Protect & advance

Former Tiger offensive lineman Kurtis Gregory is blocking financial barriers for his constituents — and student athletes — at the Missouri State Capitol.

Kurtis Gregory standing in field
Photo by Abbie Lankitus

Published on Show Me Mizzou April 30, 2024
Story by Tony Rehagen, BA, BJ ’01

Kurtis Gregory cuts an imposing figure. Wearing a black suit and a sharp black-and-gold tie, his 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound frame is currently crammed into an office chair in House Hearing Room 1 in the basement of the Missouri State Capitol. When he leans forward over a small table in front of the gallery, he gives the impression of a father sitting at his fourth-grader’s desk at a parent-teacher meeting. 

Gregory’s commanding presence isn’t projected solely through his size; it’s also in his face, his intense blue-gray eyes wreathed in a graying red beard with a mouth always slightly upturned in a faint, knowing smile. It’s the stoic countenance of a football offensive lineman, which Gregory was at Mizzou from 2006 to 2009. 

But seated here alone today, shoulders squared to face nine of his fellow state representatives, Gregory is on the defensive, a position he finds himself in often in his current role as a legislator. He’s presenting a rural economic development bill that he is sponsoring to the Joint Committee on Rural Community Development. 

Dubbed the “Missouri Rural Access to Capital Act,” the bill would essentially incentivize lenders to offer loans to small rural business owners, such as those he represents in Saline and Lafayette Counties, who are otherwise unable to find funding through their banks. 

Gregory owns a small family farm. In just two years as a State Representative, he has already made a name for himself by advocating for things he knows, whether it’s farmers or student athletes. He made national headlines last year by spearheading House Bill 417, a 2023 update to the state’s bipartisan name, image, and likeness (NIL) law that made conservative Missouri one of the most progressive states in the union when it comes to compensating amateur student athletes. Gregory’s early success, particularly in NIL, is fueling a run for state Senate in the Republican primary this August.

Kurtis Gregory on Missouri House floor
State Representative Kurtis Gregory made national headlines last year by spearheading House Bill 417, an update to Missouri's bipartisan name, image and likeness (NIL) law. Photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House of Representatives.

His arguments about NIL were compelling then and remain so today, especially what he calls “the hypocrisy” of the old way of doing things. Launching into an impassioned, if oft-repeated rant, he notes, “If I had gone to the University of Missouri to play piano, I could still do concerts and get paid, or record and get paid. But Willie Mo [former Mizzou safety William Moore], who was a pretty good rapper, couldn’t put out a song out on Spotify and get paid for it, even though it had nothing to do with his athletic ability.”

In football, an offensive lineman has two jobs. On pass plays, they protect their team’s quarterback from oncoming defenders. On running plays, they punch holes and clear lanes in the defensive line to allow running backs to advance the ball on foot. That’s basically it: They protect their own and blaze a path forward.

Through his work on NIL, that’s what Gregory believes he’s done for student athletes all over the state — and possibly throughout the country.

NIL aside, Gregory’s roots in the rural Midwest ground his passion on issues that affect small-town Missouri. That’s why he’s bringing the Missouri Rural Access to Capital Act back to the legislature after a similar measure failed to pass last year. 

His proud country upbringing also probably explains why, in the hearing, Gregory is crushing the green cap of his water bottle into the shape of a football with his massive thumb and forefinger while respectfully responding to comments from Kansas City and St. Louis legislators. They’re arguing against their constituents’ tax dollars funding less populous parts of the state and wondering what an electric cooperative is.

The subtle but apparent frustration is more than partisanship or resentment stemming from the growing rural-urban divide in America. Gregory also holds a sincere conviction that he knows what he’s talking about, and that what he is doing is right. 

“When it comes to rural Missourians, especially anything ag-related, he has a passion for it,” says Tim Barnes, Gregory’s friend and former Tiger teammate. “He knows what it was like 20 years ago when his parents and grandparents farmed. He’s going to do the work. And when he has his facts and lays them out, that’s what he’s going to say and that’s what it’s going to be. It’s coming from a genuine place. He has confidence in what he knows.”

Gregory didn’t play a single snap of football until he was a freshman in high school. He grew up on his family’s soybean and corn farm just outside of Blackburn, Mo., population 230. He learned to drive a tractor in third grade and was cutting crops by himself before he was in junior high. 

In 2001, he was an incoming freshman in a driver’s education class in summer school at Santa Fe High School in Alma, Mo., when Mizzou assistant football coach Andy Hill spotted him as he passed the classroom. Gregory, already 6-foot-4 and some 280 pounds, was stuffed behind a tiny school desk. The coach invited Gregory to a one-day Mizzou camp at St. Pius X High School in Kansas City. “When Coach [Bruce] Walker told all the offensive linemen to get in the three-point stance, I was like ‘I don’t know … what to do,’” Gregory says. “I just tried to do what I saw on TV.”

