Every time Robert Steeples stood before his communications class this summer, his peers could not stop laughing.
The junior cornerback on the Missouri football team “wasn’t crazy” about speaking in front of his class, but he figured he might as well have fun with it. In other classes, he had to keep his wise cracks to himself. This was his chance to speak his mind.
“I would use a little bit of humor to loosen the class up,” he said. “Some of presentations were slightly inappropriate.”
Soon, his classmates were encouraging him to take the funny man act a step further. One classmate, Ted Paletta, works at The Bridge, a concert venue downtown that also features stand-up comedians. He persuaded Steeples to perform during an open-mic session.
At first, Steeples resisted. Sure, he had grown up in a family that “likes to laugh” and watched Richard Pryor and other stand-up comedians on TV. Steeples didn’t consider himself that funny, though. People just laughed at his stories for some reason.
But when he told his roommate, Gahn McGaffie, about the offer, McGaffie urged him to take the opportunity. Teammates Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson soon encouraged Steeples, too. Eventually, he gave in.
“Jerrell was really amped for it, so I finally decided to go up there,” Steeples said. “How many people can say they did stand-up?”
The night of his performance, Steeples estimates 20 to 30 teammates came to watch, as well as friends from the womens soccer team and the gymnastics team. He appreciated the support, but he was apprehensive. Standing up there in front of a hundred people was much different than playing football in front of 70,000.
Two people helped him overcome his nerves before he took the mic. One was the guy who performed before him. He sucked. Steeples couldn’t possibly do worse.
The other was teammate Matt White. Steeples had told him he didn’t want to be like the delusional candidates on American Idol — the ones who have never been told they are terrible until Simon Cowell chimes in. White reassured him.
“He told me, ‘People who can actually sing know they could before they went up on stage. You’ve been making people laugh your whole life, and you can do it up on stage,’ ” Steeples said.
Steeples did two 15-minute sets between 9:30 and 10:15. He mostly told stories about his DeSmet (St. Louis) High School days, and he saw that other people besides his teammates and friends were laughing.
Trying to stay on good terms with his mother, Steeples declined to repeat any of the routine.
“I could, but I don’t think my mom would be too proud of me,” he said. “I’m a big momma’s boy, so some of the things I say, I wouldn’t want them to blow up.”
Steeples isn’t sure yet whether or not he will try stand-up again. If he does, it won’t be until after football season.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate to be writing down jokes when I should be writing down plays,” he said.
Diversity initiative: The stand-up experience wasn’t the only thing Steeples took away from his communications class, taught by Ryan Montague. An end-of-semester project he worked on with classmates Paletta and Charlie Parker has turned into a campus-wide movement called Project United.
Steeples said the goal of Project United is to increase the frequency of opportunities to promote diversity. They want to get Missouri students talking about diversity so there is more of an understanding about what the word means.
“We had to do a presentation on something you’d like to reform at Mizzou,” Steeples said. “(Montague) told us we had to make Project United a real thing, and it took off from there. It was one of my favorite classes… it was the most productive class I’ve ever had.”