Leistikow: Walk-on Hawkeye tight ends, fittingly, in focus
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Dallas Clark, who this week becomes the fifth honoree to the America Needs Farmers (ANF) Wall of Fame at Kinnick Stadium, has a wonderful story that Hawkeye fans know well.
Before he became an All-America tight end at Iowa and a Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts, he was putting highlight tapes together — on VHS — hoping to get any Division I football program a chance to walk on.
“Maybe by my senior year I’ll be on special teams,” Clark, now 37, recalled thinking, “and I’ll get a letterman’s jacket.”
Iowa gave him a chance, and Clark would earn a lot more than a piece of outerwear: a Mackey Award as college football's top tight end, a Pro Bowl berth, and more than $40 million and 5,600 receiving yards in 11 NFL seasons.
Clark’s climb particularly rings true this week, as Iowa starting tight end George Kittle could miss Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against No. 10 Wisconsin with a foot injury.
Enter Peter Pekar, Kittle’s backup you've barely heard of.
A walk-on who has labored behind the scenes within the Iowa football program — like Clark once did.
Pekar bypassed scholarship offers from the likes of Western Illinois to walk on at Iowa from Greendale, Wis., to play for the school his father, Jim, did as a defensive lineman in 1980 and 1981.
“I always knew I wanted to come here and give it a shot,” Pekar said. “I didn’t want to regret taking a scholarship at a smaller school and wonder what happened.”
In his first three years in the program, Pekar saw action in one game — at the end of a 62-16 rout last season of North Texas.
He rose to co-No. 2 tight end entering his redshirt junior season. But when Jon Wisnieski hurt his knee in fall camp, an opportunity opened for Pekar to secure the No. 2 job.
Now, as Iowa gets set to play its biggest game to date of the 2016 season, he might be No. 1.
“Guys that work hard that show up that do their job, you’re going to get your opportunity,” Clark said. “The exciting thing about this game is: What do you do with that opportunity?”
Iowa fans — and Pekar — may find out Saturday.
And the stakes couldn't be much higher, with 5-2 Iowa facing a top-10 team in the Badgers (4-2, 1-2) and Big Ten West title implications in play.
Iowa has deployed Pekar quite a bit as a blocker in double tight-end formations, with Kittle (17 catches, 280 yards) being a key pass-game target.
Kittle has eight career touchdowns; Pekar has zero career receptions.
“Whenever my number’s called, hopefully I’ll be open,” Pekar said. “I’m ready for it.”
Now in his fourth year in the program, Pekar still doesn’t have a scholarship to his name. Out-of-state tuition isn’t cheap.
One of the best things of being a walk-on at Iowa, he said, is being treated as if you're a four-star scholarship player.
In fact, he told a story about how one of the strength coaches had no idea he wasn’t on scholarship.
“You didn’t know that I wasn’t?” Pekar remembers telling him. “It was kind of cool for me.”
Don’t look for the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Pekar to play like Kittle this week. It'll take a team effort.
If Kittle's out, Pekar will probably play most snaps and be asked to do a lot of blocking — his main jobs being to create run-game holes, protect C.J. Beathard and avoid false-start penalties (he's beaten himself up over two this year).
True freshman Noah Fant (four catches, 21 yards) might see an upgraded role as a pass-game threat. Another walk-on, redshirt freshman Nate Wieting, would join the by-committee mix.
But what a story it’d be if Pekar could make a key block or key catch against his home-state team.
Pekar has waited for his turn, behind the likes of C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jake Duzey, Henry Krieger Coble and Kittle.
As Clark told the abridged version of his walk-on story Tuesday, he closed with this:
“I could go on. There’s a lot more valleys in that story,” he said. “But the good Lord knows what he’s doing.”
Clark knows the full scope of a walk-on story can’t be told over the course of a press conference or 10-minute interview on game week.
Pekar knows that path well.
“It’s been a long road,” Pekar said, without getting into further details. “You put in your time. You keep learning and grinding. It’s fun to finally see the field and play.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.