IOWA CITY, Iowa – Four times a week, I drive to the KCJJ radio station, which is located in a corn field just east of Iowa City.
I take the necessary precautions during a global pandemic, and rarely are there more than three or four people in the station at the same time, so that makes it easier to follow the social distancing guidelines.
I spend anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours talking on the air with Captain Steve and Tom Suter, mostly about Hawkeye sports, but we have a tendency to drift with music often the cause of it, along with our short attention spans and our devoted callers.
We also have incredible guests who add so much to our show from a content, and from a credibility standpoint.
Just in the past month, we’ve had Ronnie Lester, Kirk Ferentz, Lisa Bluder, Don Patterson, A.J. Epenesa and his family, Luka Garza, former Iowa men’s basketball assistant coach Lanny Van Eman, former Major League pitcher and current baseball analyst Steve Stone and former NBA star Jack Sikma among our guests.
We used to enjoy having guests come to the station, and will welcome them back once the COVID-19 pandemic is contained.
But for now, safety comes first.
Sikma called last Friday from his home on the West Coast to surprise Luka Garza, who was being interviewed on the air at the time.
Garza’s father, Frank Garza, knew that Sikma planned to call in, but he didn’t tell Luka because we wanted it to be a surprise.
And we pulled it off.
Sikma has been a big influence on both Luka, and on Luka’s father, and having all three of them on the air at the same time was fun and rewarding for all of us.
It was also a nice diversion from the mental anguish caused by the pandemic, and that’s a big part of our motivation right now. That’s part of the reason why I drive to the station four times a week, to help create a diversion, for not only myself, but for our many listeners who are suffering right now.
Luka Garza referred to Sikma as Mister Sikma throughout the interview, which says a lot about both of them.
Frank Garza also had a chance to speak with Sikma on the air, and you could hear, and almost feel, the respect and admiration in Frank’s voice, and the appreciation from Sikma.
It was a cool moment.
This past Wednesday we had former Iowa football player Anthony Herron on the show, but under horrible circumstances.
Herron was trying to rally support for his former Iowa teammate, Mikkel Brown, whose house near Iowa City, and most of its belongings, were all but destroyed from a fire that occurred early this past Tuesday morning
Fortunately, Brown and his wife, Ricci, their two children and their two dogs made it out alive, but their two cats were killed in the fire.
Imagine having to deal with a global pandemic and then your house burns down.
I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but the thing about Mikkel Brown is that he doesn’t seem to have any enemies.
Herron considers him like a brother.
Herron grew up near Chicago, and lives there today, while Brown is originally from New Jersey, but his roots are now deeply planted in Iowa.
“Mikkel has always been one of those lynchpins, and he’s always that guy that you know when he walks into a room, he’s always going to have a huge smile, a big bear hug and a lot of stories to tell,” Herron said. “And anyone’s who’s been around him knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Brown’s close friend, Andy Landgrebe, started a GoFundMe page shortly after the fire, and it has raised over $35,000 as of Thursday afternoon, thanks partly to Herron’s support.
“Iowa fans have really stepped up, just seeing the Iowa community, fans or otherwise, the Iowa community, just step up in a huge way for Mikkel and his family, just in donating to the GoFund Me page that’s there,” Herron said. “Whether it’s been former teammates or whether it’s been folks who knew Mikkel or folks who didn’t know Mikkel, the outpouring of support, of prayers about what they’re going through has been really gratifying, while at the same time, not surprising because this is what Iowans do.”
Herron and Brown were both part of Iowa’s 1997 recruiting class, which also included Ladell Betts, Ben Sobieski and former Iowa City High star Kahlil Hill. Their class helped bridge the gap between Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz.
They didn’t win a lot of games while at Iowa, but they built friendships that will last forever and they helped lay the foundation under Ferentz.
“Bridging the gap from Fry to Ferentz is always that tie that binds us,” Herron said. “ Because of that love we have for Iowa football, and knowing that it didn’t go how we wanted, but it’s had, even with the way that our careers went from a win-loss standpoint, knowing that withstanding that, and coming through that, led to the successes that a lot of us have been able to have in life after that.
