Three cool things:
1. Here’s the last entry from the Iowa vs. Ben Roethlisberger trilogy.
It was hotter than a chrome fender parked on blacktop. The official temperature was 91. The wind was a measly 5 mph. The weather on the official box score simply read: Sunny and hot.
The fact Iowa traveled to Oxford, Ohio, fascinated me. It was one of those deals the AD makes (Bob Bowlsby at the time) and assumes Miami (Ohio) stays Miami (Ohio).
Roethlisberger changed that and made Miami (Ohio) into mini-Ohio State.
In this one, Roethlisberger threw 51 times, and completed 33 of them for 343 yards with two painful interceptions. (Just glancing at Iowa’s best QB seasons, Jake Rudock had two 50-plus attempt games. Scott Mullen has the Kinnick record with 60 attempts. Drew Tate only had one 50-attempt game — 55 against Florida in the 2006 Outback.)
The Hawkeyes were the first Big Ten school to travel to Yager Stadium (30,012).
Are you having a Tulsa ’96 flashback?
Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes showed up fashionably late for their 1996 night game at Tulsa, making it to Tulsa on gameday. The No. 19 Hawkeyes left dust-bowl region with a 27-20 black eye. The Hawkeyes traveled to Tulsa as part of a 2-for-1 deal that eventually stretched to a 3-for-1.
Iowa got three home games for one trip to Tulsa, a deal many mid-major Division I programs like Tulsa would eat up.
Miami totally ate that up.
“I think it’s a real coup for us,” Miami Coach Terry Hoeppner said. “It doesn’t matter what sport or what level. You get excited when the Yankees come to town. The Hawkeyes are coming to town and it’s a big deal for us.
“I expect our crowd to be excited. It’ll be a rousing atmosphere.”
Miami’s tradition as the “cradle of coaches” made the location attractive to Iowa, Bowlsby said at the time. A number of coaching legends began their careers at Miami.
”Miami has had a significant impact in the history and tradition of college football,” Bowlsby said. “Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes. Miami football has a special tradition that is a big part of college football.”
Bowlsby struck the 2-for-1 Miami deal in 1993 with former Miami AD R.C. Johnson, a former assistant AD at Northern Iowa and a former football player at Iowa.
Miami made $300,000 for its two trips to Kinnick. Iowa earned $200,000 for its trip to Oxford.
The week before the RedHawks played host to Iowa? Miami won at North Carolina, 27-21, taking advantage of an Atlantic Coast Conference record-tying nine turnovers.
Now, at this point, Kirk Ferentz had won just two road games in his two-plus seasons as Iowa’s head coach. I kept feeding him the attitude, “Are you sure this is going to be OK? They seem pretty good and that stadium, it’s going to be tough.”
I think I asked three or four questions along those lines. This was before every news conference had an army of media and you could ask more than one or two questions.
Ferentz never broke character.
”I understand they’ve been hyping the game for a long, long time,” Ferentz said. “It’s going to be a wild environment. We’re going to have to be ready.”
2. Bruce Nelson remains one of the best all-around people I’ve met during this endeavor. Feature story below.
3. Fred Russell hurt his hand or his shoulder a little bit in this one. And I’m pretty sure that was the only injury the Hawkeyes had in 2002.
Quote: ”My mom noticed that and my junior college coach,” said quarterback Brad Banks of his success in pressure situations. “I don’t know why I’m so calm out there. When I’m playing, I’m patient and humble out there. I just want to go to work.”
That quote really sticks now, doesn’t it?
Note: In three games against the Hawkeyes, Roethlisberger’s numbers were 69 of 111 for 766 yards, five TDs and seven interceptions.
That is bend and don’t break.
Why No. 37? — The Gazette and KCRG were still buddies in 2002. We used to take small charters to games. I’m talking like seven seaters. It was a blast/frightening.
So, this gave us our Friday nights to do whatever we wanted. I went bass fishing at Palo and walked through some brush.
I noticed a pretty painful spider bite on my left ankle that night. Didn’t give it much thought.
Well, that was dumb. I wasn’t turning into Spider-Man. I did have an infection. When the charter landed around midnight, I ran a fever and was ready to pass out.
