116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Annette Taylor and her group of “Birches” are ready to do their annual June tradition one more time at Kinnick Stadium.
Yes, the “Birches,” as in the type of tree. No, they’re not arborists.
Taylor tried typing a similarly-spelled word that, well, can’t be printed in a family-friendly newspaper. Her phone’s autocorrect changed it to “birches,” though, and the new nickname stuck.
The foul-turned-foliage name aside, they’ll once again meet Friday night to catch up before embracing a day up close and personal with their beloved Hawkeye football team — an experience most fans don’t have and one they only get once a year.
“When would I ever be able to sit down and shoot the s--- with Kirk Ferentz? Never,” the lawyer from West Des Moines told The Gazette. “When could I ever catch a pass from Spencer Petras?”
But on Saturday, she’ll do those exact things.
Since 2011 and only interrupted because of COVID-19, the Iowa Ladies Football Academy has given women the chance to enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Iowa football while raising millions for the University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
Saturday’s Iowa Ladies Football Academy is slated to be the 10th and final one.
“It’s definitely with mixed emotions,” said Mary Ferentz, the architect of the program and the wife of head football coach Kirk Ferentz. “It’s been such a great event.”
She pointed to the changing football calendar as a reason for stopping the event, along with the opportunity to “finish strong.”
“It’s getting so hard to schedule with the football schedule,” Mary Ferentz said. “Recruiting goes all year long now. … June was really the only month that we could schedule it, and then now, June has become a really busy month for recruiting and camps.”
The finale has been pushed back a few times. At first, the last one was going to be in 2020, but COVID-19 axed that plan.
Then the final one was going to be in 2021, but continued uncertainties around the pandemic moved the last in-person session back to 2022.
Ferentz told The Gazette Tuesday almost 600 people have signed up, paying the non-refundable $50 registration fee, although sometimes sudden conflicts keep a few participants away.
“How many people will actually show up? We never know ’til the day of the event,” Ferentz said.
Organizers expect the final year to have the largest crowd of any of the 10 programs. The previous nine editions of the Iowa Ladies Football Academy raised a combined $2.3 million for the Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
Iowa Ladies Football Academy’s ‘fundraising machine’
The event comes with a minimum fundraising level of $500 for the children’s hospital. Some participants, like Taylor of the “Birches,” have gone well beyond that.
“The girl is a fundraising machine,” said Marijo Anderson, who has been on the planning committee since the academy started in 2011. “She’s got her ways.”
Along with $100 from each of her paychecks, Taylor has a vending machine-like operation in her office where colleagues can pay for items like a water bottle to raise money.
It’s not a perfect system, as Taylor found out one week when the “vending machine” was rather empty for the $36 in the bucket — until she sent a persuasive email.
“It’s not like you’re stealing from a co-worker,” Taylor reminded her co-workers. “You’re stealing from sick kids in the hospital. And that’s like bad karma, so I don’t need to find you because karma will.”
Taylor also has a bucket she takes to Iowa football games — mostly home games, but also some road games — armed with the simple request of a $1 donation.
"Especially in a group, you don’t want to be that guy that someone’s like, ‘Hey, will you give a dollar to the children?’ and you say no,” Taylor said.
On one Outback Bowl trip, she improvised and used the ice bucket from her hotel room to raise money.
Opposing teams’ fans donate, too, after she explains the cause to them. As much as she “hates to say anything nice about Iowa State ever,” she’s seen Iowa State and Wisconsin fans be particularly generous.
Depending on pregame intoxication levels, her tailgate-to-tailgate tactics can mean big bucks for the children’s hospital.
“I had a drunk girl one time that put a $50 (bill) in there, and her friends were like, ‘Oh my god, you can’t give her $50,’” Taylor said. “The girl was like, ‘I’m just going to waste it on something anyway.’”
Taylor gave her $20 back before leaving “as quick as possible before she figured out what she had done.”
Fans’ generosity has broadened beyond just monetary donations for the hospital. They’ve given Taylor some shots of alcohol to enjoy while fundraising. That didn’t turn out so well, though.
“I got lost one time, and they had to come and find me,” Taylor said with a laugh. “My ladies football bucket now has a disclaimer telling people not to give me shots, no matter how nicely I ask.”
She has raised a hefty sum that will be tough to top when Saturday’s official count happens.
“Part of me will be super pissed if somebody else raises more money,” Taylor said, “and then the other part of me would be over the moon that someone else raised that much money for the children’s hospital.”
The Ladies Football Academy set up a page allowing anyone to contribute. The 20 donors to use the site, as of Wednesday morning, spanned geographically from Nevada to Massachusetts.
The top 20 fundraisers can pick prizes, Ferentz said. Taylor has usually been the top fundraiser, and therefore the first to pick a prize.
