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Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Players' option to kneel for national anthem a big change for Iowa football

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Back in early June, still days before dozens of his former players spoke up to claim racial disparities or mistreatment in the Iowa football program, Kirk Ferentz was talking about social injustice and the death of George Floyd while Floyd was under police custody in Minneapolis.

He said then: “Change is really needed right now. And it’s in our hands to try to do something with it.”

Over the course of his 22 years as Iowa's head coach, Ferentz has been impressively consistent while also stubborn to change. Now, he is relenting on an issue he was staunchly against three to four years ago: football players kneeling before the national anthem, a move initiated in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers to protest racial injustices in the U.S.

Iowa redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., who is part of the Hawkeyes' 22-player leadership group, plans to kneel during the anthem before Iowa’s season opener Saturday at Purdue. Ferentz has approved the decision by Tracy and anyone else who wants to take a knee.

Tyrone Tracy Jr., left, scored the first touchdown of last year's Holiday Bowl and is greeted in the end zone by Nate Stanley. Tracy says he will take a knee during Saturday's national anthem before the opener at Purdue.

“It’s very big to me personally,” Tracy said. "I know how African-Americans are treated in the United States.”

There have been three leadership-group discussions on standing versus kneeling since June. The emphasis? To listen to each other’s viewpoints and gain an appreciation and understanding for where each person is coming from.

Those conversations affected Ferentz. He's changed his past view that everyone on the roster must do the same thing. At the same time, players will show connected unity by holding hands during the anthem.

“Everyone has the free ability to choose … either kneel or stand,” Tracy said. “I’m almost positive everybody’s not going to do the exact same thing. At the same time, we are still a team and will still look unified."

During one leadership-group meeting, Ferentz shared a letter from a military veteran "who felt very strongly that nobody should kneel." Recently, a 20-year Navy SEAL shared an alternative perspective with the team.

“In his mind, it’s all about Americans being their authentic selves … and staying true to their beliefs," Ferentz said. "In his words, that’s what people like him fought for, so (we) could enjoy the liberties and freedoms that are very unique to our country."

Will many Black Iowa players kneel while many white players stand during Saturday's anthem in West Lafayette, Indiana, just before the 2:40 p.m. Central kickoff? That's very possible. But if well articulated, the varying decisions can pack a powerful lesson — that individuals can think differently, yet work in harmony for a common purpose.

Even when we disagree on politics or anything else, we can choose to respect one another and work together for good.

That was a message that senior linebacker Nick Niemann reinforced Tuesday.

“Obviously my opinion is my opinion, and I think everyone's going to respect everyone else's,” Niemann said. “There’s nobody that’s right or wrong. Just with everything that's happened this offseason, I think we're just focused on listening and understanding other people and respecting them. Whatever guys do, that’s their choice.”

Ferentz echoed that the national-anthem conversation — one that former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels tweeted in June could be a needed game-changer for the program's culture — has been a powerful positive for Hawkeye football.

“Nobody’s judging each other. They’re being a good team. They’re acting like a team should," Ferentz said. "I’m extremely impressed with the way the guys have handled it."

Here are other thoughts from Tuesday's interviews with Ferentz and six Hawkeye players:

Northern Illinois graduate transfer Jack Heflin said he had two football dreams while growing up near the Quad Cities.

"To play for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and in the NFL."

Now, the 6-foot-4, 312-pound defensive tackle has a chance to do both in the span of a calendar year. Heflin said he feels like a rookie learning the Hawkeye defense and, in example of his humility, said he's merely "doing OK" in getting up to speed.

Heflin thinks the Hawkeye culture — which he joined in the summer after four years in DeKalb — is excellent. That is consistent with the messages coming from players and coaches in recent months, that there’s a tight bond with this 2020 team.

"Here at Iowa, guys don’t care who you are or where you’re from. They just care about you, your well-being and how you’re doing,” Heflin said. “It’s a true brotherhood and love for each other.

“Most people would be upset when they have a grad transfer coming into the room, but everyone was happy, introduced themselves, talked to me. I just fit right in with them.”

