Iowa Football

Families of black former Hawkeyes are starting to organize

'They are united and they are going to set the record straight, their voices will be heard'

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley touches the helmet on the Nile Kinnick Statue as he arrives with the team before
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley touches the helmet on the Nile Kinnick Statue as he arrives with the team before their football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (The Gazette)

The Iowa football program is in the midst of finding out who and what it actually is. A lot of voices are going to be heard in this.

Wednesday, Sharonda Phelps, mother of former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley, spoke with KGYM, a Cedar Rapids sports radio station, and HawkeyeNation.com. Thursday, Phelps told The Gazette a group of parents of black former Iowa football players has contacted Pre-PostGame, a sports business management advisory firm based in northern Virginia, to help organize their voice.

Robert T. Green, Pre-PostGame’s players representative, is heading the group of former Hawkeyes and families, according to Phelps.

“There are several former athletes and families who are extremely disappointed in the statement from (Iowa head football coach) Kirk Ferentz denying about the culture that they and their sons were subjected to,” Green said. “In the near future, they are united and they are going to set the record straight. Their voices will be heard.”

Pre-PostGame focuses and specializes in meeting athletes’ needs, including mental health, well-being and transition succession planning. The firm asks its clients “Is what you’re being sold in YOUR best interest and factual?” The name “Pre-PostGame” has an eye toward their clients’ futures.

There is no timetable for action.

“We’re gathering information and we have found some based on Akrum’s career and others that are going to show that not only was Iowa aware of what was going on,” Green said, “but it was part of not just culture, but part of their way of dealing with African American athletes.”

From 2014-17, Wadley was a star running back for the Hawkeyes. The Newark, N.J., native rushed for 2,872 yards and 28 touchdowns during his career. He is fifth on Iowa’s career rushing list.

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Phelps has been outspoken about her son’s time at Iowa, detailing racial incidents and questioning the treatment of her son. She sent The Gazette audio from Wadley. In that sound Wadley detailed ugly exchanges between former Iowa D-lineman Brandon Simon and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. The Gazette has reached out to Simon to corroborate those details.

Contacted Thursday, a UI spokesman said the school is not commenting. During a video conference with reporters Sunday, Ferentz was asked right off the top how the number of racial incidents, which began surfacing last Friday and now numbers close to 50 players, could happen under his watch. Many of the allegations surround strength coach Chris Doyle, who’s been with Ferentz for 21 years at Iowa.

“I think that’s one of the lessons I’ve really learned here,” Ferentz said. “I’ve got to do a better job of proactively asking questions and seeking things out and asking more hard questions, not only with our current players but also with former players. My exchanges with former players have typically been pretty fair, pretty happy, if you will. The bottom line is I can ask more hard questions and need to.”

The Hawkeyes are currently beginning voluntary workouts in Iowa City. Official team workouts begin June 13. The team had meetings on Monday and Tuesday. Doyle wasn’t at those meetings. According to sources who were present, no one spoke on Doyle’s behalf. Parents contacted by The Gazette believe his removal is a foregone conclusion.

The UI has called a news conference for 2 p.m. Friday. Ferentz will be available along with three players.

Ferentz announced the formation of an advisory committee and said former NFL D-lineman Mike Daniels has agreed to chair the committee. He said the idea is for the committee to build those lines of communication.

One of the major points of contention Phelps has with the Iowa staff is Wadley’s entry into the NFL. This is where the story veers into the subjective, but it also illustrates Iowa’s process for dealing with NFL scouts.

Not every college football player makes it to the NFL. At 5-10, 194 pounds, Wadley is an undersized back by most NFL standards. Each NFL team also might have different needs or styles of play it wants from a running back.

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Wadley went undrafted in 2018 and signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans. He played in three preseason games and was cut.

Going into the draft is where there are questions.

Wadley trained in Miami at EXOS, which trains athletes and helps them prepare for the NFL combine. Iowa offers that training in Iowa City under Doyle. Several players have taken advantage of that over the years. Other players have gone their own direction.

At the combine, Wadley ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash. NFL scouting departments don’t advertise their strategies or methods, but observers in 2018 viewed Wadley in a relatively favorable light.

“For his size, he runs hard,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told the Des Moines Register. “He’s a physical, tough runner. He’s a little quicker than he is fast. He’ll stick his nose in the fan on pass protection, but he’s going to have to make his living on third down and special teams.”

Also from the Register, NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson: “He flashed a couple of times. Smaller than I thought he would be.”

Still, good reviews outside of scouting departments come from non-decision makers.

Iowa’s pro day happens in late March, about a month after the combine. It’s a chance for players to perform in front of NFL scouts. Usually, all 32 NFL teams show up at Iowa’s pro day.

Wadley participated in the vertical jump and the pro agility drills during pro day and declined everything else, including the 40. Before pro day, Wadley seemed to be on a track that would see him drafted in the fourth or fifth round. Again, that is subjective, but Phelps said interest died off after pro day.

Also, Phelps said Brian Ferentz, who was the running backs coach in 2017, said to a group of players in the Hansen Performance Center that Wadley wouldn’t be drafted. One of Wadley’s teammates, a white player, called Wadley to tell him this.

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“Even if the NFL has other factors it uses to evaluate players,” Phelps said, “They didn’t even need those with what Brian said.”

It’s impossible to characterize what the reviews on Wadley were from Iowa to NFL scouts. Scouting is not a shared endeavor. Any doubts from Iowa’s staff coupled with a pro day in which Wadley was limited likely diminished his draft potential.

Each NFL scout has to go through a personnel rep and the strength coach at most schools. Strength coaches often end up being the main contact for college programs and NFL teams. During the season at Iowa, Doyle, now on administrative leave, is the only Iowa staffer NFL people are allowed to contact.

Iowa likely believed it gave the NFL an objective view. Phelps wonders how nearly 3,000 yards at Iowa didn’t seem to help her son.

“He called me and said he didn’t know if he should run the 40 because Doyle was there and he was working the clock,” Phelps said.

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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