Former University of Missouri quarterback Brad Smith, two former coaches in Missouri State University’s Jesse Branch and Waynesville High School’s Rick Vernon – as well as a pair of state championship football teams in 1981 Greenwood Laboratory School and 1997 Springfield Catholic High School – are now part of even greater elite company.
The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inducted each Monday during the annual Football Kickoff Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company. The event drew a crowd of more than 800 to the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center in Springfield, where the Hall of Fame also honored its fourth Elite 11, a group of former high school, college and pro standouts.
This year’s Elite 11 consisted of Shannon Crouch (Seneca High School/Pittsburg State University), Mitch Espy (Marshfield High School/Missouri State), Mikael Cooper-Falls (Hillcrest High School/Missouri State), Jacob Hamon (Branson High School/Evangel University), Fred Harle (Raytown High School/Missouri State), Ryan Howerton (Lebanon High School/Lindenwood University/Mizzou), Shem Johnson (Parkview High School/Benedictine College/Indoor Football League), Eric Ramsey (Warsaw High School/Missouri Western University), Nick Smart (Marionville/Southwest Baptist University), Matt Wehner (Lebanon High School/Missouri Southern) and Rodney Witt (Ava High School/Missouri State).
Brad Smith, University of Missouri: Smith launched the coach Gary Pinkel era by quarterbacking Mizzou from 2002 to 2005, leading the Tigers to two Independence Bowls (2003 and 2005) and Mizzou’s first win against Nebraska since 1978. When he finished his college career, Smith was the most productive dual-threat QB in history, as no other player in NCAA history had thrown for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000 yards. Smith was a Freshman All-American in 2002 and, in 2005, an All-Big 12 Conference selection. He remains all over the Mizzou all-time record books, including No. 1 in career rushing yards and No. 2 in career passing yards. Smith played nine seasons in the NFL (2006-2014) as a wide receiver and kick returner, seeing playing time with the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles.
Jesse Branch, Missouri State University: Branch coached the Missouri State Bears football program for nine years (1986 to 1994), finishing 55-44-1 and becoming the only Bears football coach to record multiple conference championships (Gateway Conference in 1989, 1990). Those two teams remain the last Bears teams to reach the playoffs. Under the two-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year, the Bears were 27-3 at home from 1988 to 1993 – part of five winning seasons. Previously at the University of Arkansas, Branch was an all-conference player and later a coach in various roles from 1975 to 1985. After his MSU days, Branch was an associate athletic director at Arkansas from 1995 to 2000.
Rick Vernon, Waynesville High School: Vernon coached for three decades, including 33 years at Waynesville High School. He was 222-169 overall, which is 25th-best in state history. Vernon got his start at Lone Jack High School and then went to Waynesville, where his 2007 team won the Class 5 state title. Vernon guided the Tigers to seven district titles and seven conference titles (two Mid-Missouri Conference, five Ozark Conference). He was inducted into the Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and was named Missouri Coach of the Year in 2008. Along the way, Vernon sent three players on to the National Football League in L.J. Fort, Gijon Robinson and C.J. Mosley.
Greenwood Laboratory School 1981 state championship team: Led by quarterback Anthony Frazier and coach Paul Mullins, Greenwood won the Class 1 state championship, becoming the first Springfield high school football team to win it all. It was a 10-1 season that fall for Greenwood, culminating in a 14-0 victory against Gallatin in the Show-Me Bowl at Busch Stadium. Frazier, running back Glenn Adams, end Mark Jester, guard Tom Chamberlin and defensive end John Stinson were First Team All-State selections, while Rich Hardie was Second Team All-State.
Springfield Catholic 1997 state championship team: It’s the 20th anniversary of Springfield Catholic High School becoming only the second Springfield team to win a football state championship in a 28-0 victory against Monroe City at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis. Led by coach Bobby Cornelison, the Fightin’ Irish had a ton of talent all around. Among their All-State selections were quarterback Kyle Cernech, end Mark Stewart, offensive linemen Derrick Cara and John Goodman as well as defensive linemen Seth Wand and Ryan Mais.
Shannon Crouch, Seneca High School/Pittsburg State University: One of the best ever to play for Seneca High School, Crouch ranks fifth in the state in career all-purpose yards (7,476) as well as 10th in the state in career rushing attempts (836) and ninth in career rushing touchdowns (77). In 1986 and 1987, he was a USA Today All-American, as well as a First Team All-State, plus led Seneca to the Class 2 state championship his senior year as the Indians beat Brentwood 20-13. He went on to play briefly at Pittsburg State University. These days, Crouch is a state trooper with the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Mitch Espy, Marshfield High School/Missouri State: Espy was All-State in 1999 as a running back at Marshfield High School, where he owns the third-most career rushing yards (2,727), second-most points scored in both a season (128) and career (246) and is fourth all-time in total offense for a career (2,882 yards). Espy also is second all-time in most rushing yards in a game (264). Espy, who also was All-State in baseball and played one baseball season at Missouri State, now serves on Marshfield’s School Board.
