By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Leave it to a 19-year old kid to put the current plight of the Iowa football team in its proper perspective.
Freshman receiver Keagan Johnson, in addition to being a promising young prospect for the Hawkeyes, also seems to understand the big picture and the value of being part of something that is much bigger than him.
Johnson was among a select group of Iowa players that met with the media on Tuesday, and it wasn’t easy talking about the current state of affairs with Hawkeye football.
Iowa has gone from being ranked second nationally to losing back-to-back games against Purdue and Wisconsin by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively.
It marks the first time since Kirk Ferentz became head coach in 1999 that Iowa has scored seven or fewer points in back-to-back games.
Fans, obviously, are frustrated and some have taken out their anger and frustration by voicing their displeasure on social media.
The players try to block out the outside noise, but as Johnson said Tuesday, the players and coaches are human and have feelings.
As bad as the fans feel right now, imagine how the players feel?
They’ve invested a lot more than the fans and the media have into this season, and it hurts to struggle and to fall short of achieving goals.
“As a human, it’s easy to get frustrated, but you’ve just got to remember that just giving your all for your brothers is the main thing that I try to think about,” Johnson said. “I want to give it all to these guys. When I’m getting the ball, I want to do something to help the team out.
“I know that, sometimes, you hear the outside noise. It can’t always be blocked out because we live these lives and we hear it and we get that people are frustrated and we’re frustrated, too. We feel the same way, and we don’t want to go out and execute the way we did in the past two weeks. But I know that we have the players on this team that can flip that around. We don’t want this to be the destiny for this team.”
It was easy for the players to interact with the media during Iowa’s 12-game winning streak, and when fans were showering them with praise.
The hard part is facing the media during tough times like now when the players and coaches are being scrutinized and criticized by their own fans.
But Johnson didn’t flinch on Tuesday.
He answered every question with class and dignity, and he expressed confidence that Iowa, which plays at Northwestern on Saturday, will get through this difficult stretch because of the amount of character, unity and mental toughness on the team.
“You can really figure out a man’s character with how he responds to adversity,” Johnson said. “It’s really easy to be energetic and positive when things are going good. But when things are going bad, it’s not as easy.
“So, just making sure that we don’t forget what got us this far.”
That’s a mature outlook for somebody who was in high school at this time last year.
Johnson made no excuses, nor did he point fingers at anybody, or blame the fans for being fair-weather fans.
Instead, he talked proudly about being part of a team that he believes is special in so many ways because of the people who represent the team.
It’s not unusual for some fans to overreact and panic during tough times.
But the players can’t risk doing that because that would only make a bad situation worse.
The players have to stay the course, stay focused on the task at hand and block out the outside noise, although, that’s easier said than done.
“I think it’s still difficult, it’s never easy,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said of blocking out the outside noise. “I think good teams, successful, teams come together and losing teams will grow apart through adversity.
“I think teams that grow apart might really struggle and listen to the noise and things like that. But we’re fighting to come together and to keep working hard and the results will show. But I feel good about the leadership on this team and just pushing through and working hard and working through this adversity.”
There is a good chance that Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) will be favored in each of its final four regular-season games against Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.
Minnesota is the only one of those four teams that currently has a winning record, and Iowa gets to face the Gophers at Kinnick Stadium.
The fans who have given up on this Iowa team certainly have a right to do so.
But there is something to be said for staying loyal and for continuing to support a group of players that have conducted themselves with class and brought a lot of happiness for fans.
It’s easy being loyal when your team is winning. But the real test in loyalty comes during times of struggle and uncertainty.
Keagan Johnson is in the process of growing from a teenager to a young man, and based on how he handled himself on Tuesday, that process is moving along smoothly.
The Iowa players want nothing more than to make their fans happy and proud.
But sometimes there are struggles along the way that test a person’s character, resolve and patience.
The Iowa players are being tested right now, and while their words only go so far, Johnson sent a powerful message that makes you think that Iowa has what it takes to fight through this adversity.
It just comes down to believing in them because they obviously believe in each other.