Leistikow: Humble Nate Stanley a perfect fit as Iowa football's quarterback
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley celebrated his five-touchdown performance against Ohio State by staying home Saturday night, enjoying a bowl of his mother’s cheeseburger soup.
Iowa’s low-key sophomore quarterback, whose one word description of himself is “introverted,” is the antithesis of Johnny Football.
Stanley is so selective with his words that Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz had a hard time reading him after one of Iowa’s summer football camps in 2014.
That was the day Ferentz offered Stanley a college scholarship.
Well, at least he thought he did.
To make sure, one of the Big Ten Conference’s winningest coaches took to chasing Stanley and his father, Jay, back to their car and told them: “By the way: That was an offer.”
Good to be sure on this one, Coach.
Stanley is a special talent. He committed to Iowa prior to his junior football season in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and kept it to himself for another few months. He was a diamond-in-the-rough discovery that Iowa’s coaches — especially Seth Wallace, then the recruiting coordinator — were secretly giddy about securing.
It probably felt like signing day would never come; especially with the home-state Badgers knocking on Stanley's door.
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Iowa knew what it had in Stanley: A high-character guy with immense talent and pro size (now 6-foot-5, 237 pounds) who keeps distractions such as social media to a minimum. He'd rather avoid the spotlight.
But when you’re a talented quarterback, the spotlight eventually finds you.
And that’s where Stanley finds himself this week. He’s returning to face the other Big Ten program that wanted him badly.
It’s Iowa vs. Wisconsin.
The pride of Menomonie High School — which is actually 130 miles closer to Minneapolis than Madison — will aim to do his part in derailing the College Football Playoff hopes of the 9-0, third-ranked Badgers in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Camp Randall Stadium.
If you thought Stanley would say yes, you haven’t been paying attention.
“Just prepare the same way,” Stanley said. “And maybe amp up my preparation, so I can be totally prepared.
“The routine that I’ve used throughout the week the whole year has worked for me, so I’m just going to continue to do that.”
Stanley, 20, estimates between 150 and 200 people he personally knows from back home will be at the game. But he's only had to get four tickets; almost everyone was already going to the game as a Wisconsin student or Badgers fan.
He won't be fazed by the pressure of the moment.
Of his 22 touchdown passes this season, none may have been more impressive than his fourth of five against Ohio State. With one of the Big Ten’s top pass rushers, Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard, on the ground holding his legs for a good 2 seconds while a teammate charged, Stanley whipped a 2-yard laser of a touchdown to T.J. Hockenson in the back of the end zone.
It looked like a fastball from a baseball pitcher, and it was no accident.
Stanley said he’s been clocked at 93 mph in that sport. But finances were tight at home, and “there’s more opportunity to have school paid for with college football," he said. "It’s something my parents and I talked about.”
He and parents Jay and Donita, who met while attending Wartburg College in Waverly, had other talks when Wisconsin was putting on the full-court recruiting press.
Stanley never took an official visit to Wisconsin. He enjoyed his conversations with Badgers coach Paul Chryst, who was actually the first to offer him a scholarship when he was Pittsburgh’s head coach. But to Stanley, raised in a Christian home, his word became a deciding factor.
“That’s something my parents always said: If you give somebody your word, that’s something you’ve got to stick with,” Stanley said. “Definitely felt that with the situation with coach Chryst and coach Ferentz.”
That sincerity has endeared Stanley with his Iowa teammates.
“What you guys see of Nate Stanley is the exact person he is. A soft-spoken guy. A fiery competitor. But really just an overall good kid,” fullback Drake Kulick said. “Clearly, he was raised in a good family. He’s not full of himself at all. He’s a blue-collar type of guy who’s going to come to work every day and put everything in he can.”
In nine games as a college starter, Stanley has already assembled more memorable moments than some quarterbacks enjoy in a career.
At Iowa State in his second start, he rallied Iowa back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit with his fifth touchdown pass delivering a 44-41, overtime win.
The moment wasn’t too big for him against Penn State, when he threw a gorgeous back-shoulder TD pass to Nick Easley and later a 70-yarder to Akrum Wadley.
Then came Ohio State, in which he led a 55-24 shellacking of the Buckeyes — the most points by an Iowa team against a Big Ten opponent since 2008.
His teammates love fighting for him; he relishes fighting for them.
“The last couple weeks, we’ve continued to build and grow closer as a team,” said Stanley, who, with a strong finish to the season, could make a case for all-Big Ten votes. "I think just being able to have that close connection with your teammates really helps you give everything that you have, and play for your teammates and not just for yourself.”
He’s a guy that’s easy to root for.
A guy Iowa’s lucky to have.
He could have been living it up Saturday night after the biggest win of his career.
Instead, he was doing what is most natural to him: Spending time with Mom, Dad and a bowl of cheeseburger soup.
What did they say to their son?
"That they love me and they’re proud of me," Stanley said. "That’s all you can ask for.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.