LAWRENCE — They came to Kansas not knowing what to expect and, years later, had to live under the weight of expectations.
Sure, the foundation may have been laid with some rough-and-tumble Mark Mangino recruiting, but this year's class of seniors added the style to build something memorable with skilled players like quarterback Todd Reesing, safety Darrell Stuckey, wide receiver Kerry Meier and running back Jake Sharp. But now, with three games left in their careers and their last home game coming up Saturday against Nebraska, it's less clear what has actually been built at the bottom of that big green hill in Lawrence.
Will it be lasting? The KU seniors still think so, despite a brutal four-game losing streak that has taken the steam out of a season billed to be historic. The Jayhawks are 5-4, there are three games left, two that appear winnable, and if nothing else, the leaders of this team will leave Lawrence having experienced it all.
"We had so much success here," Stuckey said. "We literally broke almost every KU record in the era of our senior class. But we can't sit here and think that this is a fairy tale and this is a fantasy. If it was, we would have won all four of those last four games, and we'd be headed for 30 wins in three seasons. Instead, we're on the other end."
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Entering this season, it was easy to imagine this senior class riding off into the sunset. This group always had the gripping storylines: Reesing, the intrepid gunslinger from Texas who packed his bags and saddled up in Northeast Kansas; Stuckey, the kid from just up the road in Kansas City, Kan., who grew up without a father but used sports to make his way; Meier, who was heroic in his selflessness and crafted a new trade for himself out of thin air; and Sharp, the stubborn hard-charger from Salina who wouldn't take no for an answer.
Sharp is the poster boy for this humbling senior season. He was injured in practice after two great games and hasn't been the same since.
"It is what it is," Sharp said. "I don't think anything in life is really as you plan it to be. This is not a fairytale world."
These Jayhawks are not jaded, but they have been forced to see the world differently. They never could have foreseen a four-game losing streak, even though they had seen one in 2006, the last time KU didn't make a bowl game. They thought they were past that type of struggle, that their hard work would always pay off. After the K-State loss last weekend, the Jayhawks finally allowed their disappointment to show.
"It really hit us last week," KU fifth-year senior Angus Quigley said. "Going down to our instate rival that's right up the road, that really hurt. We pride ourselves on at least beating our rivals.
"It's tough. We've cried. It's real tough when you come into the season with goals. You have worked your butt off all offseason. These past weeks that we've lost, we've had some of the best practices since I've been here. They're spirited. We just haven't figured out why it's not transitioning over to the (games)."
Mangino said that, from the moment KU's seniors stepped on campus, he has tried to prepare them for the highs of winning and the lows of losing and build a quality he calls "emotional strength." He has brought in speakers ranging from psychologists to members of the FBI to workers from a woman's shelter to drug-and-alcohol counselors. The overall message? Life can throw a pretty mean curveball, so be ready.
"You can prepare for it," Quigley said, "but it still hurts when it comes."
KU is wounded and not afraid to admit it. Maybe that's the first step to rising once again.
"One thing this team knows how to do is persevere," Stuckey said. "And that's not because we're used to failing. There was a time when we weren't expected to do anything. Now everyone is like 'You should have won that game.' Sometimes, those are the same people that (once) said 'You're not going to win it anyway.' "