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Kinnick Stadium prepares for invasion of cardboard cutout Hawkeye fans in odd football season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Bill Wenger has attended at least one Iowa football game at Kinnick Stadium every year since 1979.

He thought that four-decade streak was about to end during a Big Ten Conference football season that will be played without paying customers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But if you look closely at your TV during Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Hawkeye home opener vs. Northwestern, you’ll likely see Wenger there in his “ANF” shirt. He’ll be seated next to his 110-pound collie named Hayden. And that might not even be the oddest sight during this oddest of college football seasons.

Wenger is one of the more than 900 Hawkeye fans who have paid to have cardboard cutouts of themselves, or their babies, or their pets, installed in Kinnick this season. Iowa athletic staffers were busy this week arranging the cutouts in strategic positions to get the most air time on the ESPN broadcast.

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

There will also be some surprise guests in the cardboard cheering section, faces Iowans will recognize, like Tom Brokaw and Ashton Kutcher. It’s a safe bet that former Hawkeye tight end George Kittle’s grin will be mixed in there somewhere as well.

“I would love to be seated next to George Kittle,” said Wenger, who farms near Scranton and has been a football season ticket holder since 1992.

An array of cardboard cutouts Hawkeye fans (and two dogs) is displayed in Kinnick Stadium on Wednesday. More than 900 people paid for the chance to be seated virtually for home football games this season.

The tickets were a gift from Wenger’s parents upon his college graduation. From Iowa State.

“I went there because of the agricultural program,” Wenger is quick to point out.

He is a dyed-in-the-wool Hawkeye, even serving as president of the I-Club in Carroll.

“I’m really weird. I think of myself as the biggest Iowa fan there is. I’ve got a pink locker room in my basement complete with a pink urinal,” Wenger said, another nod to legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, who famously had the visiting locker room at Kinnick painted pink as a psychological ploy intended to pacify opponents.

“I don’t have any other hobbies. Iowa football and basketball is my total passion.”

Look in the Kinnick end zones for large groupings of cardboard cutouts

If you’ve watched sporting events at all in this year of the coronavirus, you’ve likely seen stadiums empty of actual fans but lined with rows of cutouts. They are usually a mixture of regular people wearing apparel supporting the home team and celebrities who are propped up in prominent seats where they’ll capture the eyes of the viewers at home.

Iowa, like most Big Ten Conference schools, is following the trend for its four scheduled home football games. There will be upwards of 1,000 family members of the players and coaches in attendance. And they will be joined by rows of cutouts representing fans who weren’t allowed to buy tickets this season.

Kelsey Laverdiere is in charge of that effort. She is Iowa’s assistant athletic director of marketing and fan engagement, and on Tuesday she found herself in Kinnick arranging the cutouts, starting with the student section in the south end zone. There will be another grouping of cutouts in the north end zone, so that they will be visible whenever a team attempts a field goal or extra point, the football flying end over end into a sea of Hawkeye fans who won’t be able to look up to follow its flight.

There will also be two or three rows of cardboard fans on the sidelines, with a larger concentration behind the Hawkeye bench.

Laverdiere enjoyed seeing the array of photos that Hawkeye fans chose to submit. Many are in costumes. There are several animals other than Hayden the collie who will be represented. Dozens of people chose to get cutouts made of their newly born babies.

University of Iowa employee Taylor Berry installs a cardboard cutout of a Hawkeye fan at Kinnick Stadium on Wednesday. Iowa's football home opener is at 2:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Northwestern.

There is even a family of seven that will be seated together, sharing a cardboard communal experience that symbolizes what it means to be sports fans this year.

Laverdiere also had to reject some of the wannabe cutouts. There are always fans who try to test the boundaries. “Harmless Hawkeye fun,” she called it.

“A couple of people had inappropriate masks on. Or they had their businesses branded on their shirt,” Laverdiere said. “There is a young gentleman in a Hawkeye Speedo. I think that one may have actually gotten approved.”

You’ve been warned.

