By Pat Harty
SAN DIEGO – The press conference featuring Kirk Ferentz and USC coach Clay Helton had just ended on Thursday when I took a seat in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel.
The lobby was bustling with activity due mostly to Iowa fans, so I just wanted to sit back and observe Hawkeye nation at its very best.
Little did I know that the entire Iowa team was about walk through the lobby on the way to lunch, I presume, but some of the players, including quarterback Nate Stanley and defensive end A.J. Epenesa, were asked if they could sign an autograph or pose for a photo.
Most of those who asked were little kids, and it was so heartwarming to see them interact with the Iowa players.
The conversations were brief, but the impact from those conversations will last forever.
The look on each kid’s face after meeting his or her favorite Hawkeye is something I’ll cherish forever because these moments mean so much to the kids, and to their parents.
One little boy raced over to his mother after Epenesa had signed his shirt and said, “Mom, look, I got it. A.J. Epenesa signed my shirt.”
It is easy to forget, sometimes, what the Iowa players mean to their fans, especially the younger fans who idolize them and dream of being just like them some day.
This relationship is not unique to Iowa, but there are no professional sports teams in Iowa, and that only helps to strengthen the bond between the players and fans.
It also helps to have players like Stanley and Epenesa, both of whom truly appreciate their fans because it wasn’t that long ago when they were kids looking for autographs.
There is a responsibility with being an Iowa football player that stretches well beyond the playing field.
As good as Stanley and Epenesa have been on the field, they’ve been equally as good off the field when it comes to citizenship and embracing the fans.
If being 0-3 against Wisconsin is the worst thing you can say about Stanley, well, that’s pretty impressive.
The Wisconsin native has represented the Iowa program, and the university, with class and dignity, and that was on display in the hotel lobby.
There wasn’t a lot of time to make conversation because Iowa sticks to a tight and meticulous schedule during bowl-game preparation, but Stanley and Epenesa both took time to acknowledge their fans.
And to me, that’s one of the neatest things about covering a bowl game – seeing a little boy or girl get the thrill of their life by meeting a Hawkeye.
To see the look of joy on each kid’s face is priceless.
It won’t matter to the little kids if Iowa loses to USC in the Holiday Bowl on Friday.
Sure, they’ll be sad if Iowa loses, but they won’t be any less appreciative of their brief encounter with an Iowa player.
The autographs and photos still will have the same significance and meaning.
Iowa’s annual Kids Day event, which is held before the start of each season, continues to grow in popularity because it means so much to the fans, but also because it means so much to the Iowa players and coaches.
Kirk Ferentz and his wife, Mary, raised five children, so they understand the bond between a young child and an athlete.
The Iowa players are encouraged to set the right example, and to always remember that little kids look up to them and want to be just like them some day.
And if you’re a parent, you should be happy that your child wants to be like Nate Stanley or A.J. Epenesa because they are so much more than just talented football players.