It was the Fall of 2002 when I was first introduced to college football. I was six. My dad, a lifelong Iowa Hawkeye fan, was following the game on gamecast—we didn’t have cable—while he renovated our house. He explained the basics to me: first downs, false starts, extra points, etc. By the end of the season, when Iowa was playing USC in the Orange Bowl, I was as rabid a fan as anyone.
Iowa football hasn’t always been good. In fact, most of the time they’re mediocre. Since 2002, the Hawkeyes have only had three ten win seasons. They’ve fired and re-hired offensive coordinators. They’ve had top recruits decommit. They’ve made no effort to evolve as a team, running an offensive scheme that’s about as boring as spending a day touring rural Iowa. For these reasons, the bright spots in Hawkeye history are very bright. (It’s akin to when you turn on your little phone light in a dark room.)
In 2009, coming out of a 9-4 season, Iowa started the season 9-0. I was in the eighth grade and every Saturday, my family—minus my mom—would gather in the living room and hold our breath for three and a half hours, hoping that what we were witnessing wasn’t too good to be true. As the days grew shorter and the weather cooler, Iowa kept winning. As fans, this was foreign to us. Sure, the Hawkeyes might make it through September without a blemish, but it was November. Eventually, the season did take a turn and the Hawkeye’s luck ran out when starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi went down with an ankle injury against Northwestern.
We had to wait another six years before the Hawkeyes had another season worth noting. In 2015, Iowa entered the season unranked. Expectations for the team were low, coming off a 7-6 season and a blowout loss to Tennessee in a bowl game the year before. It was my sophomore year at Covenant. Every Saturday afternoon, I would walk the half-mile to my grandpa and grandma’s house and watch Iowa win. About halfway through the season, when we realized that Iowa was actually good and would probably make it to the Big Ten Championship Game, family from all over the country bought tickets to go to Indianapolis.
The first Saturday in December, I woke up early in the morning and drove the six and a half hours to Indianapolis with my grandpa, my aunt, and two of my uncles. There we met about fifteen other family members, including my dad and my brother who had flown in from New York City and my uncle who had flown from Seattle. We tailgated for hours, grilling sausage and tossing the football around in the crisp December air. Everyone was giddy. There were moments where I wanted to break out giggling like a little kid. Being an Iowa fan meant never being in this position. Being an Iowa fan meant tasting success but never maintaining it. That night, Iowa lost in a heartbreaker to Michigan State, ruining its undefeated season and shattering any hope of making it to the College Football Playoff. A month later, Iowa got demolished in the Rose Bowl by Stanford, and pundits began to call Iowa’s season a fraud. Iowa football was back to being Iowa football again.
I never played organized football; I’m not really friends with any football players. There’s plenty about football culture, especially in the South, that is gross and unappealing. Football is also violent and dangerous. But football captured my imagination as a six year old. And Iowa football is the most boring, vanilla brand of football in the country! Still, I was roped in. And every fall, I can’t help but watch again as I hope for another unexpected sweet moment.