Nick Easley's excellent adventure

October 20, 2017 | 12:37 am
Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Nick Easley (84) pulls in a 45-yard touchdown pass during the third quarter of their game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sep. 2, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

Newton and the weight room

EVANSTON, Ill. — Brothers do stuff. Sometimes, the stuff doesn’t make sense.

Hey, let’s ride the clothes basket down the stairs. Wait, this thing has no brakes.

“We piled up a bunch of pillows and blankets,” Matt Easley said. “At one time there might’ve been a twin mattress at the bottom of the stairs for us to run into. That only worked while we were small enough to fit, fortunately.”

Matt Easley is the older brother in this story. Nick Easley, the Hawkeyes’ leading wide receiver and maybe the biggest surprise of Iowa’s season so far, was good with it.

They grew. The clothes basket was relegated to its intended usage. As the Easley brothers grew, their attention naturally drifted to sports. Matt is three years older, so, sure, you could kind of argue that Nick was still in that clothes basket when Matt, who went on to be a kicker at Northern Iowa, would have Nick plastered against the garage wall kicking soccer balls at him all day.

“He was definitely the little kid hanging out with me and my older friends, playing the same football game, soccer games and everything,” Matt said.

Matt went off to UNI in 2012 when Nick was a sophomore. Matt did all of the UNI football workouts and so he was on the “bigger, faster, stronger” journey. He didn’t know that Nick buried himself in the Newton High School weight room the winter of his high school sophomore year.

Matt had no idea. He came home and brotherly grappling would ensue.

“He’d grab ahold of my wrist, and I was like ‘Whoa, Nick is stronger than before,” Matt said.

And ...

“He jumped ahead of me in an incredibly short amount of time. He grabbed my wrist and I thought, ‘Well, we’re not wrestling anymore. This isn’t going to go well for me.’”

Iowa receiver Nick Easley turns up field after catching a pass against Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

An opportunity

Nick’s football career has been a series of stairs and clothes baskets. This shouldn’t work. Whoosh. And hey, everyone is fine and the clothes basket made it over the twin mattress and eventually landed in Council Bluffs.

Nick Easley went on to become a record setter at Newton. He’s the Cardinals’ record holder for touchdown receptions in a game, season and career. He also holds the school’s receiving yardage record. He was a second-team all-stater as a senior and earned third-team honors as a punter.

“Everyone knew the Easleys as kickers, as in, boy, they could really kick the ball,” Newton coach Ed Ergenbright said. “During Nick’s sophomore year, he played scout team wide receiver. We couldn’t cover him. He caught everything near him. I told our coaches, ‘Listen, we need to take a look at Easley as a wide receiver.”

Nick had the leg and his family thought, hey, why not try punter/kicker? That led him to a visit at Missouri Western State. While spending time on the field, Easley ran through some kicking stuff and caught a glimpse of the wide receivers group.

“He asked the assistant coach if he could give that a shot, ‘I can tell you right now, I’m better than those guys,’” Matt said. “The assistant told him, ‘We want you as a kicker, but you can try wide receiver.’”

The clothes basket hit a wall in Saint Joseph, Mo.

Maybe it was the first piece of armor for Easley. He was a 5-11, 200-pound receiver with decent speed and an appetite for the weight room and training (300-pound hang clean as a prep). He knew there were going to be some “no’s” in pursuit of his dream.

His dream, by the way, was Power 5 college football. More specifically, it was a spot, any spot, on the Iowa roster. His parents, Allison Lemke and John Easley, are Iowa grads. He has a grandmother and two aunts who live in Iowa City. The spring game, Nick’s first appearance at Kinnick, was an Easley family reunion.

“I always wanted to play here as a kid,” Easley said. “I went to Hawk games and watched them on TV. It was kind of something where if I wouldn’t have done it, I would’ve always regretted it.”

The ember was there. Easley just had to find the opportunity that spoke to him.

Chapter 3:

Iowa Western and the journey to Kinnick

Council Bluffs is where Iowa Western Community College is. Western is a member of the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference. When Easley found his way there, the Reivers were allowed only 20 out-of-state athletes on their roster. So, players like Easley, Iowa preps looking for an opportunity, are the fuel that flows through the engine at Western, where the Reivers are currently 6-1 and ranked No. 1 in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association rankings.