Off to the emergency room.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE GAME
Game story from 2002
OXFORD, Ohio — They almost could have skated out of the locker room and onto the bus. They draped themselves in so much ice a few of them were human sno-cones.
This took a toll.
The physical is always there in Division I football. With 90-degree heat and a sky-high sun booming down on Yager Stadium, the physical was easy to spot. They led the league in sweaty brows and iced limbs.
The mental thing wore camouflage.
The Hawkeyes (2-0) were happy to escape this Mid-American Conference outpost with a 29-24 victory over Miami (Ohio) before 25,934 fans.
Their smiles said they were happy to win.
The ice and the gritted teeth said they were happy to survive.
“This was a good win, a great win,” said linebacker Grant Steen, a big bulge of ice on his right knee and red gouges in his forehead. “People might say certain things didn’t look so good, but this was a win. We won and we’re happy.”
They converted big third downs, made big plays, ran for big yards. So they’re happy about that.
Junior running back Fred Russell gained 150 yards and scored a touchdown on 32 carries. Yes, 5-foot-8, 177 pounds carried the ball 32 times.
”He’s short. He’s not little,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Quarterback Brad Banks had a career day, completing 18 of 27 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown. Junior wideout Maurice Brown caught five passes for 115 yards, including two clutch grabs that sustained drives late in the second half.
The receiving corps had clutch grab after clutch grab, with Ed Hinkel, C.J. Jones and Clint Solomon converting first downs or touchdowns.
“I’m happy I scored today, because I don’t know when it’s going to happen again,” said Jones, whose 48-yard TD pass from Banks gave Iowa a 29-17 lead with 11 minutes, 44 seconds left. “We’ve got more and more guys now who can do that. They showed it today.”
They also watched Miami make its share of big plays. Sophomore quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lived up to the ‘Big Ben’ nickname, single-handedly guiding the RedHawks into striking distance late in the fourth quarter.
After Jones’ score, which was sprung by fullback Edgar Cervantes’ block on linebacker Matt Robillard, Roethlisberger marched the RedHawks to Iowa’s 12-yard line. Miami paired 6-6 wideout Jason Branch against 5-10 D.J. Johnson.
Johnson was whistled for a holding and two pass interference penalties.
”People are going to look at the penalties and the big plays,” Johnson said. “That’s just how this job goes. You’ve got to have a short memory.”
Johnson ended that drive when he tipped a fourth-down pass intended for wideout Andre Henderson.
But after the Hawkeyes sputtered three-and-out with 8:01 left, Miami went right back to work on Johnson, with Branch finally catching a jump ball for a 24-yard score, pulling the RedHawks within 29-24 with 4:54 left.
That’s why the gritted teeth.
Iowa drove 99 yards for a touchdown on its first drive, with Russell following right tackle Robert Gallery in from the 4.
The Hawks peaked on that first drive.
”We didn’t make any changes technically,” Miami Coach Terry Hoeppner said. “We made mostly attitude adjustments. It was important to respond after that.”
While the Iowa offense spun its wheels, gaining 102 yards the rest of the first half, the defense held its breath on almost every play in the second half.
”We ended up doing more pressuring and blitzing than we have in 12 or 13 games combined,” Ferentz said. “We were out of answers.”
Roethlisberger completed 33 of 51 for 343 yards and three scores. He made a believer out of Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who called a blitz on nearly every down in a frantic fourth quarter.
”Sometimes it felt like they were bringing 15 guys,” Roethlisberger said. “We couldn’t run on them, we learned that lesson last year. We were going to come out winging it.”
Miami held a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter.
After Hinkel flubbed a punt, Miami needed three plays to go 22 yards and take a lead when running back Cal Murray recovered a Mike Iriti fumble in the end zone with 3:01 left in the third.
They had the thumb-finger “L” for loser on their helmets for less than two minutes.
Banks hit Brown for a 38-yard gain to Miami’s 12, and running back Jermelle Lewis scored on the next play to give Iowa a 22-17 lead.
Banks thrived when it looked as if the Hawkeyes would wilt. He threaded the needle on a 27-yard gain down the seam to Brown that led to Nate Kaeding’s 49-yard field goal, a career long and his third Saturday, which gave Iowa a 16-10 lead with 6:36 left in the third.
