IOWA CITY — This isn’t your typical recruiting story.
The general belief is a kid and perhaps his family visit a college that wants him to play football for it. After a few of those visits, the kid decides which coaching staff, campus and facilities he likes best and commits.
But it doesn’t always work that way. It didn’t work that way with Mekhi Sargent.
The Iowa Hawkeyes sophomore running back decided two years ago that he wanted to play for junior college power Iowa Western in Council Bluffs. Never mind that he was from the far-away tropical paradise known as Key West, Fla.
Never mind that the very first time he stepped on the IWCC campus was to begin classes. That’s quite a leap of faith.
“I Googled a lot. My first thought was ‘Where am I going? Where am I going?’” Sargent said. “It was a whole new world for me. It was scary, but I knew it was the right thing. I had to grow up. I knew Iowa Western had a really good team, that Coach (Scott) Strohmeier did a good job up there. I was comfortable with my decision. That’s just part of it. If you want to play football, that’s part of it: traveling.”
Key West is an island city of about 27,000 people, located in the Straits of Florida. Known for its tourism, it’s the southern-most city in the United States, actually closer to Cuba than Miami.
Of course, there’s no highway that leads to Cuba. U.S. Route 1 takes Key Westerners to the mainland and vice versa.
“It’s extremely hot and humid,” Sargent said. “You have grass fields down there because it’s so hot. No turf fields. It was hard getting noticed. We’re an island cut off from the mainland. Every away game, we have to travel three hours. Teams that come to us have to travel three hours. A lot of recruiters don’t want to come that way.”
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Key West Coach John Hughes was the one who encouraged Sargent to look the junior college way first in order to achieve his college football dreams. Sargent redshirted his first year at Iowa Western, then took off during the 2017 season to the tune of 1,400 yards rushing in 10 games.
He was a first-team Division I juco all-American.
Iowa was intrigued by his quick feet and solid 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame and offered him a scholarship this past summer. Sargent jumped on it and has been part of a three-headed running back committee this season that also includes Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young.
“This is a whole new level, and detail is a big part of the Division I level,” Sargent said. “I feel like that alone has helped make me a better player since last year. There is a lot I need to work on still. But that’s all a part of football, all a part of the process.”
Where does Sargent feel he needs to improve?
“I have to improve everywhere, have to improve in every aspect of my game,” he said. “It’s just taking all the information in and running with it.”
He leads Iowa with 109 carries, is second in yardage (454) and first in rushing touchdowns (6). He had a career-high 91 yards rushing three weeks ago at Penn State.
Imagine that, a kid from little Key West playing in a 100,000-seat stadium.
“It’s been a long journey. A very long journey,” Sargent said. “The geographical areas are, like, completely different ... I love the water, the small culture (of Key West). Everybody knows each other down there, are tight. I just love the sun.”
But he loves playing football, too. Even if he hates the weather, hates riding his moped around campus in ice-cold temperatures, it’s a trade-off he’ll take.
He truly believes Iowa fans have not seen the best of Mekhi Sargent, yet. That’ll come in the future, as he gets more comfortable with everything and continues to progress.
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“I’ve learned the sky is the limit,” he said. “If I keep practicing hard, keep paying close attention to detail and being consistent listening to my coaches, I feel I can be a great player.
“I’m proud of my progress here, but there’s a lot more that I want to do.”
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