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Why Music City Bowl matters for Iowa football players
From hot chicken contest to opportunity to end career with win, Hawkeyes find value in trip to Nashville
NASHVILLE — Sam LaPorta is aware of the injury risk in bowl games for a player with a likely future in the NFL.
But what worries many potential NFL Draft prospects across the country does not seem to bother the Iowa tight end.
"There’s a potential to get hurt in any game,” said LaPorta, one of three tight ends named a John Mackey Award finalist this year. “We were on the bus ride here. We could get hit by another car.”
LaPorta is not alone in that mindset.
As draft prospects across the country often opt out of bowl games to avoid the risk of an injury, many Iowa football players have found value in the Music City Bowl.
Linebacker Jack Campbell, cornerback Riley Moss and LaPorta are likely selections in next year’s NFL Draft and have been invited to the Senior Bowl, but the trio is sticking around for Saturday’s game against Kentucky.
“It just doesn’t process in my mind why you’d want to dip out on your boys at the last second,” LaPorta said. “I understand that some guys have really bright futures, and I think it’s really exciting for them to take the next step to the NFL, but I want to be out there one more time.”
Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather, also a Senior Bowl invitee, is the only player from the Hawkeyes to opt out so far.
Players like Merriweather do not have to look far to see the possible perils of playing in a bowl game.
Tyler Linderbaum chose last year to play in the Citrus Bowl despite being already considered the top center in the 2022 NFL Draft. He then suffered a foot injury in the game that kept him out of drills at the NFL Combine and Iowa’s pro day before conducting an individual pro day.
Even after experiencing the consequences of the injury, Linderbaum said at last year’s combine he still would have chosen to play in the game.
“Hopefully go out and win,” said Linderbaum, who the following month was a first-round pick, at the combine.
Campbell believes NFL-caliber players choosing to stick around for the Music City Bowl “speaks volumes to the program.”
“A lot of guys want to come back and just play one more game for Coach Kirk Ferentz,” Campbell said. “But most importantly, for each other. I’m going to miss these guys.”
Campbell said his “full focus” has been on the Music City Bowl rather than on any NFL Draft feedback.
“When that point comes, I’ll focus on that,” Campbell said. “But right now, it’s just taking my best foot forward against Kentucky.”
The desire to play in the bowl game exists despite Iowa playing in a less prestigious bowl game than after the 2022 season.
After the New Year’s Six bowls, the Citrus Bowl is on the top of the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order. The Music City Bowl is third, also behind the ReliaQuest Bowl.
The bowl pecking order aside, the trip comes with some time to experience Nashville.
“We’re coming out here to win the game, but we want to enjoy the experience,” defensive lineman John Waggoner said.
A hot-chicken-eating competition with Kentucky is among the highlights of Iowa’s bowl schedule. Offensive lineman Mason Richman has the same plan for it as when he did the Buffalo Wild Wings Blazin’ Challenge.
“All I told myself was, ‘Just keep going and just suffer later,’” Richman said. “It’s almost like a football mentality.”
Waggoner is confident in one of his fellow defensive linemen ahead of the challenge.
“Yahya Black can eat a lot of hot chicken,” Waggoner said. “He can eat a lot of food, so I’m excited to watch that one.”
Saturday’s game also marks an opportunity to end the seniors’ college careers with a win.
The regular season ended with a loss to Nebraska, and the 2021 season ended with a Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.
“It’d be nice to hopefully cap off my career and the seniors’ career with a W,” Moss said.