IOWA CITY, Iowa – In over 20 years of covering University of Iowa athletics, I’ve rarely if ever told fans how to spend their hard-earned money.
I’m making this one exception on behalf of the 21 seniors on the Iowa football team.
Because they deserve a packed house for Saturday’s home finale against Purdue at Kinnick Stadium, not only for taking Iowa where no Iowa football team has gone before with a 10-0 record, but also for being resilient and for being quality citizens.
I skimmed up and down the list of 21 seniors and can’t recall ever hearing a negative rumor about any of them in a town where rumors spread like wildfire.
“We’ve got 21 outstanding young people in this class, and going back to January when they became our senior class, they’ve done a great job of serving as role models for each and every guy on our football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
It’s hard to imagine a team having Iowa’s level of success without having a special group of seniors leading the way, seniors like center Austin Blythe, offensive guard Jordan Walsh and running back Jordan Canzeri.
Ferentz and his staff, obviously, run the show and provide structure and guidance, but seniors hold the team together. They set the emotional tone on a daily basis. They lead by example and with their words.
The seniors on the current Iowa team faced a daunting task back in January when they assumed leadership in the wake of the TaxSlayer Bowl debacle.
The program wasn’t in shambles by any means, but apathy and frustration were on the rise. Some fans and members of the media were convinced that Ferentz’s better days were behind him and that he no longer was capable of leading another resurgence.
Ferentz deserves a huge amount of credit for Iowa’s sudden turnaround, but he couldn’t have done it without help from a highly motivated and well-disciplined senior class.
“They’re a special group of guys,” Ferentz said. “They’ve been a major part of us winning 25 games over the last three years. They’ve done a great job academically and citizenship-wise. So I don’t know what else we could ask for as coaches.”
I’ve interviewed Blythe countless times over the past three seasons, and with him, it’s always about the team. The more you try to get the Williamsburg native to talk about himself, the more Blythe talks about the team.
It can be frustrating at times when you hear the same answers over and over, but you also admire Blythe for being so humble and mature.
It’s the same with Canzeri, who besides being one heck of a running back, is a young man of high character. The Troy, N.Y., native has devoted much of his free time as a Hawkeye to helping those less fortunate than him, including spending countless hours visiting kids in the hospital.
Senior defensive back Jordan Lomax also has shined as a Hawkeye both on and off the field. The Maryland native will make his 24th career start on Saturday against Purdue, but Lomax’s impact goes way beyond his performance on the field. He carries a 3.49 grade-point average and has been a member of Iowa’s Leadership Group for the past three seasons.
Blythe, Canzeri and Lomax grew up hundreds of miles from each other, but still learned the same values and work ethic. Credit goes to their families for steering them in the right direction. But credit also goes to Blythe, Canzeri and Lomax for being responsible and for being driven to succeed.
The seniors have had to suffer and persevere while at Iowa. They were either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen in 2012 when Iowa only finished 4-8. Combine that with the meltdown at the end of last season and you have a journey filled with struggle and triumph.
“We’ve had a lot of tough losses throughout our prior years here, so all of that accumulates over time,” Canzeri said. “For us, it’s we don’t want to finish like we did last year. We don’t ever want to see a 4-8 season ever again. That’s all in the back of our heads that we don’t ever want that again. When we just keep that positive approach that we’re going to do these little things right every single day and it’s slowly going to grow into something great and positive.
“And the young guys have been great just backing us up and adapting to it right away. And then everyone being on the same page, this whole team, it’s really easy to have that positive mindset when everyone is on the same page.”
The players wouldn’t all be on the same page, though, without a strong senior class providing leadership.
I understand that Iowa football tickets aren’t cheap and that the weather is expected to be much worse on Saturday than the sun-baked Saturday that we enjoyed this past weekend. I also understand that Purdue isn’t a huge draw with its 2-8 record.
But we’re talking about a senior class that has helped to make Iowa relevant again in football.
We’re talking about a senior class in which some of the key players have had to overcome devastating injuries or had their college career cut short by injuries.
Defensive end Drew Ott was having an all-star season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Illinois in the sixth game on Oct. 10 at Kinnick Stadium.
Defensive lineman Darian Cooper hasn’t played since 2013 season because of knee injuries, while senior tight end Jake Duzey barely has played this season because of a knee injury.
All three players will be present for Senior Day on Saturday because all three are determined to finish what they started at Iowa regardless of the circumstances.
“That’s part of the journey that these guys go through,” Ferentz said of injuries. “But the bottom line is they’ve done a great job.”
It was announced before Ferentz’s press conference on Tuesday that approximately 62,200 tickets had been sold for the Purdue game. That would leave approximately 8,300 tickets still available.
Maybe the university could chip in and help the seniors by offering some of the tickets at a reduced price, anything to get fans in the seats.
The seniors deserve the proper farewell for all they’ve done as student-athletes. They’ve earned the privilege to play their final game at Kinnick Stadium before a sellout crowd.
Iowa fans also have earned a reputation for being devoted to their beloved teams and to the players who fill the rosters.
Now it’s time to prove it on Saturday by packing Kinnick Stadium.