”My mom noticed that and my junior college coach,” said Banks of his success in pressure situations. “I don’t know why I’m so calm out there. When I’m playing, I’m patient and humble out there. I just want to go to work.”
Iowa started with a 99-yard drive. They ended with a 61-yarder to Miami’s 11, wringing the final 4:42 off the clock and pulling the plug on supercharged Yager Stadium.
“That’s the best way to end a game,” Ferentz said. “We didn’t play a perfect game, but we did play a high-effort game.”
Thus, the smiles through gritted teeth. Happy, but not a happy kind of happy.
Bruce Nelson feature from 2002
An Iowa kid down to the roots
EMMETSBURG — Bruce Nelson is driving. A 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman is in his brother’s Dodge Intrepid.
It’s a snug fit.
We are a click north of Emmetsburg on Highway 4, among the grids and vectors and lines of northwest Iowa cornfields. The idea is to explore the Emmetsburg that took Nelson to the University of Iowa football team, to find the places where one of the best Hawkeye football players grew up.
He has been at the wheel maybe five minutes. We are on the way to a visit with his chiropractor, Dr. Verland Rients, in Graettinger. The question is how long has Nelson been seeing Dr. Rients?
The answer takes us in a different direction.
“Since I was run over by the hayrack,” said Nelson, a senior.
Whoa, stop right there.
“Run over? Hayrack?” the passenger asked. “What’s a hayrack? And, wow, that must’ve done some real damage.”
“Sure, it hurt,” Nelson said. “It was like running into a brick wall. I had no air in my lungs. I couldn’t breathe.”
The hayrack story unfolds during the rest of the day. Nelson’s parents, Dick and Ann Marie, cringe a little at hearing it again.
Can you blame them?
Nelson was 5 when it happened. He was goofing around with brother, Ric, five years older. Their feet were dangling off the wagon. Ric shot Bruce a look that said, “Leave me alone, little bro,” and Bruce walked back to take his seat. On the way, he fell through an opening in the front.
The front left wheel rolled over his chest. The left rear wheel stopped.
”He was shook up,” said Dick, a tall, slender, quiet man. “Well, we were all shook up. But he was fine. He was OK.”
Something made Dick Nelson stop the tractor. Maybe Ric’s yell. Maybe the bump you feel when you run over something. Maybe the innate sense of danger parents — good parents who look out for and love their children — just seem to have.
Anyway, the left rear wheel stopped.
“Right there,” Nelson said, pointing to an imaginary spot just outside his left thigh.
Dick grabbed him by the feet and pulled him up. Bruce couldn’t catch his breath. He breathed in, deep down into his lungs, and couldn’t find that click that reels you back to reality.
Finally after a minute or two of gulps, the kid was OK. He did get to ride up on the tractor with dad the rest of the day.
It was a good thing the rear wheel stopped. All the hay in the wagon was stacked in the back, so all the weight was there, not in the front, not over the front left wheel that rolled over 5-year-old Bruce Nelson’s chest.
Fearing reproach from Mom, the boys went about their chores.
Ann Marie didn’t find out until something like 13 years later. During a Thanksgiving dinner smackdown, Bruce leaked it. Dick got up and left the table, knowing there was no way he could win this one. Uncle Jim got caught in the crosshairs.
“Don’t ask about the four-wheeler,” Bruce said. “We rolled it all the time.”
Nelson lived to be a 290-pound center for the Iowa Hawkeyes, a good one at that, one with definite NFL prospects. The Oakland Raiders have called for tapes.
He lived to be a good student who needs six credits to graduate with a degree in finance.
He lived to be a boyfriend who’s probably looking at buying a ring real soon. His girlfriend, Jana Huberty, a health promotions major at Iowa, is from Emmetsburg. She was his first girlfriend, the only girl he’s ever dated.
He lived to be a good son, the youngest of Dick and Ann Marie’s four kids.
And, today, in an Intrepid heading toward Graettinger, he’s a patient of Dr. Verland Rients.
Nelson arrives at Rients’ office with a little sweat on his brow.
He’s wearing a white T-shirt that says “Northwest Football Camp,” black shorts that say “2001 Alamo Bowl,” and tennis shoes.
