116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — O’Rien Vance sat back in the folding chair, smiling through the sweltering August heat.
It’s Iowa State football media day — and nearly a month before the start of this topsy-turvy season for the Cyclones — and the standout senior linebacker is in a philosophical mood; eager to describe his approach to football and life.
“I’ve come to the realization that for me, in life, if you’re only chasing happiness, as you continue to grow and something bad happens, you can never recover,” said Vance, who will navigate through round two of Senior Day when the Cyclones (4-6, 1-6) kick off at 6 p.m. Saturday against Texas Tech (5-5, 3-4) at Jack Trice Stadium. “I’ve come to the point where there’s good in life and there’s also bad, but if you don’t take the bad with good, you will never be able to prosper.”
That’s hard-earned wisdom for the 6-foot-2, 260-pound former Cedar Rapids Washington star, who’s battled through an array of injuries, internal and external doubts that he could excel in college, and ISU’s mercurial 2022 season that’s ending in a two-game chase for guaranteed bowl eligibility.
“It’s a culmination of all the years and years of being a player here and fighting for something bigger than just myself,” Vance said.
He didn’t come back as the Cyclones’ lone sixth-year player to improve his NFL Draft stock. He returned to serve the program — even as wins became scarce, but the commitment to meeting the program’s standards remained steadfast.
“A week before we leave to go to (play) Clemson (in the 2020 Cheez-It Bowl), it’s kind of the final conversation of, ‘Man, where are we at? What are we going to do?’” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said of a meeting with Vance late last season. “And the conversation back is, ‘I know the NFL is a pipe dream. My reason for coming back to Iowa State to come back and leave it better than I found it. I don’t know if we’re where we want to be culturally, but where we need to be, I want to come back and make a difference.’”
Vance has been doing that throughout his 23 years on earth. His parents, Johnnie and Jennifer, moved the family from rural Mississippi to Iowa when Vance was young. They instilled a work ethic in him and his siblings that’s borne from love and bonded by commitment.
Never settle. Never complain. Just do the work.
“The sacrifices that my family members have given to me have been enormous,” said Vance, who will make his 43rd career start against the Red Raiders. “Like, everything. They’ve sacrificed their health, they’ve sacrificed things that I wouldn’t have even known that they sacrificed for me to be here, and for them to do that has just meant the world to me. It’s allowed for me to give these young guys the passion that I play with and it’s allowed for me to show them that you must do it for something bigger than yourself if you want to continuously grow and be the player you say you want to be.”
Vance knew he wanted to be a football star at an early age and he blossomed into one with the Warriors. But someone needed to toughen him up before high school and that task fell naturally — and happily — to his father.
So Johnnie Vance borrowed an old sled from his half-brother and loaded it up with weights. He threw the ball around Cedar Rapids’ venerable Bever Park with O’Rien and said the stately trees were his towering defenders. They’d grind like this on the weekends after toiling through the regular school and work week, constantly making improvements, slowly building strength and confidence.
“When I was in school, we used to work out three times a day,” Johnnie Vance said. “I just kind of put that in and as he got older, he did it on his own. I got him started, but for the most part he would pull the sled by himself. I didn’t have to get at him about working out.”
Those lessons stuck. Vance has earned his ISU degree as well as first-team academic all-Big 12 honors. He’s tied for 10th on the Cyclones’ all-time sacks chart with 12.5. He was tabbed as the 2021 Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP and tied a career high with nine tackles in last season’s Cheez-It Bowl.
In short, he’s been at his best when needed the most. So Saturday night’s final goodbye at home will be emotionally charged, but ultimately satisfying.
Vance never chased happiness. Just fulfillment. And as the temperatures dip into the teens in his final game at Jack Trice Stadium he can confidently and decisively say the following two words: Mission accomplished.
“I think a year ago on defense, we were in a tough spot,” Campbell said. “We weren't in a great place. And what O’Rien and Anthony (Johnson) have done, in terms of taking the culture on the defensive side of the football, and propelling it to the best place it's ever been — it’s been one of the greatest leadership jobs I've ever witnessed as a head football coach.
“And so to both of those guys and others, it's just the greatest win maybe I could ever have seen as a football coach in terms of leadership and selfless acts of making everybody else around them better.”