powerful,” Zeugin said of Lindsay. “I watched him take down an NAIA national champ three times in one period (in practice). He is truly amazing.”
Lindsay pinned 36 of his 39 opponents at 195 pounds — this time actually ending his career in a sport he loved his whole life.
“It was kind of on my mind all weekend, that this was the last time I’d ever wrestle, really,” said Lindsay, who had wrestling interest from Missouri, Penn State, Iowa, Army and Navy. “It was emotional, but I tried to keep the focus on the matches itself. I wanted to go out with the win.”
The 5-0 decision ended a season in which he never surrendered a two-point takedown, tough to pull off in a sport in which even the most talented wrestlers lose angle advantages from time to time.
“Coaching a kid like that, it’s something you can hang your hat on,” Bliss said. “Everything that we’ve hoped for, with him and his class, everything has come true.
“It’s been a blessing to have that kid in my life. Everyone knows who Cody Lindsay is, and he’ll carry with him the rest of his career and the rest of his life.
“I don’t know too many guys who have walked the halls that have been as decorated and gifted as he is.”