Drew Ott was a star defensive end with an NFL career in front of him. All that changed when a string of injuries forced him out of the game he loves. Des Moines Register
TRUMBULL, Neb. — The late-morning sun is shining in the farm fields of south-central Nebraska, a welcomed change this rain-soaked spring.
It’s planting season, and the most famous resident of Trumbull (population 197) is behind the wheel of the red tractor churning slowly in solitude alongside Gunbarrel Road.
Life moves at about 4 mph these days for 25-year-old Drew Ott.
“It’s pretty tough driving,” he sarcastically says, pointing to the electronic GPS system his family purchased years ago when corn was at $7 a bushel — about double what it is today. “You just hit this little button right here, and it drives straight.”
Ott is a full-time farmer now and says he has retired from football. But, as is the theme throughout our Thursday together, it’s clear he hasn’t fully let go of what could have been.
Make no mistake: Ott is happy. The farm life was always his dream. But he wasn’t supposed to already be here.
He was supposed to be at one of the NFL’s 32 organized offseason workouts this week, not pouring bags of corn seed into the back of his planter.
“Now, I’ve got to listen to my dad,” Ott says, his delivery again rich with dry humor. “The plan was to go to the NFL for a couple years and have all the money, and he’d have to listen to me. Now, he has all the money. That’s about the only difference.
“This is what I wanted to do. Just a little sooner than I wanted to.”
As Ott climbs out of his $130,000 tractor, it’s as if he’s making a movie entrance. The microphones and cameras are here, in an isolated plot of middle America, to tell his story.
He remains a physically imposing man at 6-foot-4½, looking like he could still hold his own against Ohio State. Blond hair flows from behind his red-billed ball cap. His blue eyes match his jeans, and he proudly patrols his family’s 1,650 acres with a bright gold Iowa football T-shirt.
Ott’s story is one fit for film. It’s got humble beginnings. The beautiful woman. Moments of extreme glory. Physical and emotional pain. Perceived political wrongdoing. A dramatic comeback attempt. And a heartbreaking final twist.
But mostly, Ott’s story is about the fragile nature of dreams — even for the can’t-miss, highly trained athletes — and how we learn to deal with setbacks, to keep plowing ahead, to find new dreams.
On the farm, Drew Ott has a lot of time to think.
And each time he thinks about his football abilities, he drifts back to the summer of 2015, prior to his senior year at Iowa.
“I was on top of the world,” he says.
With a farm-raised work ethic, he had risen from 8-man football to earning a Division I football scholarship — the first for anyone to hail from tiny Giltner High School — to being one of the Big Ten Conference's most feared pass rushers.
Reese Morgan, the longtime Iowa assistant, discovered Ott off a tip from a rival high school coach. The first time he visited Trumbull, Morgan had navigated snow-covered gravel roads to reach the Otts’ farmhouse. When he knocked, Ott answered the door wearing cut-off jeans and work boots caked in manure.
Quite the introduction. That'd be one of the movie scenes, surely.
The legendary Ott stories continued from there. He once patiently drove his moped 12 hours from Iowa City to Trumbull. He was known to eat raw eggs, shell included. One week in 2014, while riding his moped without a helmet, he was struck by a Buick and hospitalized — then played that Saturday against Iowa State. He had eight sacks in that junior season. But he was just getting started.
The offseason of 2015 morphed into the Summer of Drew.
He was already a second-team all-Big Ten defensive end. He had just begun dating Iowa women’s basketball player Kali Peschel after successfully wooing her with a goofy Instagram message while she was in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. He was a team captain, stronger and faster than ever. He was considered a major NFL Draft prospect. Second round, at least.
“He was killing it in the weight room. Killing it with leadership,” Morgan recalls. “Playing at the highest level.
“He’s everything that’s good about football.”
Ott famously dominated Iowa’s Kids Day scrimmage that summer. Not even 3,000-pound cars could slow him down; how could a 300-pound left tackle?
Ott was unstoppable. He seemed invincible.
Knowing now what would transpire in the coming weeks and years, his mind flashes back to those dominant, happier football days.
"That summer was my peak," Ott says now, from the kitchen table of the home he and Kali, his wife since July 2017, share. “... No one will believe how good of an athlete I was. No one saw that five-month window of my life.”
His only half of football at full strength for Iowa's magical 2015 season came in the opener against FCS Illinois State. Ott had two sacks and a forced fumble in an overpowering first half. But after suffering a bloody nose and with Iowa winning comfortably, he barely played in the second. Up next: Iowa State.
Kali interjects — again, knowing now what was about to happen.
