Iowa Football

Super Bowl has former Iowa Hawkeyes on both sides

Tristan Wirfs, Anthony Nelson, Ben Niemann and Anthony Hitchens all reach NFL's biggest stage

Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards (35) runs the ball against Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitche
Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards (35) runs the ball against Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (53) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
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In addition to Tristan Wirfs, there are three more Iowa Hawkeyes playing in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, including his Tampa Bay teammate, linebacker Anthony Nelson.

And standing on the other sideline, with the Kansas City Chiefs, are linebackers Ben Niemann and Anthony Hitchens.

“Think about all the great players that never had that opportunity in their careers,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said in a press conference Wednesday. “We have four guys, Tristan being the youngest, a rookie, playing in his first Super Bowl.”

Niemann, playing in his second Super Bowl since arriving in Kansas City as an undrafted free agent in 2018, is now a staple of the Chiefs defense. After playing just 63 snaps in his first year, Niemann amassed 56 combined tackles, including 35 solo in the 2019 season, and followed it up with 44 total tackles this year, including 29 solo through 466 snaps.

“Going all the way back then, it was just one-day-at-a-time mindset doing anything I could to make the roster,” Niemann said during a press conference Thursday. “Now we’re here in the second Super Bowl, so it’s been a fun journey.”

At Iowa, Niemann shined with his versatility and on-field intelligence. He played both outside and middle linebacker and started as a true freshman, playing all four years. He received All-Big Ten honorable mention during his senior year with 80 total tackles, including 45 solo.

“You don’t make an NFL team by accident,” Ferentz said. “I wasn’t surprised Ben wasn’t drafted, but it wouldn’t have surprised me had he been drafted. May have been a little underappreciated by the NFL. I don’t mean that in a critical way … still had a lot of maturation ahead.

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“That’s one thing I learned when I coached in the NFL. Those guys, they grow and develop, too, especially in their first couple, three, four years.”

Hawkeyes in the Super Bowl

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs is preparing to play on the NFL's biggest stage.

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Football is a family tradition for the Niemanns. Ben’s father, Jay Niemann, is Iowa’s assistant defensive line coach and Ben’s younger brother, Nick, will hope to continue the NFL tradition by making a roster this fall after his time with the Hawkeyes.

“He’s on his own path, his own journey and it’ll be different than mine,” Ben said. “But I’m excited for it and here to help in any way possible.”

Niemann plays next to Hitchens, now a seven-year veteran. Ferentz wasn’t sure where to put Hitchens when he first arrived. Running back? Safety? Linebacker.

“He’s really carved out quite a niche and had an unbelievable NFL career,” Ferentz said. “When he got here, he had a lot to learn, but he was a willing learner, hard worker and obviously a very, very good football player.”

Hitchens has lived a lot of life since playing for the Hawkeyes. He played for the Dallas Cowboys from 2014-17 before landing with the Chiefs in 2018. Now he hopes he’ll capture his second Super Bowl ring.

“For my legacy … I’ll look at that when I’m done,” Hitchens said. “For right now, I’m just trying to stay in the moment. I’m not trying to look too forward or too backward.”

Hitchens is expecting his second child, and before the season, expressed his concern via Twitter about playing in a pandemic, in fear of infecting his family. But through time, he committed to the season.

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“I prayed a little more than normal,” Hitchens said. “Just me and my family, that’s what you rely on. I had faith that the NFL really put a good plan in. Now, six months later, we’re headed to the Super Bowl.”

Down in Tampa, Nelson’s role with the Buccaneers is building, and now he finds himself in the Super Bowl during his second season. After playing only 153 snaps on defense last year, Nelson saw action in 322 snaps. He amassed 26 tackles, including one sack this year.

“Anthony, I think about him, I don’t want to say undersized, but a linear, skinny defensive end when he got here,” Ferentz said. “And now look at what he’s developed into.”

Comments: (319) 398-8387; leah.vann@thegazette.com

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