By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nico Ragaini was asked on Tuesday if anybody from where he grew up paid attention to Rutgers football.
It turns out Ragaini did.
“I mean I would have killed for a Rutgers offer coming out of high school, that’s for sure,” Ragaini said at the Iowa football team’s weekly press conference. “I had no offers until my fifth year of high school. If Rutgers had looked at me, I definitely would have been looking right back at them as well.
“But they didn’t and here I am, and I’m grateful to be where I am.”
Ragaini is a fifth-year senior receiver for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face Rutgers in the Big Ten opener on Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Saturday’s game will be the closest game to Ragaini’s hometown of East Haven, Connecticut that Iowa will play this season.
Ragaini has been scrambling to get as many tickets as possible for family, and for friends.
And as of Tuesday morning, there were 79 family and friends that plan to attend the game, according to Ragaini.
“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” Ragaini said. “Having a bunch of people just having your back and everything is a great feeling. I don’t feel any pressure towards it because they all believe in me.”
Ragaini made his season debut in last Saturday’s 27-0 victory over Nevada after having missed the first two games because of a foot injury.
Ragaini led Iowa with 56 receiving yards on just two catches.
He also returned just in time to face Rutgers.
“I know when I was hurt a bunch of people were texting me saying you better come back for this game because I just bought my Rutgers ticket,” Ragaini said.
Iowa players often talk about having a chip on their shoulder from being ignored during the recruiting process, and Ragaini is certainly no exception.
In fact, Ragaini was ignored to where he chose to attend prep school for one year after having graduated from high school because he was so determined to get a college football scholarship.
Iowa finally made his dream come true by being the first and only Power Five school to offer Ragaini a scholarship.
“That’s definitely the chip,” Ragaini said. “I went to prep school, so, I did a fifth year of high school and that definitely helped the chip on my shoulder. Just always playing angry and feeling like everybody doubted me growing up has definitely made me the player that I am today. So, just continuing to feel that way and not forgetting how I felt when I was in high school, it’s just something I like to remember and stick to.”
Rutgers chose not to recruit Ragaini despite him living on the East Coast.
He didn’t speak negatively about Rutgers on Tuesday, but it seemed pretty apparent that Ragaini will have extra motivation to play well on Saturday, but not just because of having a bunch of family and friends in attendance.
Ragaini wants to show Rutgers that it made a mistake by ignoring him.
“I was definitely looking at them, but they weren’t looking at me really,” Ragaini said of Rutgers. So, whatever, I can’t cry about it. Just bring everything we’ve got. I’m taking the game like it’s the biggest game of the year because the biggest game of the year is the one that’s coming up and we’re not going to take them lightly. And I’m sure they won’t be taking us lightly, either.”
Ragaini already has graduated from Iowa, which allows him to focus even more on football.
He told reporters on Tuesday that moving halfway across the country to play college football wasn’t a big adjustment because it is the culmination of a dream.
The only real problem for Ragaini has been trying to find food that reminds him of home.
“The biggest adjustment for me was the food, and I am still adjusting,” Ragaini said. “But this is what I wanted so bad in high school. I swear I would have given a leg to play college football. So, coming out here really wasn’t hard for me at all. It was what I wanted forever, to play Power Five football at such an awesome university like the University of Iowa.”
Ragaini’s presence as a veteran receiver is just what the strugging Iowa offense needs heading into conference play.
Ragaini has started 12 games as a Hawkeye and played in 39 games overall.
The offense showed improvement in last Saturday’s win over Nevada after having combined for just 316 yards and one touchdown in the first two games against South Dakota State and Iowa State.
“I feel like I’m getting there,” Ragaini said of his foot injury that required surgery. “I feel like everyday I’m getting better and better in learning how to run again and that’s one thing that you have to learn to do is get over that mental block of having a screw in your foot. So, just being more confident in myself and continuing to grow each day.”
Ragaini feels fortunate to have such a strong supporting cast between his family and friends.
He talked on Tuesday about the effort and sacrifices that his parents make just so they can attend his games.
They often fly from the East Coast to Chicago and then drive to Iowa City to watch the home games.
“It’s kind of tough for them to get out to games, but they make it happen every single week, which is the best thing ever,” Ragaini said of his parents.
Ragaini’s friends from back home also have made an effort to watch him play as a Hawkeye.
“I’ve had so many friends come to so many games,” Ragaini said. “Like Penn State last year, I want to say that I had twenty to thirty people there. It’s just pretty awesome.”
This is Ragaini’s sixth year out of high school, but he still could return from another season from having the free Covid year.
“My goal is to play as good as I could possibly play to give me a shot to play at the next level,” Ragaini said. “So, that was mindset just going into the year, just giving everything I have to give myself a chance to play at the next level because that’s what my dream has been since I was a little kid.”
Iowa senior quarterback Spencer Petras is one of Ragaini’s best friends on the team. They have built a level of trust and respect on and off the field.
So, to have Ragaini back and healthy is a huge plus for Petras.
“It’s great,” Petras said. “A senior and the leader in that receiving room. He’s the most veteran guy in terms of play counts in our offense, I would say.
“He’s a real confident player. I think the way he carries himself, he’s a pretty laid-back guy, but when he talks, when he’s in the huddle, if he’s trying to motivate guys whatever it may be, people listen because he’s very respected.”