If you can do an online search for his name, it’ll yield some jaw-dropping stories.
Such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch clip touting that he had been named to PARADE’s All-America High School Football Team. Or the UPI story in which his high school coach said, “The reason we’re 38-3 is having him in the program.”
Yes, Tony Vanzant was that good. Incredibly good as a blue-chip recruit running back at Hazelwood Central High School. And his success in those four prep seasons is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Vanzant with the Class of 2023.
After his senior season at Hazelwood Central High School in 1985, Parade Magazine named him the National Player of the Year. He also had scholarship offers from Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Miami, Arkansas, Southern Cal and numerous others before ultimately choosing the University of Missouri.
Vanzant rushed for 2,736 yards and 36 touchdowns that season as he led the Hawks to a state championship and 14-0 record. In the playoffs alone, which covered three games, he rushed for more than 900 yards, scored five touchdowns, and threw for another.
That capped an incredible career in which he rushed for 6,128 yards and a national record of 91 touchdowns. The rushing total was the best in the country, breaking that of Herschel Walker’s career prep numbers.
For Vanzant, playing football in the backyard and the driveway while growing up only fueled his love for the sport.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Vanzant said.
Vanzant grew up idolizing the Chicago Bears’ Gayle Sayers, the Rams’ Eric Dickerson and the Cowboys’ Tony Dorsett.
However, for as great as he would be by the time he was a senior in high school, Vanzant will tell you that he didn’t sense he was among the best in St. Louis until his sophomore year.
“My freshman year, LSU sent me a letter thinking I was a senior,” Vanzant said.
In high school, Hazelwood Central football coach John Hotfelder’s offense was an I formation and wing T – the perfect set-up that let Vanzant become a star.
“He’s up there with Curt Warner and Eric Dickerson for high school statistics,” Hotfelder told the UPI at the time, referring to two rushers who eventually enjoyed their own decades in the National Football League.
“The reason we’re 38-3 is having him in the program,” Hotfelder was quoted as saying. “That’s what he’s done for us. He makes me look like I know what I’m doing. He’s had a terrific high school career.”
Vanzant was a beast, with that rare combination of size and speed. But he also learned to show patience, waiting of his blockers to carry out their assignments.
“My freshman team, we said when we become seniors, we are going to win it all, and we went 14-0 and were state champs,” Vanzant said.
Despite all of the national attention, Vanzant narrowed his choices down to the University of Michigan, Oklahoma State University and the University of Missouri. Michigan at the time was one of the best rushing programs in the country. Oklahoma State’s 1980s teams had featured Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders – two stars now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mizzou had not enjoyed much luck in the 1980s, however. But Vanzant could have been that one piece that turned everything around.
“Like Paul Christman before him, Tony Vanzant could make the highways seem shorter again to Columbia from St. Louis, Kansas City and other points on the state compass,” wrote Bob Broeg (MSHOF 1978), the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch. “A breakway back could do wonders at the gate.”
Unfortunately for Vanzant, he suffered a major knee injury in an exhibition game before his freshman season. That led to two knee surgeries, and he managed to play only the 1990 and 1991 seasons for Mizzou. He credits Fred Wappel for getting him back on the field.
Fortunately, Vanzant turned it into a positive. He has given back the game as a high school and college football assistant coach for the past 30 years.
He credits his parents, Pauline and Thurman, brothers Todd and Vernon, sisters Teaneka and Cnythia, cousin Nole Cooper and Henry Polk for their support.
And now he’s in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the highest honors an athlete can achieve,” Vanzant said. “I feel blessed that my name is still mentioned among so many other greats that have played here.”