He’s fresh from the morning session at the Northwest Football Camp, put on by his high school coach, Duane Twait, at Emmetsburg High School.
The camp is on a practice field next to Duane Twait Field.
When you are the all-time winningest coach in Iowa high school football history (327-62-3), have been to the playoffs in 27 of 28 years, need to build a new trophy case (it’s full, only the 1974 playoff trophy sits alone) and have six state titles, they name the field after you.
“Yeah, this is where it all started,” Nelson said before breaking out in a laugh.
Firebirds, Suburbans, LeSabres, minivans drop off kids of all sorts. Kids in the coolest new workout gear, the shiny shorts with the Nike cleats. And kids in tennis shoes and cotton sweats. One kid shows up in bluejeans.
Around 70 kids showed up the day after a soaking rain filled ditches with standing water along Highway 4 on the way from Fort Dodge. This is a rainy, humid, miserable Monday. Yet 70 kids dragged themselves away from the PlayStation 2 for football camp.
The kids from Emmetsburg probably know their way around the video-game version of football. They are kids, after all.
This is Emmetsburg. This is where high school football is king. Hawkeyes, yeah. Cyclones, sure. E-Hawks, well, this is early August and the football signs are up all over town.
In Emmetsburg, the signs never come down.
These kids play football. On an ugly Monday, they’re in their three-point stances. They’re learning, reaching and exploding. They’re learning where to put their heads on a form tackle.
They’re footfiring here and footfiring there. Footfire is the cadence and the only speed the kids know.
Every standing building is black and gold, Emmetsburg’s school colors. An E-Hawk sign and an Iowa Tigerhawk are pinned on the fence that surrounds Twait Field.
With Duane Twait Field in the background, Coach Duane Twait sees the 70 kids and knows 66 running backs and receivers and four linemen will line up.
But that’s before he delivers the speech.
“There are two receivers in football, two running backs and one quarterback,” Twait said. “Now, there are five or six linemen. Just look at Bruce and Joel (Ellis). They know what it’s all about. They know the line is where it’s at. And you don’t have to be a big guy. You’ve got to have some heart and desire.”
Nearly half the group trots over to the linemen corner of the field.
Twait oversees the camp, though he spends most of his time watching the linemen.
Former players work with each group. Iowa linebacker Grant Steen, a former Emmetsburg prep, works with the running backs with his dad, Tom, a longtime assistant with Twait. The linemen get lucky, with Nelson and Ellis, a junior offensive lineman at Northern Illinois.
When the linemen session finishes, Nelson and Ellis work with the kickers. Yes, the kickers.
“Hey, don’t laugh,” Ellis said. “We were straight-ahead guys. No soccer style here. I don’t think we’d know how to teach it. I think they still have the shoe we both used.”
So which one of these junior high kids was Nelson?
”He was always tall, always a good athlete,” Tom Steen said. “When he was in junior high, he was a little chubby.”
No one in the family can remember the name of the disease — “I think it was angio-something,” Dick said — but when Nelson was in junior high he had a disease that restricted the blood flow to his kneecaps.
The left knee made it through fine. The right wasn’t so lucky. In sixth grade, Nelson had it scoped. Tiny holes were drilled in the knee cap to facilitate blood flow.
He spent six months on crutches.
This is a kid who went to work with his mom every morning at 6:45. Ann Marie was the director of food services for the Emmetsburg school district. This meant Bruce was able to get in on open gym every morning. Beginning as a first-grader he never missed a day.
This also is how he first met Coach Twait. And how he and Steen became ball boys for the Emmetsburg varsity.
This was an active kid who literally had his legs taken out from under him in the sixth grade.
“That was my summer of Doritos,” Bruce said. “I sat around feeling sorry for myself.”
Then Nelson was a chunky junior high prospect. Now he’s what every one of these kids wants to be.
Just ask Chris Harris, a 13-year-old from Graettinger (and by the way, remember this name. He’s a stocky, tough kid who’ll be part of a good high school team in a few years).
Would you want to be like Bruce Nelson someday?
“Yeah,” Harris said.
Think he’s a role model for kids around here?
Do you want to play offensive line?
Do you want to play for the Hawkeyes?
