IOWA CITY — Last January’s Outback Bowl continues to haunt Iowa’s football program, and in a worse way than just absorbing a one-sided loss.
Ed Cunningham, a former NFL player who had been a color commentator on ABC/ESPN college football telecasts for nearly 20 years, walked away from that job this year. He said it was because of seeing players get physically and mentally damaged.
“The real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain,” Cunningham told the New York Times. “To me, it’s unacceptable.”
But his last straw, Cunningham said, wasn’t a head injury. It was seeing Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard play with limited mobility for much of that 30-3 Hawkeyes loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl. Beathard injured a hamstring in the second quarter.
“He couldn’t run, he couldn’t throw,” Cunningham said on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” last week.
“I’ve known guys on that Iowa staff for decades. I’m trying to keep names out of this because it’s not personal. I’m not saying they’re the only ones that do it. But that was sickening.
“I literally considered going down and confronting the coaches in their locker room after the game. … I was angry at those men for what they did in that game. And that wasn’t a head injury, that was a leg injury.”
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“It was tough,” Beathard told The Gazette’s Marc Morehouse in March at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “I couldn’t move, really. … I wanted to go out there. I didn’t want to come out of a game in the first half and let the second half go, especially in my last game like that. I told the coaches that I was good to go, let me play.”
We don’t like to see players play hurt, but we do like to see our teams win. Beathard playing with a sports hernia was a big reason Iowa went 12-0 in the 2015 regular-season.
A year later, Beathard hobbled while hopelessly trying to chase down Florida’s Chauncey Gardner as Gardner returned a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown.
Tuesday, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz discussed why he kept Beathard in that game, and also issued a press release on the matter.
The release included a statement from Beathard’s father, Casey Beathard, who said “We had absolute confidence in Coach Ferentz, his coaching staff, and the medical team to make player-safety an uncompromising priority on game day, on the practice field, and in the weight room.”
The Beathards are a highly accomplished, three-generation football family. Playing as long as you can stand upright is probably an existential part of being a Beathard.
“C.J. Beathard’s career at Iowa was defined by mental toughness,” Ferentz said.
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“Couple that with an outstanding medical staff that we have here, our medical people aren’t going to let a player be out there at risk where he could really do harm. They have got final say, they always have, always will.”
Watch: Kirk Ferentz responds to Ed Cunningham's criticism
Beathard healed, impressed the San Francisco 49ers enough to draft him in the third round, and earned the team’s No. 2 quarterback job. He had a 62-yard touchdown run in the Niners’ last preseason game.
But what if a Florida defender had … OK, it didn’t happen. What did, though, is Ferentz’s program got accused of something dark in national forums.
“They abused that kid,” Cunningham said on national radio.
“That’s his prerogative, certainly,” Ferentz said at his press conference. “But I found it a little bit offensive, quite frankly, because (Beathard) was not at risk medically.”
Iowa has withheld many players from games over the years for health reasons. It isn’t as if Ferentz is running a sweatshop. Yet, Cunningham wasn’t the only one who watched the second half of the Outback Bowl and feared for Beathard’s safety. I did, too.
You’d have no problem finding many former Hawkeye players who would tell you Cunningham is wrongheaded and they’d relive their college careers if they could, injuries and all. That speaks to what they feel about the value of their Iowa experience and the regard they have for Ferentz.
On the other hand, on Monday I caught a repeat of a radio interview Rich Eisen did with former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon, who has endured a lot of pain and memory-loss. Eisen asked McMahon if he regretted playing.
“I regret playing when I was hurt,” McMahon replied.
But I keep watching and we keep watching. Most of us, anyway. Others are peeling away.