By Pat Harty
ORLANDO, Florida – At approximately 9 a.m. on Thursday, two buses carrying players from the Iowa and Kentucky football teams pulled into the parking lot at the Fun Spot America Theme Park.
Waiting eagerly to greet them on this overcast day was a large group of kids from the local community.
Players from both teams were matched with kids as part of a Day for Kids event sponsored by the Citrus Bowl.
They would spend the next two hours getting acquainted and just having fun as kids so easily do at an amusement park that’s filled with rides ranging from a roller coaster to go-karts.
Some kids were shy at first, while others had no problem meeting these giant football players for the first time.
One of the highlights was watching 6-foot-5, 287-pound Iowa defensive tackle Yahya Black ride on a SkyCoaster with some kids. A SkyCoaster is a mix between sky diving and hang gliding and the one at this particular park reached a height of 250 feet.
But what stood out more than anything was the fun had by all.
Players from both teams rode on rides together and also just hung out and got to know each other.
It was in contrast to what’ll happen on Saturday when Iowa and Kentucky square off in the Citrus Bowl in what will be the first meeting between the two programs.
Thursday’s event was a feel-good reminder that bowl games are a lot more than just what happens on the playing field during the heat of competition.
The main objective for both teams is to win on Saturday, of course, but there is also another side to a bowl trip, a side that allows players from both teams to get away from football for a while and to relax and have some fun, even during a global pandemic.
“You have to have time to wind down,” said Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather. “You really don’t want to focus on the game too much. But just having moments like these where you can just wind down and kind of relax and not have to think about the game.”
Merriweather’s favorite part about Thursday’s event was interacting with the kids and being positive role model.
“I think the best thing about today is just giving back to the community and just being an inspiration for the kids,” Merriweather said. “I know when I was younger and I got the chance and the opportunity to meet college athletes, or meet somebody that’s doing what I aspired to do, it kind of gives me inspiration and motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.
“If I can do that and be an inspiration for the next generation of athletes and doctors and lawyers, I love to do my part to be that leader.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said before traveling to Orlando that he wanted the trip to be about more than just the game.
A though the pandemic still is a threat, Ferentz has encouraged his players to have fun, while also being careful and aware of the surroundings.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed. But it’s a tough one, because what do you allow guys to do, and what don’t you allow them to do?” Ferentz said at a December 23rd press conference. “I can’t see us going down there and sitting in our hotel rooms all the time.
“I think we’d have to ask our guys to continue to be vigilant and try to use good hygiene and be smart, stay out of crowds, all those types of things. I don’t know if I have the answers there.”
It was hard to tell who enjoyed themselves more on Thursday between the players and the kids.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Iowa linebacker Seth Benson. “We’ve got three Kentucky players, us three (from Iowa) and a kid named John and he’s been super fun. He wants to go on the roller coaster and everything.
“It’s just fun being able to be a role model for him and hang out with him and make his day.”
College football players in many ways are role models and Thursday’s event allowed players from both teams to make a positive impact. It also allowed them to sort of be kids again, and to get to know their opponent in a relaxed setting.
“The Kentucky guys are great,” Benson said. “They’re running around with us and having fun, too.”
And while there could be some trash talking on Saturday, that was not the case on Thursday as players from both teams did all they could to make it a fun atmosphere on behalf of the kids.
“No, no, they’re cool,” Benson said of the Kentucky players. “We’re just trying to have a fun day.”
Benson was asked how difficult it is to balance preparing for the game while also having fun.
“We just talk about controlling your week and having a mental plan and a physical plan just so you’re not on your feet too much,” Benson said. “But when you’re meeting, you’re meeting. When you’re practicing, you’re practicing. And when you’re studying, you’re studying.
“But then when we get a chance to come out here and hang out with the kids and the other players, you get to enjoy yourself.”