"It was sad for me," she says. "Because I never got to see the prime Drew."
Kirk Ferentz saw those five months.
Iowa’s longtime head coach, who has an NFL pedigree and an acute eye for in-the-trenches talent, says Ott reminded him of Aaron Kampman — a farm-raised defensive lineman who would go on to record 58 sacks during his 10-year NFL career, mostly with the Green Bay Packers.
“(Kampman) ended up being a fifth-round draft pick and then being a Pro Bowl player, so obviously he kept improving with every step,” says Ferentz, who was delighted to talk about Ott’s story in a recent interview. “As a coach, I thought there were a lot of parallels between their potential and their development."
The Iowa State game on Sept. 12, 2015, changed everything. When Ott scrambled for a loose fumble in the first quarter, his elbow bent in a gruesome way it’s not supposed to bend. A hustle play gone badly wrong. As we talk, Ott whips out his phone to pull up the photo of his entirely purple left arm in the trainer's room.
He didn’t know it then — neither did team doctors — but the tendons around his elbow were completely severed. All that held his left arm together was skin.
An average man can squeeze about 110 pounds of pressure with his hand. An elite athlete can easily top 150. After the Iowa State game, Ott’s was 15.
Still, he was undeterred.
“I was going to play my senior year,” he says, “and dominate.”
He played a handful of snaps the next week — “not very well,” as he puts it — against Pittsburgh. He had played the week after his shins were swollen from being slammed by a Buick; why couldn’t he play with one functional arm?
“I was always doing therapy and icing it,” Ott says. “It was never really getting any better, since I didn’t have any tendons connecting."
He would get the elbow taped and put on a brace. Then, another brace on top of the first. Plus, lots of ibuprofen.
“It wasn’t season-ending," Ott says. "It probably should have been, I guess. But I wasn’t going to stop.”
Two months later, when Ott would have the first of two elbow surgeries, doctors were amazed that he continued to play through what had to be excruciating pain.
“They said, ‘How could this guy even practice?’ His threshold for pain has to be as high as anyone I’ve ever been around,” says Morgan, who coached for more than four decades before retiring this spring. “He was disabled. He should have been medically disqualified.”
In Game 6, in the third quarter against Illinois, Ott crumpled to the ground, without contact, on a punt rush. A torn ACL in his right knee. It ended up being the last snap of his collegiate career.
So began what he calls the toughest year of his life.
He could only watch as the Hawkeyes went 12-0 in the regular season and were within a yard of the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State’s L.J. Scott lunged over the goal line around a third-string defensive end in the final minute of the Big Ten championship game.
Ott wonders how things might’ve been different, if he had been playing. Even with one useless arm.
"I’d have to check my diary," Ott says. "But that was probably my worst day.”
Just because you thought you could’ve helped?
A few moments of silence.
One of the things Ott likes about farming is being his own boss. Choosing his hours.
“And being able to step outside and pee whenever I want,” he quips.
Ott likes staying busy and being outdoors. Even during the slower winter months, he's on the move. Ott racks up about about 60,000 miles on the family's four semi trucks — hauling seed and making deliveries as far away as Texas and Oklahoma for a Johnston-based company called AgVenture. The days are long (often 14 hours of driving) but necessary. Trucking is the most profitable piece of the family operation and helps keep the farm afloat.
Do you like to drive?
"No, not really," he says. "I like making money, though.”
As a player, he could also largely control when and how he came back from adversity. Get hit by a moped, find a way to play. Ruin your elbow, get back out there the next week.
So you can imagine his frustration to be laid up after late-fall elbow and knee surgeries and having his football fate left to faceless committee members who didn’t even know him.
Ott’s failed appeal to the Big Ten, and ultimately the NCAA, for a medical-hardship waiver and a fifth year of college eligibility is something Ferentz still brings up at press conferences.
"To my grave, (I) will always struggle,” Ferentz says, “understanding what the NCAA was thinking when they ruled against him."
The Big Ten denied Ott’s appeal once. The NCAA denied it twice, without so much as a signature at the end of the short decision.
True, Ott had exceeded the maximum for games played in 2015 to meet one of the hardship requirements.
But, Ferentz says, "If the NCAA would have taken time to look at the tape of what he did when he did play, it wasn’t Drew Ott out there. ... His mental toughness, which made him such a good player, ironically, killed his opportunity to get another year."
By rule, nobody from Iowa football could make a personal appeal for Ott. The compliance office sent the information and waited. Ferentz's anger escalates each year on this topic as he sees the NCAA become increasingly liberal in awarding transfer waivers and extra seasons. The ruling that saw Nebraska's Tanner Lee get a sixth year of eligibility because a previous school changed offensive schemes still burns him.