Mikael Cooper-Falls, Hillcrest High School/Missouri State: Cooper-Falls was a four-year starter at running back and corner back at Hillcrest High School, earning Class 5 All-State selection on the Hornets’ 2008 playoff team. He then played four seasons at Missouri State, earning a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference All-Newcomer Team in 2009. He later overcame two years of injuries to lead the team with 604 yards rushing as a senior. He is now an assistant coach at Hillcrest High School.
Jacob Hamon, Branson High School/Evangel University: A linebacker, Hamon was All-State in 2003 for Branson High School and was a two-time All-Central Ozark Conference selection as both a linebacker and tight end in his final two years. When he graduated, he held the school record for career tackles (152), which stood for six more years. Hamon went on to play four seasons at Evangel University and is giving back to the sport as the head coach at Hollister High School.
Fred Harle, Raytown High School/Missouri State: Harle was a standout all-conference player at Raytown High School and then, despite being a walk on, became a three-year letterman at defensive back for the Missouri State football team from 1966 to 1968. Harle helped the Bears win the MIAA in 1966, an undefeated season in which he helped the defensive secondary set the school’s interception record. He was a 1967 all-conference selection as a junior and a co-captain his senior year. He went on to coach at El Dorado Springs, Salem Springs and Ozark before working for State Farm Insurance for 39 years. Harle later helped to launch the MSU Booster Club, serving as its president for 15 years.
Ryan Howerton, Lebanon High School/Lindenwood/Mizzou: Howerton was a Class 5 All-State selection in 2008 when he threw for 3,285 yards and 28 touchdowns, leading Lebanon to only its second playoff win in team history and its first winning season since 1995. He ranks in the top 10 of three single-season state passing records – including No. 6 in pass attempts (434) and ranks in the top 10 of four state single-game records, including the second-most TD passes (8). Howerton, who holds all of Lebanon’s passing records, was a News-Leader All-Ozarks selection and earned multiple All-District and All-Ozark Conference honors. Lebanon High School has since retired his jersey (No. 9). He signed with Lindenwood University’s football program, redshirting during its NAIA national championship season, and later walked on at the University of Missouri. He has degrees from Mizzou and Missouri State.
Shem Johnson, Parkview High School/Benedictine/IFL: Johnson was one of Springfield’s premier athletes in the mid-1990s, earning an All-State selection and the All-City Back of the Year by the Springfield Quarterback Club in 1994. He went on to Benedictine College before playing in the Indoor Football League with Bismarck, North Dakota in the summer of 2000. He also played in the East-West All-Star Game. He owns Primal Fitness and is an assistant at Central High School in Springfield.
Dr. Eric Ramsey, Warsaw High School/Missouri Western: Ramsey was a two-time All-State quarterback and honorable mention defensive back in Class 2 at Warsaw High School, which had a 36-4 record during his time there. He led the team to the 1990 state title, setting nine (five individual) Show-Me Bowl records in a 42-6 win vs. South Shelby as he threw for 205 yards, including four TD passes. He was a four-year letterman at Missouri Western University, playing on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Ramsey later coached high school football for 12 years, including four years as Willard’s head coach. He is now Parkview High School’s principal.
Nick Smart, Marionville/Southwest Baptist: A quarterback, Smart earned Class 1 First Team All-State in 2003 as he led Marionville to its first state championship in school history. At Southwest Baptist, he was a 2007 First Team All-American by Football Gazette magazine, plus earned all-conference honors in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) and an invitation to the Cactus Bowl, the NCAA Division II All-Star Game. He is now an attorney for Strong Garner and Bauer in Springfield.
Matt Wehner, Lebanon High School/Missouri Southern: Wehner was Class 5 First Team All-State at running back for the Lebanon Yellowjackets in 1991, his senior season. That year, Wehner rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 30 touchdowns – and held the school’s rushing record for more than 20 years. He then played at Missouri Southern, where he was a four-year letterman and team captain his senior season. Wehner in 2015 was inducted in the Lebanon Area Sports Hall of Fame.
Dr. Rodney Witt, Ava High School/Missouri State: Now a chiropractor in Nixa, Witt was three-year starter for Ava and a First Team All-State running back in 1980. He also earned MVP of the South Central Association, First Team All-District and All-Ozarks in leading the Bears to the district title and state quarterfinals. That season, he rushed for 1,235 yards, scored 23 touchdowns and finished second to Joplin’s Alan Cockrell for the scoring title (150 points) of southwest Missouri. Witt, who also led the team in tackles and played in the Lyons Club All-Star Game, spent four seasons as a Missouri State running back, churning out 835 yards his senior year despite missing three games. He also was a Gateway Conference Player of the Week after a 146-yard rushing effort at Southern Illinois.