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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent grew up in Key West, Florida, on his winding path to Iowa City. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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TAMPA, Fla. — When Mekhi Sargent was young, maybe 3 years old as he remembers it, he and his father would grab a football and play on the side of their house in Key West, Florida.

Dad would stick handoffs in his belly, throw him soft passes.

“He was the first one to put the rock in my hand,” Sargent said Thursday. “I fell in love with the sport after that.”

Football really isn’t much of a thing in Key West. And college recruiters aren’t exactly trekking to a tourist island that’s closer to Cuba than Miami and measures only eight square miles.

But somehow, Sargent’s path has taken him to a Power Five football program in Iowa — and now back to Florida again.

Sargent has become the top running back for the 8-4 Iowa Hawkeyes, who will face 8-4 Mississippi State here in Tuesday's Outback Bowl.

Many supporters who followed Sargent’s football journey will make the seven-hour journey by car from Key West to Tampa.

That group will include his mother, Yolanda, and aforementioned father, Donald.

“I couldn’t count (how many). A lot of my family’s coming,” Sargent said. “I’ve got some friends and some teachers and old referees coming.”

Heck, bring the whole town.

The island of about 26,000 wouldn’t even fill half of Raymond James Stadium.

Sargent’s unlikely story certainly falls in the feel-good category.

He doesn’t look like a college running back. Iowa lists him at 5-foot-10, but he’s probably closer to 5-7. But those that have seen him run know he packs a wallop in his 210-pound body.

In a leap of faith, Sargent signed on with Scott Strohmeier at Iowa Western Community College. He'd never visited Iowa — he'd only Googled it before making the move. Late in his red-shirt freshman season, he caught the attention of Hawkeyes recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell.

Iowa liked the cut of his jib, and in June he joined the team — choosing the Hawkeyes over a scholarship offer from Louisville — with a quiet determination to contribute.

“Mekhi’s just a really solid guy — he takes coaching; he responds to coaching,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Thursday. “He’s got a real attitude of gratitude about every day because he’s been some places where it wasn’t so easy.”

The Hawkeyes started the year with Ivory Kelly-Martin as their lead back in a group of three, which included Toren Young and Sargent.

Kelly-Martin encountered various injuries. Young was more one-dimensional as a power back.

And so, as the season wore on, Sargent became the Hawkeyes’ go-to. In Iowa’s final two games, he produced the team’s only 100-yard rushing performances of the season — 121 yards at Illinois and 173 against Nebraska.

It was in that 31-28 win against the Cornhuskers that Sargent produced crucial yards in the rain. It was a tenacious, second-effort 16-yard run on a third-and-1 that helped lead the charge to Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal.

“You think a play’s over, and all of a sudden he comes squirting out of the pile,” offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “He’s something else. He’s a great kid. He runs so hard.”

Of Sargent’s team-high 748 rushing yards, 505 came in the second half of the season. He also collected 12 of his 16 receptions in those games.

“I started off pretty slow,” Sargent said, “but I kept my best foot forward, watched the film and played my best football."

As you can tell, Sargent doesn’t say much.

But you can also tell he’s just thrilled to be here — and not just because of the hot Florida temperatures he’s accustomed to.

Sargent’s mother will be here Sunday, and they’ll get some time after both teams’ “Beach Day” to hang out together. This will be just the second time she’ll get to see him play a college game in person; she was up for the Northwestern game on Nov. 10.

"As long as my mom and dad are proud of me," he said, "that's all that really matters."

His father is supposed to get here on game day.

He’s never been to one of his son’s college games.

As Sargent thinks back to those times in their yard in Key West, he can’t help but be motivated.

And thankful to be here.

“I want to show him,” Sargent said, “what I’ve grown into.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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