Ott couldn't even get a fifth.
"I know they don’t need 100 coaches calling them on a weekly basis. I get this," Ferentz says. "But maybe they ought to give you one call out of every decade of your coaching career.
"I’m sure our compliance people represented it well. But you know, we live in a world of automation and all that stuff now. It just seemed like a decision that was void of common sense or any human compassion. That part bothers me. And you’re talking about a kid’s future.
“It just didn’t seem like a fair process.”
So you would've used your one call in 10 years on Drew?
"I would’ve given up both calls," says Ferentz, entering his 21st year at Iowa, "for that call."
The movie now takes an emotional turn, as the invincible football player comes to grips with his brokenness.
The timing of the NCAA’s final verdict was terrible. Ott had been confident he’d be allowed back at Iowa for a fifth year. The new reality: He needed to hire an agent, with only a few weeks to scramble in front of teams before the NFL Draft. And now he needed a second knee operation to clean up the first. He was damaged goods.
The NFL basically told him to get healthy and try again in 12 months.
“That whole year after that," Ott says, "was not a happy year."
As we add up his surgeries, the total comes to seven in 13 months and change, from November 2015 to December 2016. Four on the knee (including a new meniscus repair), two on the elbow, one to repair a hernia.
"I had my wisdom tooth out that year, too," he adds. “So, eight. It was a busy year in the pain-pill market.”
During that time, Ott experienced anger. He felt wronged by the NCAA. Sure, he might've been limited, even if he had returned. But, as he says now: "It’s tough telling. Iowa might have hired two specialists to come in and try to get my knee to work."
Each day he tried to fight back on his own, the NFL dream somehow seemed further away.
Ott doesn’t get emotional as we navigate our day. He jokes that we’ll have to come back and have beers on a Saturday night to get him to crack. But finally, he relents that there are scars beneath those visible on his sore body.
“I don’t know how to put (the feelings) into words,” Ott says as he stands in front of his grandparents' old home — where he and Kali now live. “Just things being out of your control, in a way. Just feeling helpless. That sucks.
“There were definitely some dark days, you know. When you’re really feeling self-pity. But that’s no way to live. It’s way too stressful. And nobody likes you."
We all need to feel love and support in our darkest hours. And he was blessed to receive that from Kali, who has embraced her first taste of farm life. While Drew works his long days, she teaches Spanish at the high school he attended.
Dan and Sheree Ott are grateful for what she’s meant to their son in his toughest times. A former Division I athlete, Kali dealt with knee surgery early in her basketball career.
“But she got to heal,” Drew interjects.
“True, I got to heal,” she concedes.
"Now it’s a sour point," he says.
Jokes aside, Ott makes sure Kali knows she’s appreciated.
“She always brought me back to reality,” he says. “Probably would have been pretty lost without her.”
A few months after his seven-surgery ordeal, Ott was still far from full strength. But agent Neil Cornrich would get him two NFL entry points in 2017: a visit with the Los Angeles Rams and a tryout with the Indianapolis Colts.
Ott thought the Colts workout went well. Neither team called back.
Now pushing two years out of the game, he could've hung up the cleats.
Instead, he was determined to push even harder. Deep down, he knew he could rediscover 2015 Summer Drew.
He decided, because he could, that he was going to make another comeback. Bigger and better than ever.
As our day in Trumbull nears a close, we pull into the driveway of his uncle’s house.
“I’ve got to show you guys the Snake Pit,” Ott says.
He proudly walks us into a corner of the basement. Inside a small room behind wood-paneled walls, there’s a bar, a bench, plates of dumbbells, music speakers and beer posters from the 1980s.
“That’s where I got so strong as a little kid,” Ott says.
We've reached the fall of 2017 in Ott's movie now. Cue the "Rocky IV"-like comeback: training in unconventional ways, and in isolation, for one last shot at personal validation.
What was still driving you?
“Just to prove a point. To showcase what I had been working on for eight years," Ott says. "I felt like I was at peak performance going into that senior year, and never got to showcase it.”
Ott's endgame would be Iowa's pro day on March 26, 2018.
He was going to show up there, where scouts from every NFL team would be gathered, and deliver a show they couldn’t ignore.
“You’ve got to have an internal fire,” Ott says, “if you’re going to be good at anything.”
Surgeries were in the past. For once, his body was feeling better. He would train anytime and anywhere his farming and trucking schedule would allow.
In the Snake Pit. In Giltner. He would often make the 30-minute drive to Wood River High School to train with his former coach, Jeff Ashby.
