Leistikow: A horrific tragedy, a community's generosity and how Hawkeye wrestling fits in

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Sometime Saturday night, Nick Heeren — a regular guy with an office job, a wife and two young kids — will put on a costume, sprint down a grassy hill … and jump.

When gravity takes over, Heeren’s body will splash, feet-first, into a January-chilled pond near the No. 10 tee box at Coralville’s Brown Deer Golf Course.

Heeren’s stay in water temperatures of 34 to 36 degrees won’t last long. Nobody’s does at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club's “Arctic Plunge” fund-raiser.

Heeren’s jump, though, will mean far more than completion of a zany, seventh-annual ritual among people nuts about Iowa wrestling. For him, those few moments submerged in crazy-cold water will punctuate a touching tribute to his brother, and perhaps mark a step in the healing process of a horrific family tragedy.

Dan Heeren, left, was killed in a December workplace accident. Here, he is pictured with younger brother Nick.

“I don’t know if 'relief' is the right word,” Nick says, “but maybe a little bit more closure.”

Nick will never forget the phone call he got from his father this past Dec. 6. It was a Wednesday.

“No. No. No,” he remembers saying into the phone from his kitchen table in Waukee.

The horrifying news: Dan Heeren — Nick’s older brother — had been killed earlier that morning while on the job at DuPont Industrial Biosciences in Cedar Rapids. He was crushed by the rear duals of a semi truck as it pulled out of a loading area.

First responders pronounced Dan dead at the scene. He was 46.

“I just went upstairs and sat in a corner for a while” upon hearing the news, said Nick, 35.

Cedar Rapids police found no criminal intent, public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said. Results of an Iowa OSHA investigation obtained by the Des Moines Register found a “serious” safety violation and ordered DuPont Danisco U.S. to pay a $4,500 fine.

A few days after the funeral, Nick — a season ticketholder for Iowa wrestling — got an email.

And an idea.

The email came from Randy Novak, president of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, regarding the upcoming Arctic Plunge, which offers fans a chance to "plunge" with icons such as Iowa coach Tom Brands — football coach Kirk Ferentz once did it — while raising money for their favorite team. (Over the years, plungers have dressed up in a range of goofy costumes to add to the event's unusual nature.)

Nick knew Dan loved Hawkeye athletics — especially wrestling, as a former fiery competitor in that sport. Nick and Dan, who both wrestled at Cedar Rapids Kennedy, would talk about how they wished Iowa wrestling could one day get back on top, where it was when they were younger.

“He loved (Thomas) Gilman,” Nick says of the scrappy 2017 world silver medalist who competes in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. “He loved his attitude. (Dan) was short, he was cocky, he was loud-mouthed. And he would back it up if he needed to.”

Nick also remembered how his brother would emphasize the importance of providing “experiences” for his children — doing something you might not normally do, because it’ll create a lasting memory.

Plunging into icy waters while dozens of onlookers cheer you on? That checks the box.

Nick thought Dan would want him to do that, especially if it raised money for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.

For those that don’t know, the HWC provides support and travel expenses for post-graduate wrestlers to, in part, train in the Iowa wresting room with Brands' collegiate team.

“They’re mentors. They’re extensions to the coaching staff,” Novak says. “It’s awesome to keep them around and see them trying to achieve their dreams.”

Training with the best helps elevate everyone in the room. Currently, there are 12 wrestlers in the HWC. Novak wants to add more elite athletes, as Iowa’s college program continues to try to take steps to chop down the NCAA’s heavyweight of the past decade, Penn State.

Nick began his quest with what seemed like an ambitious fund-raising goal of $1,500.

As of Thursday afternoon, he was at $13,601 in donations and counting.

What started as telling a few family and friends turned into a message-board post that gathered more word-of-mouth support.

The website tracks and collects donations, all the way until Saturday’s event — which will follow that night’s 5 p.m. dual vs. Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The top eight fund-raisers achieve “All-American” status.

As of Thursday, Nick was running second to perennial fund-raising winner Mark Ironside, a former two-time NCAA champion at Iowa who wrestled for Cedar Rapids Jefferson.

One night before he went to bed, Nick noticed a $1,000 bump in his tally.

It was from a stranger who saw his story and wanted to honor Dan's memory.

The contributions have been numerous, wide-ranging and humbling.

One from Nick's childhood babysitter. One came from Japan. One was a $500 gift from the wrestling club at Cedar Rapids Kennedy.

On New Year’s Day, Nick got a $5,000 donation from another huge Hawkeye wrestling supporter who preferred to remain anonymous.

Nick estimates he’s sent more than 60 hand-written thank-you notes over the past six weeks.

He didn’t want to send emails. He wanted those supporting his jump to sense the personal, meaningful connection he was feeling — a common bond among family, acquaintances and strangers to help soften the pain of a tragic loss.

Nick is amazed at the outreach.

“It started with an event that was very negative, very sad,” Nick says. “The positive event that comes out of it is what this is for.”

But this won’t be the end of remembering Dan. Efforts are in the works to hold a summer golf tournament at Dan’s home course, Tara Hills in Van Horne, in his honor.

First, though, comes Nick's plunge into the icy pond water.

Nick believes Dan will be with him Saturday night, just not physically.

One jump, one experience he'll never forget.

“I think he’d be proud,” Nick says. “He’d love it.”

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.