Eventually, he knew what to do. He got good enough to warrant a scholarship offer from Kansas, interest from the likes of Kansas State, Oklahoma, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, and a phone call from defending national champion Louisiana State on behalf of then-coach Nick Saban. But there was only one place he wanted to play — close to home, to his farm and his family, for the coaches who had first seen something in him. He protected Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert and blocked for Tony Temple and Derrick Washington during an unprecedented run of success for Coach Gary Pinkel’s Tigers, which included the team’s first No. 1 national ranking since 1960. 

football players with trophy
Gregory and 2009 teammate Sean Weatherspoon admire the Telephone Trophy, which is awarded to the winner of the Mizzou and Iowa State game. Photo by John Schreiber/Missourian.

Despite the success on the gridiron, his heart was always planted in a different type of field. He majored in agriculture. “When I was in the Ag School, I’d show up to class the first day and the other Ag kids would see me in my gear and say, ‘Oh, you’re just a football player taking an Ag class,’” he says. “No. I’m a farmer who grew up wanting to be a farmer. It’s all I ever wanted to be.”

Gregory sometimes brought his teammates, including tight end and San Diego native John Gissinger and quarterback Daniel, home to the farm, where they went to cattle auctions, shot .22s, and even learned the workings of a hay rake and baler. One summer, he, Barnes and Elvis Fisher were working on a nearby farm, where the owner wanted them to work up the field a certain way. “After the owner left, Kurtis told me, ‘Nope. That’s the wrong way, here’s how we’re going to do it,’” says Barnes. “Then we had to hear about it from the owner.”

In those days, players had to be careful about the work they did, particularly if and how they were paid for it. The NCAA had strict rules about amateur athletes not accepting compensation for certain things. While any other student was free to make a living, student athletes couldn’t accept a free cheeseburger from a donor. 

Meanwhile, the schools and athletic conferences were making millions of dollars on TV rights and merch sales. “We’re selling No. 10 jerseys in the Tiger Team Store for $100 a pop, and everyone and their brother knows that’s a Chase Daniel jersey,” Gregory says. “Why shouldn’t he be allowed to get a royalty off it just because it doesn’t say ‘Daniel’ on it? If he wasn’t doing well, that jersey wouldn’t be selling.”

Gregory graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture management in 2008 and got his master’s in Dec. 2009. After a brief stint with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the toll the game had taken on his body, including six surgeries, led him to hang up the helmet. His first job was driving a grain cart on a nearby farm, which led to work selling seed. 

He was recruited by the Missouri Corn Growers Association for their inaugural CornRoots Leadership Academy and eventually earned a spot on their board. That’s when Gregory got his first itch for politics. “That role taught me how to tell my story, the story of Missouri farmers,” he says. “It taught me that if you’re not telling your story, then the politicos in Jefferson City would make up their own minds.”

The Corn Growers gig eventually called for Gregory to travel the country, something he wasn’t keen on doing. He returned to Blackburn to help his folks run the farm. But he missed being involved and was concerned to see full-time farmers, still a significant contributor to the statewide economy, so underrepresented in Jefferson City. In 2020, he ran for and won the vacant seat in District 51.

Gregory expected to be fighting for issues traditionally important to his rural constituents, like lower taxes and limited government regulations,  when he decided to run in 2019. He had no idea that he’d be leading legislation on vaccine mandates, transgender participation in high-school athletics, and compensation for college student athletes. But after settling into office, he saw an opportunity to build on Missouri’s 2021 NIL bill.

“There’s so much money flowing into college athletics with these TV contracts, I just don’t see an issue with players trying to capitalize,” Gregory says. “If I could have made $250,000 while I was playing, would I have even tried in the NFL when I knew my body was messed up? I might not have. This gives players the ability, while they are a known commodity somewhere, to make some money to put away or set them up for the rest of their life.”

Kurtis Gregory standing near American flag
Photo by Abbie Lankitus

In 2019, California became the first state to pass a law enabling student athletes to monetize NIL in everything from jersey sales to local TV ads for car dealerships. Several more states quickly followed suit, with some restricting endorsements from businesses in alcohol or sports gambling. But the message was clear: While schools still could not be seen to be paying players to play, states were going to have to empower students to be compensated for commercial use of their name, image or likeness if they had any hopes of competing for top recruits.

Missouri’s initial 2021 law was fairly boilerplate. It allowed student athletes to enter endorsement deals with businesses and market themselves to companies and even directly to would-be consumers. But in 2023, Gregory co-authored provisions that, among other things, allowed high-school athletes to take endorsement money before they arrive on campus — as long as they signed with an in-state college. It also empowered college coaches and school officials to connect these recruits with NIL opportunities and even help them negotiate. 

Critics say the measure puts Missouri on the brink of schools directly paying players to come; proponents counter that it is essential to help the state compete in the interstate arms race for recruiting that NIL has become. 

For his part, Gregory doesn’t see this as a partisan issue. In fact, he says he has trouble convincing some in his own party, let alone those across the aisle, about the statewide benefits of NIL. To him, it’s part of a larger duty to safeguard not just his fellow student athletes, but also the other students and the institution itself. 

In other words, Gregory sees his task as that of protecting and advancing the interests of his alma mater — and student athletes in colleges all over the state.

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