Ashby would open his weight room at 6 a.m. or late at night, whenever Ott needed it. He wanted to help the best player he ever coached pursue his dream.
“He was working exceptionally hard. It’s hard to do it on your own,” Ashby says. “You’re on the farm, trying to make a living.
“Typically, once you’ve been out, you lose that motivation. But he was determined to make it.”
Ott was rapidly gaining weight, heeding advice he got from the Colts: to get bigger. He played at Iowa around 270 pounds, but he was aiming to get to between 290 and 300 — with a willingness to become an offensive lineman.
“Just anything, trying to get a tryout,” Ott says. “It was the best I ever felt at 290. … I was feeling pretty confident about it.”
He got one more NFL visit, with the Baltimore Ravens in early 2018. Then, pro day. He measured 288 pounds. He was ready. As close as he had been to 2015 Summer Drew.
Nearly 30 months since he last played a football game, the farmer from Nebraska was dazzling the scouts. He says he ripped off 29 repetitions at 225 pounds in the bench press. His vertical jump soared 34½ inches. Forget Indianapolis — that height would have been competitive at the NBA Combine.
"He was the star of the pro day," Morgan recalls. "Those (scouts) were thinking, 'If we can get this kid to camp, holy smokes.' Because nobody knew about him. Nobody remembered him."
On top of the world again. His football dream wasn't dead after all.
Then with the 40-yard dash came a final, cruel twist of fate.
Halfway through his sprint, Ott's hamstring popped. It might as well have been a gunshot to his NFL career.
"That was pretty much the beginning of the end," Ott says. "... A guy that’s been unhealthy for a year-and-a-half, in his first big showing, gets hurt again. That’s really tough to sell.
"I wouldn’t buy that car.”
Man. ... That’s just heartbreaking.
"It really was," Ott says.
But true to form, Ott wasn't ready to give up the fight. Confident his agent could still sneak him into an NFL camp, he rehabbed the hamstring. But it acted up again.
And sometime around November, the guy who wouldn't give up realized it was time to move on.
He was retiring from football.
“It was like a death," Ott says in his most chilling quote of the day. "It was like part of me died. Because that was my entire life."
So how does this movie end?
“You can always come out of retirement, can’t you?” Ott says with a grin. “It’s not against the law."
“I’d like to," he continues. "That’d be a good dream. Maybe I’ll think about that in the tractor for the next two days. Smile to myself. Then go to work out Monday morning and try to squat 300 pounds. And not be able to walk the next day.”
Kali has her own dramatic vision for her husband’s story.
“I think he’ll be the 32-year-old to roll into a tryout on his 3-wheeler,” she says, “and just blow people away. If he’s going to come back, it’s going to be flashy. There’s going to be a movie made about it.”
Drew smiles before offering another of his one-liners.
“Denial never quits around here.”
In reality, they understand the pro-day hamstring moment was the end. Ott’s body still feels the beating it’s taken over the past decade. He’s been told by his physical therapist that playing football again could impair his ability to farm, his ability to kneel to the ground, his ability to someday play with their future children.
So, once more: How does this movie end?
Consider, for a moment, that maybe this is where it begins.
He is co-running nearly 2,000 acres of farmland; that capital is hard to acquire at age 25. He can ride his 3-wheelers whenever he wants. He can pee wherever he wants. He’s married to the love of his life.
“I’m just happy. I’ve got a great wife. Everything’s pretty good," Ott says. "I have a good job. I like what I do. I’m not really depressed or anything. I don’t have anything to be too upset about.”
As he swigs iced tea inside his red tractor going 4 mph, he can see for miles in any direction.
Every day is a reminder that the world is still in front of him.
He’s experienced more success in the face of adversity than many people do in a lifetime. With the physical and mental challenges he's already overcome, one can’t help but think in many ways this is only his beginning.
Maybe this is the opening of a movie that reveals something we don't yet see coming, something magnificent. And the horrific injury luck and failed NFL pursuits will become flashbacks of how he matured.
Every time he’s gotten knocked down in life, he’s proven that he can get back up. Football ultimately battered his body, but it revealed his true character.
He always fights back. He always pushes forward. He always strives to be the best.
He’s still invincible. He’s still Drew Ott.
“A lot of people struggle not knowing what their identity is after sports. Especially male athletes, that’s all they’ve known and kind of become,” Kali says, having returned home after her final day of school to be with Drew. “But he’s served as a great husband and a better friend.
“Hopefully, he showed you around the farm. He’s pretty proud of what he’s been doing here."
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.