LAWRENCE — Duane Zlatnik couldn’t escape it. Not even on a bye week. Not even with each rival program taking the weekend off.
It was last Friday, and Zlatnik, a KU senior, had taken a trip home to Rossville to watch the Bulldogs play at Rock Creek in St. George, a little community on the outskirts of Wamego.
This was enemy territory to be sure, Manhattan being just a dozen or so miles to the southwest. And Zlatnik is a 6-foot-4, 306-pound offensive lineman at Kansas — a former all-state athlete at Rossville High — so good luck blending into the crowd, kid.
“I heard a lot of people talking,” Zlatnik said. “‘We’ll see you Saturday.’”
Yes, these were Kansas State fans, some even friends. By last Friday, more than a week before Saturday’s annual Sunflower Showdown, the neighborly chirping had already begun. In a place like Rossville, which sits nearly equidistant between Manhattan and Lawrence. And in places like Dodge City and McPherson, towns where this rivalry means a little more.
“It’s always a big deal to win this game or lose this game,” Zlatnik said.
For most of the week, Kansas coach Charlie Weis wanted it known that he was putting an extra emphasis on the K-State game. Maybe in the past, he said, there was more breath wasted on the Missouri game — the rivalry that was defined by old border hatreds. But Mizzou is in the Southeastern Conference now. And Weis says the Jayhawks need to match the emotion that K-State has always put into these games.
But here’s the thing: For many in the Jayhawks’ locker room, this game has always been the rivalry. Senior offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, a captain, graduated from McPherson High, another school and town that often finds itself embroiled in the constant battles on the football field and basketball court. And senior receiver Kale Pick grew up in Dodge City, where the purple K-State flags outnumbered the blue ones and KU-K-State games often pitted neighbor against neighbor.
“It’s all what people talk about in the whole town,” Pick said. “During high school events, during school, it’s all KU-K-State. All the KU fans bickering back to K-State fans. Even in class, you got students, friends going at each other.”
For the last two years, the conversations have mostly focused on the decisive beatings that K-State handed KU in Lawrence. The three KU victories from earlier this decade — the ones that helped Zlatnik and Pick decide on their college destination — seem like ancient history.
K-State coach Bill Snyder returned to the fray in 2009, rebuilding his simple machine of a program, and it certainly appears that K-State is constructed to have the upper hand for at least the next few years.
“You just base it on the amount of Powercat license plates you see,” says KU defensive backs coach Clint Bowen, a Lawrence native who played for Kansas in the early 1990s and was once one of these Kansas kids.
It does seem, Bowen says, that there are more Powercats now than there were when Ron Prince was coaching at K-State. And that certainly doesn’t help as KU attempts to find its next generation of Picks, Zlatniks and Hawkinsons. There are only so many Kansas kids to go around, and having a base of in-state kids can add something extra to the program.
“I think there’s a little bit more of a state pride in those type of kids,” Bowen said. “You go back to our Orange Bowl year, guys like Kerry Meier, Brandon McAnderson, Jake Sharp, Adrian Mayes — a whole gauntlet of guys who grew up in Kansas.
“Those guys, they have a little chip on their shoulder about these kind of games.”
When the Jayhawks make the trip to Manhattan on Saturday, they will head down I-70 and pass a few miles south of Rossville. Some of Zlatnik’s old friends from back home will be in attendance. And he’ll play in the Sunflower Showdown for the last time. Maybe it will feel different. But mostly likely, Zlatnik says, it will feel just the same as it has for years.
“It’s always been a big rivalry game,” Zlatnik said, “But now there’s even more emphasis on it.”