It’s happened so often that the most alluring prize — club tickets, “VIP” parking and pregame sideline passes — has become an annual excursion for the “Birches.”
“When they are down on the sidelines, they just take in everything and enjoy it,” said Ferentz, who herself is much more used to being there from her husband’s 23 years as Iowa’s head coach. “It’s so fun to see and so refreshing and just amazing how much joy it brings to people.”
Taylor said standing right next to the team as it does the pregame “swarm” onto the field has brought her to tears.
“I could have literally touched the players,” Taylor said with a laugh. “If I thought I could get away with it and not get in trouble, I probably would have tried to touch one of them.”
Mary Ferentz’s $3 million goal
Ferentz is hopeful this year’s group of women will top off her goal of $3 million raised for the children’s hospital in the 10 years with in-person academies.
The first $1 million raised went to the children’s hospital’s new facility in 2017 perched across the street from Kinnick Stadium. The second $1 million went to pediatric research.
The last $1 million, if Ferentz meets her $3 million goal, will go to the hospital’s child life services.
The hospital’s child life specialists help patients and their families through the stress or anxiety that often comes with their medical situations.
“On some of our darkest days, they’ve been there,” said Kristina Turnis, whose son Christopher has literally spent thousands of nights at the hospital after being born with a birth defect that damaged his kidney, bladder and lungs. “Child Life has talked him through so many scary things, like procedures or surgeries.”
When one of Christopher’s friends at the hospital died, a child life specialist had a special bear for him and books to help him through the grieving process. They found activities for his two older siblings during his earlier visits to the hospital.
Without Child Life, what he has gone through would not be “doable,” his mother said.
The child life services are not a billable expense, so they’re reliant on donations.
Experiencing the ‘inner sanctum of Iowa football’
The Ladies Football Academy participants, meanwhile, “get into that inner sanctum of Iowa football,” Anderson said.
This year’s schedule features tours of the home and visiting locker rooms, a “quarterback challenge,” receiving drills, photo opportunities with Kirk Ferentz, a player panel and more.
Taylor has asked players many questions a reporter likely wouldn’t ask in a postgame news conference.
“Would you ever go sky diving?” said Taylor, who takes notes in her phone of possible questions well ahead of the event. “Do you like the ocean or mountains?”
She’s looking forward to meeting punter Tory Taylor and joking that “he’s my son” because of their shared last name. She made the same joke to former Hawkeye defensive back Miles Taylor.
Experiences like Taylor’s have kept women coming back year after year.
About a third of the participants, like the “Birches,” have been to at least five of the past nine programs, Anderson said.
Along with the women who donate, Ferentz invites the past honorary captains back to the Ladies Football Academy every year.
Christopher Turnis was the honorary captain in 2016, and he’s been back every year since.
The Turnis family has built quite the relationship with the Ferentz family, dating back before the Ladies Football Academy even started. Kirk, Mary and Brian Ferentz have all visited him at the hospital.
“Kirk’s great, we love him,” Kristina Turnis said. “But he just really loves Mary. … Mary’s probably his favorite Hawkeye.”
Friendships from 12 years of Ladies Football Academy
Organizers such as Ferentz and Anderson have viewed the Ladies Football Academy’s run undoubtedly as a positive one although that wasn’t a certainty when it started in 2011.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen — if it would catch on or be successful,” Ferentz said.
Along with the obvious fundraising feat, many friendships have resulted from the previous nine Ladies Football Academies.
“So many friendships have been formed just from the planning end of it,” Ferentz said.
The attendees have made plenty of friendships, too.
The group of five “Birches” — four of the five used to work together at the Polk County courthouse — has expanded to include many “honorary Birches.”
“Honorary Birch is a label that we give out fairly freely,” Taylor said.
Ferentz is even an honorary “Birch” when she takes the group to the sidelines of a game every year. If she came to more “Birch” gatherings, Taylor bets “she’d fit right in with us.”
One last academy
Anderson said she and the other organizers have been “busting tail” this week to prepare for the large 2022 group.
Ferentz is so busy that the gravity of Saturday being the last Ladies Football Academy hasn’t quite settled in yet.
“Maybe when everything is settled and the time comes around to start planning the next one, I’ll probably feel like missing it,” Ferentz said.
Then it’ll be time to find the next adventure, although it’s too early to know what exactly that’ll be.
“I figured we’ll find something else,” Ferentz said. “There’s always something waiting. There’s always something behind the immediate hurdle.”
Ferentz and the other organizers won’t be the only ones looking for something new to replace the time spent on the Ladies Football Academy. Taylor remains in denial that the Birches’ big June tradition is coming to an end.
“I’m completely stuck in the denial phase of the grief process,” Taylor said. “It’s such a part of my life that the idea that it’s ending is really sad.”
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