Four gifts for Hawkeye fans to appreciate on this unusual Christmas day
Hard to think of better Hawkeye quartet that played at same time
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – With the global pandemic having dominated the headlines for most of the past year, and having changed how we watch and cover sports, it’s easy to forget, or overlook, the individual star power that is part of Iowa Hawkeye athletics right now.
So on this Christmas day, I take time to appreciate four special gifts.
From Luka Garza to Spencer Lee to Caitlin Clark to Daviyon Nixon, it’s hard to think of a better and more celebrated Hawkeye quartet that has competed at the same time.
Garza is the overwhelming favorite to win National Player of the Year in men’s basketball, while Lee is widely regarded as the top collegiate wrestler in the country regardless of weight.
Clark is one of the most heralded recruits to ever sign with the Iowa women’s basketball team, and the former West Des Moines Dowling Catholic star might even be better than advertised as a 6-foot guard.
Nixon has gone from being a solid contributor last season as a reserve defensive tackle to being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. The Kenosha, Wis., native is also a finalist for some national awards, including the Outland Trophy.
It’s unfortunate that Iowa fans don’t have the opportunity right now to watch these spectacular student-athletes perform in person.
But having them perform without fans still is better than nothing.
Lee will begin his quest for a third national title at 125 pounds when the wrestling season starts in January.
He and his team both will be heavy favorites to win it at all, as was the case last March before the NCAA Championships were canceled.
Garza, Lee, Clark and Nixon each has his or her own unique style of performance and ways of expressing themselves. Nixon weighs over 300 pounds, while Lee competes at a 125 pounds.
But what they all have in common is immense physical talent, and a willingness to work hard and sacrifice in order to maximize that talent.
Garza, a native of Washington D.C., has been described as a tireless worker, and it’s easy to see with how he plays. His motor never stops, and he never lets up.
And when your best player is also your hardest worker, that’s just so beneficial.
Lee also has an extraordinary work ethic in a sport that tests its participants in ways other sports don’t. The Pennsylvania native appears to have no weaknesses, either mental or physical.
He is technically sound, strong, physical and flexible, and is always prepared, along with being humble.
Lee isn’t big on self-promotion as he would rather let his performance speak for him.
So while the pandemic has changed the way we watch sports, it hasn’t changed the fact that Iowa athletics is heavy on individual star power right now.
If you can think of a better and more celebrated Hawkeye quartet that competed at the same time, please share because I sure couldn’t think of one.
The 6-11 Garza has a chance to leave Iowa as arguably the greatest player in program history. It’ll depend largely on what he helps Iowa accomplish from a team standpoint.
Iowa plays at Minnesota tonight in a rare Christmas day game.
Ronnie Lester is my pick for the best player in program history, and it’s based on both his individual and team success. Not only was Lester a terrific point guard, he also led Iowa to its last Big Ten regular-season title in 1979, and was a key player on Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team despite having missed part of the season with a knee injury.
Lee was on course to be Iowa’s first four-time individual national champion last March, and he still could have that opportunity.
But you can’t win four national titles without winning three, and that’s the challenge Lee will face this season.
As for Clark, she is a freshman in grade only.
She has picked up at Iowa where she left off at Dowling as the best player on the court.
Clark leads Iowa in scoring with a 27.0 per-game average, and with 42 assists in six games. She also averages 7.2 rebounds per game and has 14 steals.
In other words, she does everything.
And then finally there is Nixon, whose ascent to stardom as a fourth-year junior has taken more time than the other three.
In fact, Nixon entered the NCAA transfer portal in early 2019, but he ultimately chose to stay at Iowa, and it’s worked out well for him, and for Iowa.
Nixon has been a disruptive force throughout the season, his rare combination of power and quickness making him almost unstoppable at times.
He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss (33), tied for the conference lead in sacks (5.5), and has the most tackles by a Big Ten defensive lineman (41).
Nixon has also registered one interception, one PBU, and one forced fumble. Nixon returned his first career interception 71 yards for his first career touchdown in Iowa’s 41-21 win at Penn State.
Nixon has helped lead an Iowa defense that ranks second in the conference and 11th in the nation in total defense, third in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation in scoring defense (16.0), third in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rush defense (107.6), and fifth in the conference in passing defense (206.1).
His 71-yard pick-six against Penn State in which Nixon used a Euro step to elude a defender might be the most memorable play from this season. He caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and then showed the kind of speed and elusiveness that most defensive tackles don’t have.
Nixon has also consistently performed at a high level this season.
And that’s what really connects these four student-athletes, a level of performance and consistency that makes them special.