Fans can still buy cutouts, with proceeds supporting Dance Marathon

Iowa, like most college and pro sports teams, contracted with an opportunistic company called FanCutouts to create its virtual cheering section. Customers simply upload a photo, crop it to their liking, and send it in. The company creates the metal brackets to hold the cutout in place and uses a printer in the local community to produce the picture. An order can be turned around in two days, Laverdiere said.

She will take new orders through the Monday of game week for the remaining three contests at Kinnick — Nov. 7 vs. Michigan State, Nov. 27 vs. Nebraska and Dec. 12 vs. Wisconsin. That allows a crew of Hawkeye employees time to get the cutouts in place before kickoff.

Fans can place their order at hawkeyesports.com/fancutouts/

Iowa students can get a cutout for $35; season ticket holders pay $50; it costs $70 for anyone else.

But don’t even think about sending in a photo of yourself wearing the gear of an opposing team. Only cardboard Hawkeye fans are allowed in Kinnick.

The university is donating 20% of its profits from the cutouts to the Dance Marathon, an annual fund-raiser that benefits the Children’s Hospital. That group has seen its donations diminish during the pandemic and the derecho that swept through the state in August. Typically, representatives of the Dance Marathon are present at every Hawkeye home game and fans are generous with their gifts to the charity.

More:University of Iowa's 27th Dance Marathon delayed, goes digital

The remaining profits, a little less than 20%, will be used to support scholarships for Iowa athletes in all sports. That’s an important revenue stream in a year in which athletic director Gary Barta has predicted a budget shortfall of $40 million to $60 million.

Many of the cardboard cutouts of fans were placed behind the goal posts at Kinnick, where they can silently observe each attempted field goal.

Hawkeye marching band alumni will be side by side in Kinnick this season

The fact that some of the money will go to the Dance Marathon made buying two cutouts “a no-brainer” for Diane Roethler of North Liberty. She had already seen cardboard replicas of fans while watching baseball games this summer and was intrigued by that notion.

So when she saw on a friend’s Facebook page that Iowa was going to do the same for football, Roethler and her husband, Andy, decided to get in on the fun. The Roethlers met while students at Iowa, both playing tenor saxophone in the marching band. Diane still enjoys coming back to Kinnick each year to perform with the alumni band.

They also have four season tickets to Hawkeye football games in the north end zone. Roethler said she could count on one hand how many home games she’s missed since 1990.

She posed for a new photo of herself, wearing a black Hawkeye jersey with former quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s name and No. 12 on it. Fans aren’t told exactly where their cutout will be placed, but she knows she’ll be side by side with her husband and is hopeful that they will recognize themselves on TV on Saturday.

“I feel like it’s a placeholder for me to still be there without actually being there,” Roethler said.

Laverdiere said she is hoping that Iowa can arrange for fans to come and safely pick up their cutouts when the season is over. They are all numbered so that should be an easy process, if the school can identify a location that would allow for social distancing.

Roethler isn’t in a hurry to retrieve hers, though.

“Part of me was hoping they’d move it over to Carver so that we could watch basketball, too, if they’re not allowing fans,” she said.

The university has not yet announced that decision.

For $500, a Kirk Ferentz signature and a piece of memorabilia for the ages

Seven fans will definitely get their cutouts shipped to them at season’s end. Those are the ones who paid $500 to get Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz’s autograph on their pictures.

Brad Davis is one of them. The native of Hampton grew up listening to Hawkeye football games with his father, enrolled in the university in 1973 and has been an avid fan of all Iowa sports ever since.

Davis, who lives in Coralville, normally has eight season tickets in Kinnick for his family. This season, he will be seated alone, in the front row because of the size of his purchase.

He said the primary motivation was to support the athletic department. He isn’t looking to see himself on television.

Davis sent in a picture he took of himself last year at the Midlands wrestling tournament in Chicago, with his credentials around his neck wearing his customary attire.

“I’m always in Hawkeye gear,” Davis said.

And so he will be again Saturday, in person as he watches the football game at home with his family, and in Kinnick, where his image will be prominently displayed. After that, Davis will store the cutout, and the Ferentz signature, in his “man cave,” with the rest of the memorabilia he’s collected in half a century of Hawkeye fandom.

It will be a reminder of how surreal the sports landscape has been this season. When silent fans had the best seats in the house.

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