This really is where it all begins for the dynasty that is Emmetsburg football. This is the kids’ first full breath of Coach Twait, whose voice is demanding but not threatening. Sort of like a human P.A.
“You want to do what the older guys did,” said Jesse Bird, 13, of Emmetsburg. “We have to keep it going.”
In Emmetsburg, they might know Nelson more for his role as team captain and most valuable lineman for the E-Hawks’ 1997 Class 2A state championship team than for his 35 straight starts as an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.
Remember, the Hawks line up behind the E-Hawks here.
After the popsicle break, Twait asks Nelson to give the kids a speech.
“Do what the coaches tell you,” he said. “These are memories you’re always going to have ...
“When I was a freshman and sophomore at Iowa, we won four games. Four games. You do it for the guys around you. They keep you going ...
“There is no room for drugs and alcohol ...
“This is your best opportunity to play football. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody.”
Coach Twait pumps the kids up with a talk about the “Gold Cadillac,” the state championship.
“We talked about the Gold Cadillac when I was a kid, too,” Nelson said. “Everything is the same. These kids are doing the same drills we did. They’ll run the same plays. I remember I-right, toss sweep. I remember one game, we ran the toss sweep for a whole quarter.”
Nelson is working on his coaching endorsement, the six credits he needs to graduate.
When the Northwest Football Camp ends with a 7-on-7 drill, Nelson’s team falls, 7-6. With that, it’s into the Intrepid and off to Dr. Rients.
Dr. Rients has practiced chiropractic for 43 years. He did his first adjustment in 1957. At one time, he worked with the Washington Redskins, when George Allen coached the “Over-the-Hill Gang.”
“It’s not so much the contact as much as it’s the exercises they do to get ready for the contact,” said Rients, who wore suspenders and a short sleeve shirt. “The squats are especially tough on the back.”
Rients leads Nelson to an array of tables and machines, including the knee-chest table.
Joints and discs aligned, it’s back into the Intrepid.
“We’re really lucky to have Dr. Rients here,” Nelson said. “More than anything, a busy chiropractor in a small town shows how hard farming is.”
We’re heading south on Highway 4, toward the Nelson farm. He points toward two silos poking into the cloudy sky.
“That’s how everyone knows our farm, two silos,” he said.
Pull down the gravel road. The barn, perfectly Iowa, perfectly red, is on the left. The house is on the right. Other buildings, holding equipment and cattle, line the property.
An addition to the lot is a jumbo RV.
Dick and Ann Marie have seen every one of Bruce’s games. This year, they splurged and bought the RV, which is known as “Cousin Eddie,” named in a family contest by Bruce’s niece, Caitlyn.
Bruce’s number is 72. He plays center. The license plate says “72 Hike.”
“It’s nice,” Ann Marie said. “We can take our turns driving. And we can sleep without being too crunched. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this three years ago.”
On the way in the front door — “Can’t take you through the garage. Mom would kill me,” Bruce said — four round concrete slabs dot a path from the steps to the flag pole.
Three blocks have an Iowa State logo, one a Tigerhawk.
Ric, Mary Beth and Traci went to Iowa State.
“Everyone in the family is an Iowa fan,” Ann Marie said without hesitation. “If they’re not Iowa fans, they’re Bruce fans. And Bruce plays for Iowa, so that makes them Iowa fans.”
Inside, front and center in the living room are the senior class portraits of the kids. They’re pretty much shrines. Over the fireplace, two John Wayne rifles hang.
The Nelsons aren’t sportsmen, not in the hunting and fishing sense. Maybe a little fishing on the family pond. They put up pheasant hunters in the log lodge — Nelson’s Cab-Inn — they designed and helped build a few years ago. But that’s as close as they get.
They are farmers.
Dick Nelson and his brother, Jim, are partners in the family farm. They work 2,000 acres and have 1,250 head of cattle.
Farm chores gave Bruce Nelson a head start on the prototypical offensive lineman body.
Baling hay, catching pigs for vaccination and other chores gave him those natural farm kid muscles.
When it came to pumping iron, he was shy about it. Other players, smaller players, in junior high and high school were stronger. It took some coaxing to get Nelson to jump in with both feet.
Twait gave him the nudge. And we’re not talking push or shove. It really was a gentle kind of nudge.
