IOWA CITY, Iowa – For Iowa defensive back Desmond King, just having the chance to consider leaving school early for the NFL puts him in select company.
Decisions like that rarely have happened with Iowa football players.
Most of the Iowa players need all four years of their eligibility in order to have any shot of making an NFL roster.
Iowa has built a strong NFL pipeline under head coach Kirk Ferentz. But for a majority of the players, life in the NFL never materializes. They use up their eligibility and move on to a different challenge as a former college football player.
King is an exception, made so by his spectacular junior season in which he won the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate defensive back.
King weighed his options and decided that another year in college was in his best interest.
There probably have been lots of Iowa players who privately considered leaving early for the NFL before choosing to stay in school. It’s only natural for somebody who is having success at a major college to consider the next challenge.
King’s situation is rare in that it went this far. He had enough credibility as an NFL prospect that his decision to return to Iowa became a news story that was confirmed by the Daily Iowan student newspaper on Monday.
Over the past 40 years, you probably could count on one hand the number of players who either left Iowa for the NFL with eligibility remaining or those who chose to stay at Iowa despite having NFL interest.
Tight end Jonathan Hayes still had one season of eligibility remaining when he declared for the 1985 NFL draft. Hayes was coming off a 1984 season in which he had earned second-team all-Big Ten and some all-America recognition.
It seemed apparent that he had the size and athleticism to play in the NFL. But Hayes also suffered from diabetes, so he felt a sense of urgency to pursue the NFL sooner than later.
It’s hard to argue with Hayes’ decision, considering he played 12 seasons in the NFL. He saw action in 184 games with 122 starts. He played in all 16 games in each of his final six seasons. He also played in three AFC Championship games; in 1993 with the Kansas City Chiefs and with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994 and 1995.
Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry wrote in his autobiography titled “Hayden Fry, A High Porch Picnin” that Hayes was the only player he coached who went pro with eligibility remaining.
“But he had a valid reason,” Fry said in his book. “He was concerned his diabetic condition would curtail his football career and he wanted to play in the NFL for a few years.”
Hayes’ decision to leave Iowa a year early was overshadowed by Chuck Long’s decision to return for his senior season.
Long became an instant Heisman Trophy candidate the moment he announced he would return for his senior season in 1985, and Iowa became the team to beat in the Big Ten, ahead of Michigan.
It’s also hard to argue with Long’s decision, considering he finished runner-up to Auburn running back Bo Jackson in the closest voting ever for the Heisman Trophy, and considering Iowa won the Big Ten title in 1985.
Long never became a star in the NFL, but who’s to say he would have if he had left for the NFL after the 1984 season?
Long is widely regarded as the greatest quarterback in the history of the Iowa program. He secured that legacy by returning for his senior season in 1985.
Former Iowa defensive lineman Jared DeVries considered skipping his senior season in 1998 to enter the NFL draft. He had started in each of the past three seasons and achieved star status after being redshirted as a true freshman in 1994.
DeVries chose to stay at Iowa for the same reason as King, saying he had unfinished business. His senior season didn’t end well for the team as Iowa finished 3-8 in Fry’s final season as head coach.
But from an individual standpoint, DeVries thrived, earning first-team all-Big Ten accolades for the second consecutive season. He also earned some all-America recognition, while improving his NFL stock.
DeVries was selected by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft and with the 70th pick overall. He then played 10 seasons in the NFL, appearing in 121 games with 32 starts.
Tight end Dallas Clark left for the NFL after the 2002 season despite having one more season of eligibility.
His decision made perfect sense, though, because Clark was coming off a junior season in which he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best collegiate tight end, and he was 23-years old.
He was ready both physically and emotionally for the next level and showed it by playing 11 seasons in the NFL. Clark also was named first-team all-Pro in 2009 and won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.
Former Iowa offensive lineman Robert Gallery also probably could have left for the NFL after his junior season in 2002. But he stayed at Iowa and flourished as a senior, winning the 2003 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate offensive lineman.
The Oakland Raiders selected Gallery with the second pick overall in the 2004 draft. He never achieved stardom in the NFL, but he played eight seasons, which is longer than most NFL careers last. He also started 103 of 104 games in the NFL.
Former Iowa running back Shonn Greene followed Clark’s example by also striking when the iron was hot. He skipped his senior season to enter the 2009 NFL draft.
Greene was a hot commodity after winning the 2008 Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top collegiate running back.
But he also was a 23-year old, fourth-year junior who played a position that has a very short life span in the NFL.
Greene was taken in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft by the New York Jets. He played for the Jets from 2009-12 and for the Tennessee Titans in 2013 and 2014. He is currently a free agent, but with six years of NFL experience under his belt.
Former Iowa defensive back Tyler Sash skipped his senior season to enter the 2011 NFL Draft. He only played for two seasons with the New York Giants, but that was long enough for Sash to win a Super Bowl ring.
Sadly, he died from what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose on Sept. 8, 2015 in his hometown of Oskaloosa. But Sash also made an NFL roster, which distinguishes him from most Iowa players.
Offensive lineman Brandon Scherff chose to return for his senior season in 2014 instead of leaving early for the NFL, and he seems to have made the right choice. Iowa struggled last season, but Scherff thrived from an individual standpoint. He won the 2014 Outland Trophy as a senior and was selected by the Washington Redskins in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.
As for King, he can take solace in knowing that similar decisions made by previous Iowa players mostly have worked out for the best.
Nobody was seriously injured in their final season at Iowa, while the ones who left early have had some level of success in the NFL.