Heflin figures to get a lot of action Saturday at Purdue, rotating at defensive tackle with Austin Schulte, Daviyon Nixon and possibly Noah Shannon and John Waggoner. The native of Prophetstown, Illinois, will be a difference-maker for this team. He is happy at  Iowa, and Iowa is equally happy to have him.

Iowa defensive back Julius Brents (20) could be important in the Hawkeyes' plans against pass-heavy Purdue.

Julius Brents’ injury struggles as a sophomore developed a silver lining.

Brents stepped onto the scene for the Hawkeyes as a true freshman in 2018, and he recorded a spectacular interception at Minnesota in his first start at cornerback.

But he was limited to one game of action last year (a few snaps at Michigan). He never gained traction after an early-season knee injury and redshirted. But while rehabbing in the trainer's room, he bonded with defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

Parker, Brents said, was coming off knee surgery. The two got to spend more quality time together than they could during group meetings in the defensive-backs room.

“I gained a lot of knowledge from him, from his viewpoint, how he sees things,” Brents said. “It’s helped me see a lot of things differently, especially on the field."

Brents is ready to make a triumphant return to his home state. There’s a good chance we’ll see the Indianapolis native opposite Matt Hankins at cornerback at some point against Purdue. Riley Moss is listed as the starter and Brents is second team, but Moss has also been working at the Cash position in Iowa’s 4-2-5 defense — which would allow Dane Belton to slide back to safety.

That time on the sidelines and in the training room helped Brents (a rangy 6-2, 204) understand the need to be mentally prepared for game days. You can imagine the super-intense Parker chirping about the importance of film study to Brents.

“The game really does just slow down when you actually sit down and study,” Brents said. “My freshman year, I was maybe playing more on my athleticism.”

It would be a great development for Iowa if Brents, a four-star prospect coming out of high school, could be an impact player this season in Iowa’s secondary, particularly as it will face high-volume passing teams in three of the first five weeks.

You can’t believe the Iowa depth charts.

Ferentz has inadvertently made that point twice in the past few weeks. On media days, he said that the omission of Cole Banwart on the offensive line was a mistake. Then he said on Tuesday that even though Banwart was now listed as the starter at left guard, “We have some competition going on right now. I don’t know who’s going to start on the offensive line.”

Ferentz did indicate that he could see Banwart and Kyler Schott (the listed starters at guard) rotating with Mark Kallenberger, Cody Ince and Justin Britt as Iowa seeks a winning five-man combination long-term. The tackles (Alaric Jackson and Coy Cronk) and center (Tyler Linderbaum) are solidly on the No. 1 line.

Ferentz said he wouldn’t discuss injury specifics or COVID-19 positives before the first game, although linebacker depth is a growing concern. Niemann and Ferentz mentioned redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs and true freshman Jay Higgins as candidates to play Saturday.

Ferentz was happy to share the five gameday captains: Linderbaum and Mekhi Sargent on offense; Niemann and Chauncey Golston on defense; Keith Duncan on special teams.

Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday recalled a text message he sent to his staff June 6.

That was the day longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was placed on administrative leave, in the wake of that weekend’s onslaught of racial-bias allegations against the program. The gist of Ferentz's text: We have good people. And we'll work through this.

“And that's exactly what we've done,” Ferentz continued, answering a question about how the 2020 team has stuck together — without mass transfers — during a rocky summer and uncertain fall. “All the things I've said publicly, we've tried to put them in action.

"We've tried to do a good job of listening (to) what are our players saying, how were they feeling, and then we've tried to find solutions to make people feel like things are a little better.”

It was surely a rough couple of days for Ferentz, with Sunday’s public disclosure that eight former Hawkeye players have hired an attorney and are seeking for him and his son to be fired over “intentional” racial discrimination. Ferentz is not commenting further on that potential lawsuit, but it is obvious that he and the players are eager to take the field for the first time in 10 months.

Football is a good distraction for them right now. (Winning would be a better one.)

“We'll see how it looks over the next nine weeks,” Ferentz said. “It all gets back to the quality of the people, and that's one thing that's never changed. We've got really good people on this football team, and guys that want to do things right and do them together.

"That's the thing that helps me sleep every night."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.