Leistikow: Ferentzes' $1M gift helps cause close to their hearts

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

A few Decembers ago, I had an interview scheduled with Mary Ferentz about one of her passion projects, the Iowa Ladies Football Academy.

So, wanting to be prepared, I had jotted down some questions and topics I planned to broach.

Mary Ferentz, left, and her husband, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, right, have donated $1 million to help UI Children's Hospital researchers.

My intended angle was about the philanthropic generosity that she and her husband, aka Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz, had demonstrated during their decades in Iowa City: to the university, to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

When I started asking questions about it, Mary changed the subject.

After another rebuffed attempt, it started to crystallize just how much she and Kirk wanted to downplay their generous gifts (and efforts) to the most worthwhile of causes: children who face some of the most challenging medical circumstances.

On Wednesday, word came out in a nondescript, afternoon university bulletin that Kirk and Mary Ferentz had donated $1 million — yes, one million dollars — to help UI Children’s Hospital researchers by creating the Savvy Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research, which will focus on improving survival rates for premature babies.

This cause especially hits home for the Ferentzes.

"Things that happened," Kirk Ferentz told us during Wednesday night's weekly Hawk Central radio show, "draw you closer to people that are really doing some fantastic (things)."

It was three years ago this month, Kirk and Mary lost granddaughter Savvy Elizabeth Ferentz, who was born to (Hawkeye assistant) Brian and Nikki Ferentz at 21 weeks, 5 days of gestation. Savvy probably needed to get to 24 or 25 weeks for a fighting chance.

Iowa is among the world's top neonatal intensive-care providers. At the UI Children's Hospital, Savvy had a better chance than almost anywhere else. 

The Ferentzes are hoping to help improve those odds.

“Iowa’s neonatologists are committed and are already leading the way for these little babies,” Mary Ferentz said in the release. “We so deeply admire and appreciate the people who gave us hope and helped our family so much. This is a way for us to help them help others.”

The more I’ve gotten to know both Kirk and Mary, the more their humble, down-to-earth approach with everyone in their path is apparent.

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It’s gifts like these that are an important reminder that Kirk Ferentz isn’t just a gum-chewing coach with a headset who is busy counting his money from his latest contract extension.

Sure, it’s still fair game for myself, other media and fans to criticize Kirk Ferentz for football shortcomings. He’s a very public figure who is being paid very well (roughly $5 million a year) at a public university.

But it’s only fair that we all mention he’s also giving back, which he and Mary have done via multiple six-figure donations over his 18-plus years as head coach. They've donated heavily to the UI's Children’s Hospital and College of Liberal Arts, not to mention a $500,000 gift for the Iowa Football Performance Center.

And when Ferentz is walking the Iowa sideline for the Sept. 2 opener vs. Wyoming, there will be a towering reminder of that generosity overhead. For the first time, the new UI Children’s Hospital that overlooks the East stands of Kinnick Stadium will have patients inside during games. It's likely many kids will be in there, fighting for their lives.

The recently relocated facility was, in part, funded by donations from the Ladies Football Academy. Roughly $1.8 million for the hospital and research has been raised over the seven years of the event, which brings women inside the Hawkeye football program for a day each summer.

It’s a commonly shared adage, which stems from the Bible, that says: “To whom much is given, of him will much be required.”

Kirk and Mary Ferentz have got that one down.

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.