116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Mekhi Sargent is from the Conch Republic. That's the name Key West, Fla., gave itself after it seceded from the United States in 1982.
It didn't actually secede. That was a prank the mayor pulled. Key West does, however, show that life is different on an island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The city still celebrates its faux independence day.
You can't really see water from the Key West High School field, where the Conchs play host to teams that travel three hours from south Florida.
'Our stadium is in the middle of town,' Key West head football coach John Hughes said. 'I guess if you step out of the press box, you can probably see an ocean.'
In front of Key West High, of course there's a large sculpture of a conch shell letting you know exactly where you are.
Before he was an Iowa running back and before he was an Iowa Western Community College Reiver, Mekhi Sargent was a Key West High Conch.
Absolutely it was a journey for Sargent to find his way to Iowa City.
'The good thing is they play against south Florida football and that has a national reputation,' Hughes said. 'When our kids do well, they kind of stand out. The only problem is we're still 3 1/2 hours south of Miami. So, to come down and see one kid, coaches sometimes might get a little lazy and not want to make that trip.'
Iowa has had players from the 'Key' places of Florida. Currently, Sargent represents Key West. Wide receiver Calvin Lockett is from Largo.
No, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't regularly send coaches to the Conch Republic, where the football fields are grass because it's too hot and humid for artificial turf.
'No, but I'm sure we'd have plenty of volunteers if I asked,' he said with a laugh.
Sargent grew up in paradise, but he wanted to play big-time football. The island got really small, really fast for any major football aspirations. The youth football leagues in Key West split into four teams. They try to keep the travel light, with trips to Marathon (one hour) and Key Largo (two hours).
'You just don't see a lot of guys leaving Key West, getting Division I offers and signing on signing day,' said Sargent, whose 156 yards from scrimmage (91 rushing, 65 receiving) in Iowa's opener last week was third-best in the Big Ten. 'A lot of guys end up going to Division III. I just wanted to be different.'
Sargent was very different. He put up incredible numbers his senior year, rushing for 2,094 yards and 27 touchdowns. Hughes thought there would be some college scholarship offers, especially with Sargent being a full academic qualifier.
'I think he had a couple of Division II schools looking at him,' Hughes said. 'We all knew he was better than that, so we recommended the junior college route.'
Going from Conch to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs ... well, that's some culture shock now, isn't it?
There has to be something about the weather. Last year, no, Sargent didn't have a moped. It's unlikely he's changed his mind for 2019.
This was a bit of a quest for Hughes. He pointed the way to Iowa Western. The Iowa Western coaches saw Sargent at a University of Florida football camp.
'My coach at Key West basically led my tour to go to juco,' Sargent said. 'I didn't know anything about junior college. He said that's an opportunity for you. I think you can go to juco and make the most of it and move forward. I took that route and I'm thankful.'
Sargent ended up redshirting his first season at Iowa Western. He didn't even know you could do that at a junior college.
So, the 5-9, 212-pounder is 2,000 miles from home at this point and football, the thing he loves more than anything, was shelved for a year.
'My mom (Yolanda Gardner) kept me mentally stable,' Sargent said. 'I just kept working hard, on scout team and in the weight room. I'd just pay attention to the older guys and did the right things and my time came.'
Sargent took all of that energy and poured it into his redshirt freshman season at Iowa Western. He rushed for 1,149 yards and earned first-team juco All-America.
Someone outside of south Florida and the Conch Republic finally got to see what Hughes saw.
'He put up 1,000 yards as a sophomore and just kept going from there,' Hughes said. 'He became kind of a household name throughout south Florida. There were coaches and teams that were just tired of playing him because he was such a physical force. He ran so hard. He was one of those heavy contact guys. You felt it when he hit you.'
Marshall and Louisville sent offers. Sargent could've stayed at Western for his sophomore year.
Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell saw Sargent play in the 2017 Graphic Edge Bowl, where Iowa Western took on Northwest Mississippi Community College. Sargent rushed for 151 yards on 21 carries.
'KB saw him, really liked him that day and made a note of it and just told me about it, and we ended up having an opening because of a medical situation (this was when running back Toks Akinribade left the program because of medical issues), so that's how one thing led to another,' Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. 'Just filing away information sometimes is a good thing.'
Sargent's best month last season was November, when he rushed for 360 of his team-high 745 yards. That certainly showed he was 'getting it' last season.
'He's a real confident guy right now, certainly knows a lot more than he did a year ago about what we're doing and what his role is,' Ferentz said.
It's two flights, but you know Sargent makes it home when he can. Sunsets are celebrations in the Conch Republic.
This interview was after Tuesday morning's practice, so Sargent didn't have on the chain with the conch shell he usually wears. His crazy college football resume includes stops in Council Bluffs and Iowa City, a redshirt year in juco and an appearance on Netflix's 'Last Chance U,' when Iowa Western played Independence (Kan.) Community College.
You carry a piece of home to remember where you started.
'The water. The tight-knit culture. Everyone seems to know everyone. Just love the sun. It's beautiful,' Sargent said.
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