Leistikow: Nate Wieting's Pinstripe Bowl moment still packs meaning

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Becoming a hero can sometimes be a simple as making one successful play.

But making that play first requires being in the right place at the right time.

And being in that right place at the right time often requires years of unseen sacrifice.

Warren Holloway is the prime Iowa football example of a career grinder who suddenly became a hero. The only touchdown pass he ever caught in five years at Iowa was the last ball ever thrown his way, a walk-off desperation heave from Drew Tate in the 2005 Capital One Bowl that stunned LSU.

Iowa tight end Nate Wieting's first career catch, a 17-yarder, helped set up the Hawkeyes winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl.

While Nate Wieting’s late-game catch in Iowa’s Dec. 27 Pinstripe Bowl win against Boston College isn’t close to matching the instant-legend magnitude of Holloway’s, it was a significant moment for a walk-on tight end from Rockford, Illinois, who has paid his football dues.

“Unbelievable,” Wieting says of his first catch as a Hawkeye. “It was awesome.”

More detail on how the play itself unfolded in a moment.

But first, there's value in understanding how he got there, as one of the 11 Hawkeyes on that frozen Yankee Stadium field in a crunch-time moment to help deliver Iowa’s first bowl victory in seven years.

That Wieting became a Hawkeye was by itself a long-shot moment.

An all-conference player in Illinois, Wieting didn’t have a single scholarship offer — not even from an FCS school. Yet late in the recruiting process, he got an e-mail from Brian Ferentz, currently Iowa’s offensive coordinator.

Iowa invited Wieting to accept a walk-on offer. He accepted.

“It’s definitely intimidating at first,” Wieting says now, as he prepares to enter his fourth year in the program. Iowa concludes spring practices this week. “But I knew I wanted to challenge myself to see what level I could play and succeed at.”

Wieting cracked the Hawkeye rotation at a gutted tight-end position as a redshirt freshman. With future NFL draft pick George Kittle out, he played a key blocking role in Iowa’s 14-13 upset of Michigan on Nov. 12, 2016.

But he says he tore a labrum in his shoulder at some point in the season. After the 2017 Outback Bowl, he would have three surgeries (shoulder, knee, foot) and miss crucial winter and spring development portions of the 2017 Hawkeye football calendar.

Finally back on the field in August, Wieting was ready to dive back into things entering his redshirt sophomore year. On the first week of fall camp, he dove all right — into the ground and back into the medical ward.

While lunging for a pass, Wieting had sprained the AC joint in that same injured shoulder. He was sidelined for another two months.

“Just like that, I was out,” he recalls. “It took a while for me to get back.”

He eventually worked his way in for a few late-season snaps and earned a more prominent role in games against Purdue and Nebraska.

Nate Wieting (39) had a more pronounced role toward the end of last season, as shown here with helping running back Akrum Wadley (25) up the field at Nebraska. Wieting was on the field for Wadley's 5-yard touchdown run in the subsequent Pinstripe Bowl and later had the game's key catch to beat Boston College.

Then came the Pinstripe Bowl. With the Hawkeye offense struggling to gain traction on a slippery field, Brian Ferentz outlined halftime adjustments to his players.

“We were having a tough time getting the ball on the edge. Even in route running, it was tough to get cuts going,” says Wieting, recalling Ferentz’s impetus for making second-half changes. “So the best option was to run downhill and run vertical routes.”

That meant more Wieting, who at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds was a better power-blocking option than Noah Fant as the complementary tight end to T.J. Hockenson.

Wieting would be deployed for 16 snaps that night, 14 of them coming after halftime. And with just over 3½ minutes left in a 20-20 game at Yankee Stadium, there he was, lined up just behind the right side of offensive line with Iowa at the Eagles’ 18-yard line.

The pass play that Ferentz put in the halftime game plan was called. Wieting — again, with zero career catches — darted ahead for about 10 yards and turned to his right. Attacking BC safety, Lukas Denis, had let Wieting go, his eyes instead focused on fullback Brady Ross coming out of the backfield.

Quarterback Nate Stanley dropped back to pass.

Wieting was wide open.

“A blown coverage,” Wieting says. “They dropped me right away. And I tried to make a play.”

Stanley whipped a side-arm toss through the frigid Bronx air. And Wieting stuck out his hands and pulled the football into his belly at the BC 5.

He then remembers a feeling of surprise. He hadn’t realized how close Iowa was to the end zone.

“I turned up field,” he says, “and I saw the pylon, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get in.’”

He stumbled and dove. Officials signaled: Touchdown Iowa.

A replay review, though, ruled Wieting’s elbow had struck the ground before scoring. No touchdown; Iowa instead would have the ball inside the 1-yard line.

A walk-on’s dream moment denied?

Hardly. As Wieting puts it, he was happy that Iowa could burn more clock and that on the next play, another walk-on who had paid his dues would get his own hero moment.

Fullback Drake Kulick, a fifth-year senior from Muscatine, surged into the end zone on Iowa's next play for his first career rushing touchdown on his fifth and final career carry.

Iowa senior fullback Drake Kulick hits a home run at Yankee Stadium after scoring Iowa's go-ahead run in the Hawkeyes' 27-20 win over Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

“That’s how it should’ve played out,” Wieting says now.

A classy approach.

Wieting remains a walk-on going into his redshirt junior season.

A scholarship would be nice, sure.

"But that’s not what I’m focused on when I come here every day," he says. "I’m focused on how I can get better. What can I do to help the team improve? Ultimately, it’s just for the team."

Wieting feels like the old guy in the tight-end room, and he sees a bevy of talent around him — Fant and Hockenson, plus up-and-comers Shaun Beyer and Drew Cook.

He chuckles about his career ratio of snaps-to-catches.

He’ll probably always be known as the blocking guy.

But nobody can ever take away his hero moment, catching the last Hawkeye pass thrown in the 2017 season.

He was in the right place, and he battled for years to be there at the right time.

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.

Next Tuesday: Kirk Ferentz in W.D.M.

What: Polk County I-Club spring event

When, where: Tuesday, April 24, at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines; social hour from 5-6 p.m., dinner at 6, program at 7.

Tickets: $38 per person; $28 for kids eighth grade or younger; $380 for a reserved table at 10. Includes dinner and program. Purchase online at www.polkiclub.com or call Joe Chmelka, (515) 770-7535.

Other details: Some outgoing senior Iowa football players will be in attendance and available to sign autographs for kids. Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz will be the keynote speaker; radio voice Gary Dolphin is the emcee.