“Just coming through as teenagers, as guys in our early twenties, coming through what you can sort of view as the arduous task of trying to lead a program that’s as beloved as Iowa football out of the doldrums.”
Iowa finished with a losing record in three of Herron’s four seasons as a Hawkeye from 1997 to 2000, but Herron was a standout defensive lineman who would go on to play four seasons in the NFL before lunching what has turned into a successful career in television and radio.
The bond between college teammates is special for lots of reasons, including being away from home for the first time.
You cherish the high points, and cope and learn from the low points, and you do it together as teammates in a new place.
Herron and Brown had their share of low points from a team standpoint, but they used those moments to get stronger and to build resolve.
“When you share a locker room with your teammates, with your friends, and guys who at this point feel like brothers, that’s a bond that won’t be broken anyway,” Herron said. “But when there’s at least what feels like athletically, a level of adversity that you work through as a collective, then I certainly think that enhances the bond.”
Herron takes great satisfaction and pride in knowing that his 1997 recruiting class helped pave the way as fifth-year seniors to Ferentz’s first winning season in 2001.
Herron wasn’t part of that team since he had played as a true freshman in 1997, but he was there in spirit as Iowa capped a 7-5 season by defeating Texas Tech 19-16 in the 2001 Alamo Bowl.
That helped set the stage for a three-year stretch from 2002-04 in which Iowa finished with a combined record of 31-7 and won two Big Ten titles.
“The guys that I came in with, they were that group that led to Kirk’s first bowl trip, Kirk’s first bowl win after the 2001 season,” Herron said. “So they at least got that carrot as far as what they were able to do in building the program, not just being a building block, but having legitimate success from that 2001 season, and of course, dove-tailing into what we viewed as the younger guys who came along in that 2002 season.”
Herron respects and admires Brown for how he handled what could be described as an average career as a Hawkeye defensive back.
Brown never became a star player, but he also never became a distraction or made excuses or turned bitter. He moved on with his life after college and is currently working towards a Master’s degree in guidance counseling according to Herron.
“Some folks can get jilted if their college playing career doesn’t go as they expected because there’s these dreams that we have about these goals that we want to meet from all the work we put in on the field,’ Herron said. “I have so many friends and former teammates, and not just from Iowa, who do have negative feelings because they feel like whether it was a coach against them, or whatever the case may be, that they sort of point fingers and don’t keep that same positive attitude about the program that they went to and that they love.
“And that’s just not Mikkel’s way.”
Instead of being bitter or bolting from Iowa after college, Brown has made Iowa his home, and has even brought family members from New Jersey.
“He’s always had these dimples on his cheeks, this huge smile on his face and he’s just always been just such a positive guy, a big influence to be around,” Herron said. “His big personality and so easy to love, and that’s why so many folks who already knew Mikkel and loved him, and anyone else who’s never met Mikkel Brown, already have been donating to the GoFund Me.
“I could not thank them enough because the guy is like a brother to me.”
Herron knows that Brown and his family will persevere because they’re strong, proud and resilient, and because they have a lot of support from family and friends.
It was a privilege to speak with Herron on Wednesday because it was for a good and noble cause, and for such a good family in need.
You often hear the phrase, once a Hawk, always a Hawk, and it’s true.
Local radio has taken a beating, even before the pandemic, but now this important industry is in real trouble.
I sometimes remind myself of that while driving to the station.
KCJJ is allowed to keep operating because radio is considered an essential service, even during a pandemic.
It’s been essential for me, and hopefully, you feel the same way as our listeners.
Hopefully, we give you a reason to smile, even if it comes at our expense, which it often does.
I crossed paths with a lady while taking a walk the other day and she thanked me for our radio show and said she was a devoted listener.
That meant a lot to me, and made me feel proud.
I was also proud after the Herron interview because it felt like we had helped to make a difference by spreading awareness.
The interview reminded me about the power of the Hawkeye spirit, and that it lives on forever in people like Anthony Herron and Mikkel Brown.