By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kaevon Merriweather is always the same around the media.
Upbeat, friendly, and appreciative.
You can just tell that he cherishes being an Iowa football player and everything that goes with it, yes, even talking to the media.
It certainly helps that he plays a significant role at strong safety instead of being a backup who rarely plays.
But Merriweather’s appreciation for where he is right now in life goes beyond just depth charts and playing time.
That was obvious as Merriweather spoke with the media during Tuesday’s weekly press gathering.
The Belleville, Michigan native spoke from his heart, and with conviction and gratitude as he described the thrill of playing in his first game as a Hawkeye in 2018.
The kid who grew up near Detroit, and who was known more for his basketball prowess in high school than for what he had accomplished in football, was about to embark on a journey that might have seemed long at the time, but now here Merriweather is three years later, a junior and Iowa’s starting strong safety heading into Saturday’s border clash against Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Badgers are all that matters this week, but Merriweather took a few minutes upon request to reminisce about a special moment that he will savor forever.
“I really didn’t envision playing Big Ten football, so that entire day, I think I even got on the field that day, too, my very first game, that entire day was just surreal moment for me,” Merriweather said. “I think I shed tears, even coming out of the runnel I was like, ‘wow, this is an unreal experience right now.’
“I definitely appreciated where I was at that moment and during that day.”
Merriweather was correct in saying that did see action on that special day as he recorded one solo tackle in a 33-7 victory over Northern Illinois in the 2018 season opener.
Getting to play that day was sort of icing on the cake for having gotten to that point.
Merriweather was just happy and grateful to be an Iowa football player on scholarship, and to have the opportunities that come with it.
The bus ride down from the team’s hotel in Cedar Rapids to Kinnick Stadium still is fresh in Merriweather’s mind three years later.
“I definitely got emotional during that bus ride down,” he said.
He also thought about the person who had the biggest influence in helping him reach that point.
“I texted my mom and I was like, just thank you for everything you’ve ever done for me,” Merriweather said of his mother, LaTanya Dionne. “I can’t believe I’m here and really in this moment right now. I just want to thank you for all your sacrifices that you’ve done throughout my entire life.”
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Merriweather and his mother embraced as the Iowa players walked from the team bus to their locker room at Kinnick Stadium about two hours before kickoff.
That moment is also still firmly etched in Merriweather’s mind.
He even remembers his mother’s advice in that moment.
“I saw her during the Hawk Walk and I gave her a big hug and she gave me a kiss, and she just said, ‘keep doing your thing,” he said. “And I’m still here.
“I’m still getting chills just thinking about that.”
It’s easy to take the Iowa players for granted, or any college athlete for granted, because most of us only seem them on game day, or in the case of the media, twice a week.
It’s easy to overlook the amount of time, effort, sacrifice and commitment that goes into being a major college athlete.
The responsibility of playing football at the Big Ten level is hard enough. Combine it with academics and it becomes a daunting task.
But that is also part of the appeal; the daily grind and the challenge that comes with it.
Merriweather knew heading into the 2018 season opener that being a Hawkeye wouldn’t be easy, and that the journey would be filled with peaks and valleys.
And it has been.
Merriweather started the 2019 season opener against Miami (Ohio), but then suffered a foot injury in practice on the Friday before the second game against Rutgers , and that caused him miss to three games.
He then lost the starting position to Jack Koerner, and only appeared briefly in one more game that season.
Merriweather could’ve easily transferred after losing his starting position, as so many do in this age of the NCAA transfer portal.
But he has stayed the course, and stayed loyal to a coaching staff that believed in him when most others didn’t.
Merriweather also had to endure the racial unrest from the summer of 2020 when multiple former Iowa black players accused the program of racial disparities.
He was outspoken during that time, especially about wanting to kneel during the National Anthem, which he still does to this day.
The players, both black and white, say the culture has changed for the better, and maybe that’s one of the reasons Iowa has won 12 of its last 13 games dating back to last season.
Merriweather is one of the latest in a long line of unheralded recruits that have thrived under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.
The Iowa coaches, namely defensive coordinator Phil Parker, saw something in Merriweather that other coaches apparently didn’t see, and the rest is history that is being lived out each day.
Merriweather could’ve played college basketball as a high-flying guard who had a flair for dunking.
But he felt he had more upside in football, and it’s hard to argue with that decision.
Iowa has had 16 defensive backs get drafted under Kirk Ferentz, and it’s well within reason to think that the 6-foot, 211-pound Merriweather will have a chance to play at the next level.
He plays in one of the top defensive backfields in the Big Ten, and he plays with physicality and with passion.
Both of those traits will be needed on Saturday against the Badgers, whose running game is starting resemble a typical Wisconsin ground attack behind the one-two punch of Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi and true freshman Braelon Allen.
Mellusi and Allen can make defenders miss, but they also run with power, and with a purpose.
“They’re big backs that can actually move,” Merriweather said. “They can put a move on in space, but they’re also physical enough to run you over.”
And with the way Merriweather seems to love contact, he and Wisconsin’s top two running backs will almost certainly cross paths on Saturday.
Merriweather is making the most of an opportunity that doesn’t come for most people, being a Big Ten football player.
The Iowa coaches believed in him when most other coaches didn’t, and with that belief came an opportunity that Merriweather will never take for granted.
Merriweather’s mother also believed in him and inspired him to strive for greatness.
His ability to play football is now paying his way through college and opening doors that he probably never would’ve imagined.
And it started with an emotional bus ride on Sept. 1, 2018, a day that Merriweather will cherish forever.