A new era dawns at Kinnick Stadium: Sculpture on the north wall, a spruced-up tunnel to 'swarm' from

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A renovated north end zone isn’t the only change Iowa football fans will notice when the 2019 season kicks off Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

There is a new bronze sculpture of an iconic player in Hawkeye history, captured at the moment of his greatest triumph. Fans will be taking pictures there for generations to come.

There is a different sort of work of art in the tunnel where the players emerge onto the field, its plain white walls now filled with black-and-gold inspiration.

As of Wednesday afternoon, a little more than 2,000 tickets remained for the 6:40 p.m. game against Miami of Ohio, which will be shown on FS1. Those who show up will witness a new era for the 90-year-old stadium.

Duke Slater gets his due, and a new gathering spot for Hawkeye fans

A relief of Duke Slater and teammates is pictured while construction continues during a media tour of the north end zone, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

A statue of Nile Kinnick has stood outside the south entrance to the stadium named for the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner since 2006. On an inside wall, fans can behold a relief sculpture of a famous touchdown Kinnick scored against Notre Dame.

Shortly after Iowa athletic officials got the go-ahead for an $89.9 million renovation of the north end zone in October 2016, they started planning a new sculpture on the opposite side of the stadium. This one would be embossed on the outside wall but would commemorate another momentous touchdown against Notre Dame.

Duke Slater was a powerhouse lineman who played for the Hawkeyes from 1918-21. He was also a pioneer as an African-American athlete who competed in an era when racial prejudice impeded such opportunities.

And he was the perfect subject to help inform fans of a different chapter in Iowa football history.

J. Brett Grill was the sculptor chosen to tell the story in a space 14 feet wide, 6 ½ feet tall. He started with one of the great sports photos of the early 20th century, the moment just after Slater had knocked three Notre Dame defenders out of his path to clear the way for a Gordon Locke touchdown, tumbling to the dirt and losing his helmet in the process. It cemented a 10-7 Iowa victory and capped a 7-0 championship season.

There was one slight problem.

“It was taken a couple of moments too late,” Grill said from his studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I wanted to cast him as a star and rolling around on the ground is not the best place for that. I wanted to capture the spirit of the man and that moment.”

Slater is upright in Grill’s sculpture, a determined look on his face as he leads the charge. Locke is also depicted, along with Hawkeye legends Aubrey Devine and Lester Belding.

It was Slater who drew Grill to the project, however. After his all-American career at Iowa, he played 10 seasons in the NFL. For one of those years, he was the only black player in the league. He later got his law degree and became the second African-American elected to a judgeship in Chicago.

“It’s always more fun to be involved in a project that allows sport to do more than just celebrate sport. To me, Duke Slater’s life is using sport to allow us to think about broader cultural issues,” Grill said.

“He was just an incredible man that broke boundaries throughout his life.”

For now, the Slater sculpture must speak for itself. There is space for a plaque, but it won’t be installed until next week, when Grill is coming to Iowa City to attend a game in Kinnick Stadium for the first time — the Sept. 7 matchup against Rutgers.

It will be the culmination of 11 months of work for Grill. The plaque will include a photo of Slater and some words about his life. Grill, who visited the stadium several times while making his sculpture, believes it fits in well with the aesthetic around Kinnick.

“The statue of Nile Kinnick, he’s not even in a football uniform. It shows he valued things beyond football,” Grill noted. “Then you have that beautiful children’s hospital next to the stadium. There seems to be a really clear understanding about football’s place, and that it’s an incredible game that allows us to come together and allows us to get beyond our differences and understand what’s important and celebrate the places that we come from.”

Some new words and colors for the 'Swarm'

Yellow letters that spell out "Swarm" on the ceiling in the tunnel that leads towards the field is pictured during a behind the scenes tour, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Hawkeye players have been “swarming” out of the tunnel in the southwest corner of Kinnick Stadium since Hayden Fry arrived as coach in 1979. Herky the Hawkeye leads them out. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” announces their arrival. It’s a moment every fan anticipates. Players report getting goosebumps every time.

And now the experience has been cranked up to an 11.

Ben Hansen, assistant director of football operations for the Hawkeyes, said they first started considering sprucing up the tunnel after the 2016 season. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Hawkeye Legacy program in 2018 that things started moving. It’s a program that brings back former players for social activities, and the ex-Hawkeyes were all on board with the tunnel project. Many donated money. Other donors also stepped in.

The university hired the 49 Degrees graphics company to provide the look.

The result rivals anything found in an NFL stadium.

The color scheme is black and gold, naturally. The words "tough," "smart," "physical" and "together" are stenciled on the walls.

As players head down the tunnel from their locker room, they can look up and see a single word: "swarm."

"We wanted to make sure what was in it embodied everybody — not just this team, but the players that came before. We swarm out together," Hansen explained. "We wanted to bring a little bit of life into the tunnel."

Current players were kept in the dark about the project. On the evening of Aug. 22, just after training camp ended, they were brought in to see it as “Back in Black” roared in the background.

“They were stoked,” Hansen said. “The first guys coming through — obviously, you could see the big smiles on their faces. It was just a nice little extra pickup from fall camp, and I think it really got the guys going and excited.”

No doubt it will do the same for the fans.

Hawkeyes who've graduated get a helmet decal

There will be one more change that Iowa fans will have to look a little closer to see. For the first time, the team has attached decals to the helmets of players who have already earned their bachelor’s degrees from Iowa. The image is of a gold graduation cap.

Ten Hawkeyes will be wearing them Saturday: Drew Cook, John Milani, Landan Paulsen, Levi Paulsen, Colton Rastetter, Brady Reiff, Brady Ross, Ryan Schmidt, Jackson Subbert and Nate Wieting.

"It's a good reminder that these guys are here for a bigger purpose than just playing football," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, "and we're excited about starting that new tradition."

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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