Leistikow: Relentlessly upbeat Landan Paulsen a shining example of dealing with adversity
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Landan Paulsen could have begrudgingly gone through the motions during interviews Tuesday at the Hansen Football Performance Center.
Instead, he conducted them with a beaming smile.
Things haven’t been so great lately for Iowa’s offensive line. Paulsen, as the starting left guard, has been at the middle of the team’s offensive struggles.
But on Tuesday, he served as a smiling reminder of the human side of the Saturday gladiators underneath those black-and-gold Iowa Hawkeye helmets.
On this day, Paulsen brought a positive light into whatever negativity is swirling around the 5-2, 19th-ranked Hawkeyes.
I didn’t show up Tuesday intending to write a column about Landan Paulsen.
But his refreshing, unstoppable joy was a divergent treat that provided a window into the emotions of a fifth-year senior nearing the end of his football career.
“I really enjoy being a part of this team,” Paulsen says. “I really enjoy being around these guys. I really enjoy being around these coaches.”
Offensive linemen usually aren't noticed unless something goes wrong. And Paulsen knows some of his blocks lately have been noticed. It’s gotten to the point where Paulsen has been relegated to a left-guard rotation with redshirt freshman Cody Ince. His twin brother, Levi, hasn’t played on the line in either of the last two games after starting the first four.
“As an offensive-line unit, we would rather have eight or nine guys playing,” Paulsen insists. “That helps all of us out, ya know? … And we all embrace it.”
Paulsen’s sincerity leaves no doubt that he’s telling the truth.
It could be a troubling time.
Instead, he’s having the time of his life.
Paulsen is taking just one class this semester, about to complete his second degree. Nearly his whole life this fall is football. That allows him more time to treasure these final moments as a Hawkeye and every interaction with teammates.
That competition at left guard with Ince?
Off the field, the two are fishing and hunting buddies.
On it, they push each other in practice.
"That’s the cool thing," Paulsen says. "It’s not like such a fierce competition where you just hate the guy next you’re next to. Cody’s on my team. He’s an Iowa Hawkeye. I’m so happy for him.”
Paulsen knows after five more regular-season games — plus whatever happens in the postseason — that he will be a former Hawkeye.
Even then, though, the connection to Iowa football won't go away. That realization was crystallized for Paulsen when former Outland Trophy winner Robert Gallery was in the locker room for Iowa’s 18-17 win at Iowa State.
“It felt like he was one of us,” Paulsen says. “It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt in my life. It was like he was one of our brothers. Because he’s played under these coaches.”
That longevity at Iowa struck Paulsen amid rough moments, too.
As he came off the sideline after missing a block against Penn State, he was met by New England Patriots offensive lineman James Ferentz — the son of Iowa coach Kirk. James pulled Paulsen aside, and he showed him what he did wrong.
“That’s ... pretty cool,” Paulsen says. “That doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Being able to smile through the struggles takes work.
Paulsen and tight end Nate Wieting meet jointly with a sports psychologist, who helps with the mental side of a grueling sport.
If you’ve wandered onto social media at all in the past three weeks, you know there’s been an ugly side to the conversation surrounding Hawkeye football. Back-to-back losses to Michigan and Penn State and a less-than-dominant win against Purdue have triggered the most vocal critics. Some parents have fought back on Twitter to respond to Internet rage, but the noise just seems to get louder.
I’m sure it was humbling for Paulsen to be in the national-TV spotlight as Penn State’s Robert Windsor blew past him and pummeled quarterback Nate Stanley in that 17-12 Hawkeye loss two Saturdays ago.
But he’s been strengthened by his Hawkeye brothers.
Especially the quarterback.
“It’s cool to have a guy like Nate Stanley come into the huddle after he just got smoked and say, ‘There’s nobody else I would rather be playing with than you five,’” Paulsen says. “It’s so much fun, and it’s so cool to have leaders standing by your side and your brothers standing next to you. That you know they’ve got your back, and they know you have theirs.”
About the missed assignments?
Of course they sting. But past players like Gallery remind him that "they missed blocks, too. That’s the cool thing, ya know?"
Kirk Ferentz knows what the Paulsen twins have endured over five years. Neither had played much until this year; both have had surgeries just to keep playing.
"They're beat-up physically. You name it, they've gone through it,” Ferentz says. “They just really have great attitudes. They're just unbelievable young people.”
You don’t win games by putting the nicest guys on the field.
But, Ferentz adds, “it's great to know when guys move on, you don't have to worry about them. Those two guys, I'm not worried about at all."
Landan Paulsen is spending his final days at Iowa trying to get better at his craft. He was encouraged by the offensive line’s play against Purdue. Stanley was only sacked once. Iowa won the game.
Northwestern is next. Then Wisconsin.
The finish line is near. But it's not here yet. The daily battle continues.
“I look forward to playing football every single day,” he says. “When my time’s up, my time’s up. But I’m living it right now, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.