In the blazing July heat of Lock and Dam 1, former Missouri State University Football Bears Neil Strader and Jonah White embarked on an extraordinary adventure.
The idea of traversing the length of the Mississippi River took shape when White approached Strader with a unique proposition. The inspiration was rooted in the works of Mark Twain and the tales of river adventures they grew up with.
Raised just a stone’s throw away from Hannibal, Missouri, Strader remembers visiting the famed author’s birthplace each year with his classmates in elementary and middle school.
The dream of a grand adventure akin to the tales of Twain’s characters had always lingered in their minds and White was determined to make it happen.
“I never gave it a thought beyond just how cool it would be until Jonah came along in 2019 and brought it up,” adds Strader.
He proposed a trip from Michael, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana.
“I know- it’s crazy,” suggested White.
Laughing, Strader teased, “Why would you just go halfway?”
Like that, White’s competitive spirit was ignited.
High school rivals become lifelong friends
For several seasons in the early 1990s, Strader was a nose guard for the Football Bears. An underdog, Strader was aware of his small size but made up for it by proving his value on the field. “I really felt that’s where I belonged, and it was a sport I loved,” says Strader.
He graduated from Missouri State in 1995 with a degree in physical education and a health sciences certificate. While he didn’t pursue a football career, his dedication to leading an active and healthy lifestyle continued to shape his life.
Strader and his wife Ann, also a ’95 Missouri State alum, have worked in education for nearly 30 years. Just last year, he was awarded Assistant Tennis Coach of the Year and his wife was named Head Tennis Coach of the Year in the state of Minnesota.
“We try our best and work really hard. Some of those life skills and habits came directly from a lot of the faculty and staff (at MSU) that we were fortunate enough to be around,” reminisces Strader.
Strader’s teammate, Jonah White, made a name for himself on the football field helping the Bears win all four seasons of his active campaigns from 1988 to 1992 and earning accolades such as Coors Player of the Year in his senior year.
Shortly after graduating with a degree in biology in 1992, White went on to become the successful owner of Billy Bob Products. Originally a novelty and oral care product producer, White has since expanded into rodent and insect control.
With a start-up capital of just $400, the company has boasted over $50 million in item sales White has either invented or designed. He has appeared in broadcasts and publications such as Good Morning America, MTV, USA Today and more.
Both from small towns in Illinois, Strader met White unknowingly during a high school weightlifting competition when the former Football Bear beat White by just five pounds.
White never forgot.
After football practice one day while attending Missouri State, the two passed familiar glances at one another.
“I wondered why this guy was looking at me, so I said hi,” recalls Strader.
“‘Did you know that cocky kid who had long hair and braces, and used to lift a lot of weights?'” asked White. To which Strader responded, “Yeah, that sounds like me.”
The two became fast friends and remained so well after graduation.
Despite their different paths, Strader and White share an unparalleled work ethic and their friendship has extended far beyond the end zones of their college days.
“We always had a chip on our shoulders and wanted to try to outwork people and show that we belonged there,” says Strader.
They also knew how to have fun.
They recall stories on the origin of White’s company- using fake, acrylic teeth invented by another teammate as a conversation starter to meet girls. They share many memories of being roommates as well.
Beyond college, White served as the best man for Strader’s wedding and Strader sold Billy Bob Products in Minnesota for a time. They never lost touch.
Pigskins and paddles: the dream resurfaces
Though both were eager, the pandemic and Strader’s career in education kept the adventure a dream for several more years until this summer.
The two decided against traveling by canoe, which would have taken two or three months, and instead opted for a 22-foot motorboat.
The journey officially commenced on July 8 in record-setting heat. They spent their first night on Black Hawk Island, Iowa.
For two weeks, they headed south in the humidity of the mighty Mississippi passing through landmark towns. They spent their time exploring the wreckage of lost barges and recalling tales of early river pioneers. Strader brought along his harmonica and the two shared stories together to pass the time.
“Everything has got a story,” says White.
They expected to travel together until reaching New Orleans. Upon which, Strader would be picked up by his wife and White would continue into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I wanted to make it to the Gulf of Mexico and catch a saltwater fish,” says White.
When they made it to New Orleans five days earlier than expected, they decided to finish the entirety of the route together.
With just over 70 miles left in the trip, their boat was floating alongside enormous ocean liners and cargo ships. “That War Eagle didn’t belong in the same water as those enormous moving cities,” adds Strader.
They stopped for lunch in Venice, Louisiana, and worked up the nerves to tackle the remaining route. Their plan: find an island to sleep on overnight, as they had been doing throughout the trip.
When the Mississippi River starts dissolving into the delta, it transitions from a flowing river to a field of water that could be as shallow as two feet deep.
“We knew we were dragging mud really bad while trying to get out to the Gulf, but we were determined,” says Strader.
Assured he was in good company for such a turbulent situation, Strader quipped about his boatmate, “I’m with number 48… He was a fullback, and he would just run people over, and that’s his mentality. He’s just going to put his head down and keep plowing forward.”
After dragging mud for five miles, they finally reached the Gulf. Toasts were made, hugs were exchanged and pictures were taken in celebration.
In their jubilation, their engine overheated from the shallow water, and they began drifting in the strong currents of the ocean. “Our phones were out of range. We had no idea (where we were),” says Strader.
The allure of the adventure was met with the reality of unpredictable conditions including mud flats inhabited by alligators.
The flashing red light on the engine did nothing to calm their nerves. After an evening of discussion on whether they would stay the night on the water, White started the engine once more and managed to get them back to mile marker 10 in Venice.
Happy to have made it back to safety without the Coast Guard getting involved, the two found a “floatel” to stay in.
“We stayed there for two days. We just did a few fishing trips and knew we were safe in the channels,” says Strader.
From riverbeds to real beds
As the two Bears found themselves back on solid ground, they went home with a boatload of stories to share.
“Operation Tom Sawyer,” a whimsical nod to Mark Twain’s literary journeys, was a success. From small-town, small beginnings to the vast expanse of the Mississippi River, the parallels between their journey and the tales of Huck Finn are evident.
“Not too many people can say they’ve gone the entire length of the Mississippi River,” adds Strader.
The voyage is a reminder that life’s adventures are not confined to the pages of a book but are waiting to be written.