"It was kind of something where if I wouldn’t have done it, I would’ve always regretted it."

- Nick Easley

On playing for Iowa

Easley arrived in Council Bluffs in 2015 and guess what? He had to wait his turn. It was a big deal for him to make the travel squad as a freshman. By the way, right now, Easley leads the Hawkeyes with 27 receptions, which is ninth in the Big Ten.

Easley had opportunities at Grand View and William Penn out of Newton.

“He was adamant on betting on himself and betting on his abilities,” Matt Easley said.

So, he gambled on Iowa Western. No guarantees. For every one Iowa prep who hits big at Iowa Western, a dozen don’t.

“He came here his freshman year and got caught behind a bunch of guys and didn’t get a lot of playing time,” Iowa Western head coach Scott Strohmeier said. “He worked hard and showed some signs. He just worked extremely hard.”

Winter conditioning and spring practice launched Easley’s sophomore year at Iowa Western.

“He just was ‘the guy,’” Strohmeier said. “He hit it off with the quarterback. He knew our offense in and out. He ran good routes and caught the football. That spring earned him a lot of confidence. ‘Hey, I can play at this level.’”

It showed up on the field. Easley was a first-team NJCAA all-America with 954 receiving yards, second most in school history for a season.

“He was our go-to guy,” Strohmeier said. “Everyone has these players who have Division I offers, bounceback players, 4-stars out of high school, and every coach we talked to that season said, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to contain Nick Easley.’ He was our best guy. We had a kid who signed with the University of Florida. We had a transfer from Western Michigan and then here’s Nick. Everyone was trying to stop Nick.”

The offers started to come. Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, Indiana State offered. The FCS offers were there, which Easley totally appreciated. They just weren’t Iowa.

Iowa State called and offered a walk-on opportunity (there’s that word again). Nick has always been kind of coy when asked about Iowa State, Hawkeye-Cyclone relations being what they are. Matt said he had his housing in Ames figured out.

Then, Iowa called. As a slot receiver, Easley would’ve faced stiff competition for playing time at ISU. The Cyclones have a pair of veteran and excellent slot players in Trever Ryen and Marchie Murdock.

Iowa had this thing called “opportunity.” When Easley arrived in January, Iowa had two scholarship wide receivers in spring practice. In a strange way, Easley caught some luck with senior Matt VandeBerg out last spring with a broken foot. He did his weight room thing — something that Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz took notice of right away — and ended up on the depth chart with No. 1 WR practice reps.

“After he talked with the assistant coaches and Kirk Ferentz, the word that kept popping up was ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity,’” Matt said.

Chapter 4:

Finally a Hawkeye

Opportunity. At Iowa. Let’s recap this: Nick Easley first caught Ed Ergenbright’s eye as a sophomore scout teamer. He went on to earn all state. He bet on himself, went the junior college route. Celebrated making the Iowa Western travel squad as a freshman. Dominated for Iowa Western as a sophomore wide receiver. Passed on FCS offers. He had a walk-on opportunity at Iowa State.

And then Iowa, where Easley is doing the dirty work, blocking and catching passes in traffic, where all the helmets and defensive backs roam.

“We didn’t find him. We lucked into him,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said. “He’s a guy we called on Christmas and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in walking on.’

“... He’s a guy who knows what he is and knows what he isn’t, and he knows what he has to do to get on the field, and that is to have a little courage and go to some dark places, and he’s done that for us, and he’s been extremely reliable. He’s been a nice little safety blanket.

“He’s moved into that Z position, which has allowed us to move Matt (VandeBerg) and really it gave some balance to our receiving corps where we knew we were going to be young. So we were fortunate. He was a little bit of a Godsend.”

Last week, Ergenbright offered Easley a chance to talk to the Newton High School team before the West Des Moines Valley game. Ergenbright’s son, Trevor, was a ball boy during Easley’s high school days. Trevor wanted to play wide receiver at Newton because of Easley, and he’s doing exactly that.

It seems once a Newton kid sets his mind to something, you might want to think twice before doubting him.

“It’s surprising what Nick’s done, but it’s not a surprise, if that makes sense,” Ergenbright said. “He’s done this at every level.”

The clothes basket has plowed through the twin mattress and is really flying now. Let’s just see where it goes.

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