IOWA CITY, Iowa – The more I think about what happened at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night, the more I’m convinced that losing just wasn’t an option for the Iowa football team.
Of course, it helps that Iowa has a fifth-year senior kicker whose range might stretch to his hometown of Solon, a starting quarterback who has a gift for making big plays at pivotal times and a defense that has proven to be extremely difficult to run against in three games.
But there was more than just talent and execution that helped carry the Hawkeyes past Pittsburgh, 27-24.
More than anything else, there was the power of the human spirit, fueled by an incredible desire to make somebody happy, that somebody being former Hawkeye defensive back Brett Greenwood, who served as the honorary team captain for Saturday’s rare night game.
I remember thinking that Iowa couldn’t lose Saturday’s game after watching Greenwood do everything within his limited power to make it to midfield for the pre-game coin toss. His presence just wouldn’t allow for that.
I’m not saying we witnessed a miracle on Saturday, but we saw the closest thing to it when Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired. We saw what happens when a team rallies behind somebody who always has shown incredible courage and determination.
The look of determination on Greenwood’s face as he slowly, but surely took one step at a time to midfield, that’s what gave Iowa the edge on Saturday.
“Just to see him running out with us and busting his butt, I’ve always heard stories about his work ethic, but to see it first-hand and watch him walk out, it was really an honor,” said senior offensive lineman Jordan Walsh.
Not since the aftermath of Chris Street’s death in an automobile accident in January 1993 had I felt what I felt Saturday in terms of emotion.
The Iowa men’s basketball team honored Street, who was a rising star at power forward for the Hawkeyes, by winning at Michigan State and at a home against Michigan’s Fab Five in the first two games after his death.
The way in which Val Barnes caught fire from 3-point to spark the incredible comeback at Michigan State in 1993 was similar to how Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard led the game-winning drive on Saturday with three significant gains on running plays.
“We’re a tough team,” Beathard said. “We’ve got a great group of guys that never give up and they’re willing to fight.”
You could say the exact same thing about Greenwood, although, his battle to recover from an anoxic brain injury dwarf’s any football game.
Watching Greenwood take the field with help from Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle and former Hawkeye linebacker Pat Angerer sent chills down my back and tears down my face.
Adding to the emotion were the recent deaths of former Iowa all-Big Ten defensive back Tyler Sash, who started alongside Greenwood for three seasons from 2008-10, and former Hawkeye basketball star Roy Marble.
That’s why Pittsburgh deserves credit for nearly leaving with a victory because the Panthers were up against a powerful force on Saturday. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but still nearly prevailed against an opponent that was at home and on a mission.
Pittsburgh probably had the best player on the field Saturday in future NFL receiver Tyler Boyd, who torched the Hawkeyes with 10 catches for 131 yards and one touchdown.
But Iowa had the best reason to win because the thought of doing anything less under the extraordinary circumstances was unacceptable.
With that, though, came a great deal of pressure, which Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz addressed before Saturday’s game.
“Coach talked about letting it fuel us and not let it affect us in a negative way, not that it would,” said senior center Austin Blythe. “But we had to be focused and use that energy and use that emotion to go out and play the game that we wanted to play.
“And to do that for Brett, and to watch Brett do that, is pretty special.”
But like with any victory, the celebration can’t last forever.
Up next for 3-0 Iowa is a game against North Texas this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. It won’t match the Pittsburgh game in terms of emotion. But with former Hawkeye player and assistant coach Dan McCarney returning home to coach against his alma mater, the circumstances won’t be ordinary, either.
We can assume that McCarney will have his players on an emotional high just like he did while coaching for Iowa State. McCarney is a master motivator under any circumstance, but even more so when Iowa is the opponent.
The Iowa players can be proud of what they accomplished on Saturday and with how they honored a former teammate. They’ll always have memories from an incredible night under the stars.
Now they have to honor themselves by creating more memories.