The road to the Super Bowl apparently runs through the University of Iowa.
At least it looks that way this year.
Four former Hawkeyes will on the sidelines in Sunday’s game in Miami Gardens, Fla. — linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann are on the Kansas City Chiefs’ active roster and tight end George Kittle and quarterback C.J. Beathard play for the San Francisco 49ers.
Throw in ex-UNI standout Xavier Williams, a defensive end for the Chiefs, and the state of Iowa will be well-represented in the biggest sporting event of the year.
NFL fans in Eastern Iowa have alliances — we like the Packers, the Vikings and the Bears. The Chiefs, of course, are a Midwest team, too, but don’t seem to generate as much love as the big three in Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago.
Of course, it’s been a while since any of those teams made the Super Bowl. The Packers last appearance in this game was in 2011, a 31-25 win over Pittsburgh. The Bears lost to the Colts in 2007 and Minnesota hasn’t been on this stage since 1977. Sorry Vikings fans.
So who do you root for Sunday?
Based on our location, the Chiefs would be the obvious choice. With one of the most exciting players in the NFL under center and three local connections, how could you go wrong?
Hitchens has put together a nice NFL career since his days in Iowa City. The 6-foot, 245-pounder is in his sixth season, his second with the Chiefs. A fourth-round draft pick by the Cowboys in 2014, he led the Chiefs with 135 tackles in 2018. This season, he has 88, including 49 solo. Hitchens finished his Iowa career with 270 tackles, including a Big Ten-best 124 his junior year.
He has started 78 games during his career and has 527 tackles, including 12 in this year’s playoffs.
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The 6-2, 235-pound Niemann, who was born in Des Moines but came to Iowa from Sycamore (Ill.) High School, is in his second season. He was an undrafted free agent, but has played in every game this season, with one start, and has 35 tackles. He had 201 tackles in his career at Iowa. including 80 as a senior.
Like Niemann, Williams was an undrafted free agent out of UNI. And like Hitchens, he is in his second season in Kansas City after starting his NFL career elsewhere. A five-year veteran, the 6-2, 309-pound Williams played in every game and started four last season, finishing with 47 tackles. He has played in only five games this year, missing several weeks with a high ankle sprain, but played in the AFC Championship Game. He was a two-time all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick at UNI.
If you can’t get behind the Chiefs, probably the most popular ex-Hawk in the NFL these days plays for the 49ers.
The 6-4, 250-pound Kittle has taken the NFL by storm the past two seasons with 173 receptions for 2,430 yards and 10 touchdowns. The 1,377 yards he had last year are an NFL record for tight ends and, although his numbers were very slightly down this year (85 catches, 1,053 yards), he was named the Dwight Stephenson Award winner by Pro Football Focus.
What’s that? In a nutshell, it’s given to the best overall player in the NFL — regardless of position. It’s the MVP on steroids — based on PFF grades. Kittle scored the highest PFF grade ever given an NFL tight end. Better than Rob Gronkowski. Better than Jason Witten.
“A lot of players in the NFL had phenomenal seasons, but at the end of watching and grading every player on every play of the NFL season, George Kittle graded out as the best in football, and he rightfully deserves the Dwight Stephenson Award for his efforts.” a story on PFF.com noted.
Not too shabby for a guy who had to wait his turn at Iowa and finished his Hawkeye career with 48 receptions (22 as a senior) for 737 yards and 10 TDs.
Beathard hasn’t seen the field this year, but he played in 13 games in 2017 and ’18, completing 225 of 393 passes for 2,683 yards with 12 TDs with 13 interceptions. He, of course, led Iowa to that 12-0 regular season in 2015 — passing for 2,570 yards and 14 TDs — and finished his Hawkeye career with a 21-7 record and 5,507 passing yards.
The choice is your — and enjoy the game.
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