IOWA CITY — Parker Hesse wore a black pullover to media interviews Tuesday that said “Own The Rose Bowl Game.”
I wondered if it was something issued to Iowa’s football players in the offseason after their 45-16 loss to Stanford in Pasadena three seasons ago. You know, own the loss. Remember it, use it for motivation, whatever meaning the coaches wanted to attach to it. College football teams are big on slogans.
But no, the senior defensive end said. It was just something players got before that Rose Bowl trip when Hesse was a freshman who had already made an impact with his team. He tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage, caught the carom, and trotted 4 yards to the end zone for a touchdown in Iowa’s 28-20 win at Nebraska that capped a 12-0 regular-season.
Back to the pullover. Hesse wore it Tuesday because he was wearing gray sweatpants and didn’t want to show up in all gray. So he put on the black remnant of the first season he played. Not everything is deeply meaningful.
However, Friday has deep meaning indeed for Hesse and his classmates on the Hawkeyes. This is the last of their Black Friday battles with Nebraska, and they’re looking to go 4-for-4. More importantly, they want to walk out of Kinnick Stadium as players for the last time with a permanently warm memory.
Senior defensive tackle Matt Nelson of Cedar Rapids said Hesse is “being all sentimental,” this week, talking about the team’s last stay at Kirkwood Community College’s hotel on the night before a home game, the last regular-season week, the last this and that. Hesse said Nelson was exaggerating.
But it’s a big deal. For everyone outside the program who cares about Iowa football, wins and losses are the basic definition of what the Hawkeyes do. For the players, there’s quite a bit more to it.
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“It’s a team game,” Hesse said. “Everything that happens out there really boils down to how we do it as a team. You win or lose as a team, you work and train as a team, you prepare as a team. That’s what makes it fun, getting to share those experiences.”
I asked a few seniors here Tuesday to name the most striking memory they’ll have about their careers, and none responded by noting a play they made or a win the Hawkeyes got. All cited the relationships they made with their teammates.
Nobody wants to win more than the participants themselves. Nobody. There’s more to this, however.
Nelson suffered a torn labrum during Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College last December. He’s had surgery on a shoulder and a knee. He’s a man who wants to become a physician and will be, but that’s a tough way to gain insights into that profession.
Nelson returned from rehabbing between January and July to start every game this season.
“A lot of ups and downs,” he said about his career. “I don’t regret any of it. I just tried to make the most out of my five years here at the University of Iowa. I wouldn’t take back any of it.”
Even the injuries?
“You learn a lot about yourself when those happen,” Nelson said. “They’re not ideal. They’re not fun to have. But it’s part of life, part of football. You’ve just got to dig deep when the going gets tough a little bit and find that inner strength and kind of look at it as ‘This is a long road back, let’s do this.’
“Just maintain a positive outlook on everything.”
The Hawkeyes lost three straight close games before they routed Illinois last Saturday. Why didn’t they go into mope mode after those defeats and stay in it?
Because they’ve put too much into this to back down, from anything.
I’ve written before that the best thing in college football is the Senior Day pregame ceremony, in which the players greet their parents at midfield and emotional embraces are the result.
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Those people know what the rest of us never will, which is how much went into getting from the first Iowa practice to the final game at Kinnick. Congratulations to all of them.
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