For 60 members of the Kansas State football team, Saturday’s regular-season finale against the University of Kansas is a game they’ve had circled on their calendars for months.
(Three Kansas State players wrap up Kansas running back James Sims last season at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The Wildcats have won four straight in the Sunflower Showdown.)
Those 60 athletes, each hailing from somewhere within the borders of the state of Kansas, make up 45 percent of the Wildcats’ roster. While the whole team is focused on beating the Jayhawks because of potential bowl implications and the chance to end the regular season with a win, the game means just a little more for those that hail from Kansas.
“It’s huge,” receiver and Abilene native Curry Sexton said. “Not that it’s just KU, but where we are at in our season at 6-5 and coming off last week. We have to end the season strong, and obviously a rivalry game is huge.”
Never mind that KU happens to sport a 3-8 record and just one conference win this season. Beating the Jayhawks — even when they’re down — is par for the course with K-State under head coach Bill Snyder.
Snyder is 17-4 all-time against the Jayhawks, but considering he lost in three of his first four tries while turning around the program in the early 90s, his current run, winning 16 of the last 17 meetings, has left the rivalry particularly one-sided.
“It’s important to all the Kansas guys, and I’m sure it’s important to the guys on their team as well,” linebacker and Kechi native Jonathan Truman said. “It’s good for us to take a little pride in our state and go out to show out for our state.”
Truman said it’s important for the team to stay focused despite the extra incentive Saturday’s game will bring.
“Really, to us, it’s just another game,” he said. “We’re preparing well, just like any other game so we can play well on Saturday. We can’t get caught up in the emotion or the hype of the game, just because it’s Kansas versus Kansas State. We just have to keep our poise and do what we do.”
Sexton said the motivation for this game is built in.
“If you can’t get up for a rivalry game, you’ve got problems,” Sexton said. “Especially in a game like this, nobody should need to fire you up. You should have plenty of self-motivation coming into this game. I know the in-state guys, and even the guys from out of state, share the same feeling that we do. Everybody will be up for this game and we won’t need any added motivation.”
Snyder shared Sexton’s sentiment.
“You get to play 12 games, and if you’re fortunate enough, you get to play 13 games a year,” he said. “The players invest so much — 340 days a year — it is just hard for me to fathom that the players wouldn’t have great motivation every time that you have the opportunity to play, because you’ve invested so much in it and only have those limited opportunities to do it.
“I think that you’re in the wrong place if you’re not motivated every time you get to the field.”
For left guard Cody Whitehair, getting to play against former teammates and high school friends makes the Sunflower Showdown special.
“A lot of these Kansas guys will see their old teammates, or people that used to play in their conference, so that has to be motivating for them, too,” the Abilene native said. “When I played in the Kansas Shrine Bowl a couple years ago, I had teammates like Ben Heeney, Michael Reynolds, and I played against Riley Spencer, one of their offensive linemen, after he committed to Kansas. So those are motivations for me.”
While the game often has bragging rights attached to it, Whitehair said he has refrained from any good-natured ribbing with the people he knows on KU’s roster.
“We try and stay away from that,” he said. “We try to stay off social media, especially around this time.”
In the case of Andale native B.J. Finney, his allegiance has changed over the years, but the game is important for bragging rights.
“Actually, it’s kind of funny how it turned out,” he said. “I used to be a KU fan growing up, just because my best friend’s dad used to play for them. It was the late 90s, early 2000s when K-State was really good, and it was always me and him rooting for KU while everybody was rooting for K-State.
“But it’s funny, now that I play for (K-State), it’s like poetic justice, because he has to root for K-State because I play for us now.”
With the holiday season coming up, Finney wants to be able to relax when he gets the chance to be home.
“Being a Kansas kid myself, it’s bragging rights,” he said. “You don’t have to put up with the family friends who are going to talk smack and all that. It’s nice to be quiet and not have to deal with it. So it means a lot.”