“It was seventh, eighth grade,” Nelson said. “I was nervous, embarrassed I couldn’t lift more. I was a country kid. I had to ride my bike into town if I wanted to lift. Mom would give me a ride if it was convenient. So it wasn’t easy to make it into town. I was a little behind everyone in the weight room.”
Nelson could have easily been turned off permanently. He remembered Twait’s encouragement. Constant encouragement.
“He kept finding me in the hall and he always had a way of getting me in there,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t forced. He was just always there. He never gave up.”
Nelson is careful to issue one of those “I owe everything to so-and-so” statements.
Emmetsburg bathed him in football. Twait pointed him in the right direction. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz gave him the chance to play on the big stage.
The one constant has been Mom and Dad.
Yes, sure, Nelson had his farm chores. All farm kids do. And, yes, they were backbreaking. They were down-and-dirty. He said he caught pigs for vaccination, but he, for the meek, substituted “vaccination” for “castration.”
The pigs are gone. It doesn’t make economic sense, Dick Nelson said, to have a few pigs. But memories of cleaning the hog shed are alive and vivid in Bruce’s head.
The kids used to ride beans, sitting in a wagon and spraying weeds along the rows of soybeans.
Anything hogs, stunk, literally, and, as you can imagine, figuratively.
“That was the cake job. Easy,” Nelson said. “Cleaning the hog shed was the absolute worst, the absolute worst. We were smart, though. We never did that one before school.”
And there was one tiny stint of detasseling. It was 72 acres. All the kids chipped in. They did it to save money for a big-screen TV.
“Oh, the kids hated that one,” Dick said. “And I don’t blame them. That was the last time we did that. We did it all in one shot. There was no easy way to do it.”
But the Nelson kids weren’t born to be farmhands. It didn’t dominate their lives. Chores didn’t wipe away summers.
Dick and Ann Marie let their kids be kids.
“I know some kids worked everything, worked 24/7,” Nelson said. “Mom and Dad told us our job was to be kids. We were supposed to go to school, play sports, do band, whatever.
“They didn’t want us to be workers. They wanted us to be kids.”
All the kids took piano lessons. Bruce claims he can’t remember much, and that he’s not very good. Ann Marie remembers his stint with the trombone.
“He had long enough arms, so he could play,” she said.
Saturday mornings, there were chores, flag football, pickup basketball and league baseball.
In the hayloft, Dick Nelson put up a basketball hoop. He painted a lane and a regulation 3-point arc. The ceiling is high enough for anyone’s shot.
Ric and Bruce spent hours in games of pickup. Their Michael Jordan basketball still sits in the loft. It’s dimple-less and smooth now.
Bruce built the ladder that leads to the loft, explaining the rungs that fit the strides of a 6-foot-5 kid. He worked himself into a dunker when he was a sophomore.
“Still can’t do it every time,” he said.
Some winter days, the pigs were in the barn underneath, and the smell was killer.
It was paradise.
“This place was the best,” Bruce said, looking up at the gauzy light coming out of the rafters. “It’s still the best. I hope it’s always here.”
We touched on Saturdays. But Fridays are the thing here in Emmetsburg.
Dick Nelson is the oldest of eight kids. They all had something to do with Emmetsburg football at one time or another.
“Friday is a different feeling,” Dick said. “You know there’s a game. You know it all day. It’s a feeling of excitement. The combines are all shut down by 5 p.m. The town is quiet. Everybody goes to the game.”
We started with an accident, we might as well finish with one.
Before Bruce was the ball boy, the Nelsons were on their way to a playoff game in their black Pontiac convertible.
They were about a block from the field. It was the Nelsons’ turn to turn. A lady saw it differently and turned into the Nelsons. The force pushed their car into the parking lot of a little cafe.
Dick handed the woman his car keys and said, “We haven’t missed a kickoff in 20 years, we’re sure not going to start now.”
The accident wasn’t their fault. The car was moved out of the way. The family walked the couple of blocks to the field.
They made kickoff. Emmetsburg won.
The Nelsons share this story and break out in belly laughs. Dick is on Bruce’s right. Ann Marie is on his left.
Two silos tower behind them.
A family portrait.