Surgery, Trump 'backlash' cap eventful offseason for C.J. Beathard

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – It was 52 weeks ago Wednesday that C.J. Beathard met the Iowa media for the first time following his anointment as the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 quarterback over two-year starter Jake Rudock.

A lot of drama has happened since that April 1 interview when Beathard said, “Hopefully from here on out we can win Big Ten championships.”

Beathard traded in his long hair for a crew cut. He emerged as a star and team leader in a surprising season that, yes, included a conference championship – West Division, anyway. Then the program’s first Rose Bowl in 25 years. Then surgery to repair a sports hernia.

Then a controversial appearance on stage at a Donald Trump rally in Iowa.

“Yeah, I got a lot of backlash from that,” Beathard grinned Wednesday.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard throws during a March 30, 2016, open practice at the Iowa Football Performance Center. Beathard had offseason sports-hernia surgery but looked A-OK in his 40 minutes of media-exposed practice time.

More on the Trump explanation later. The more pressing questions this spring surrounding Iowa’s second-team all-Big Ten quarterback center around his health.

After gutting through pain for most of Iowa’s 12-2 season -- the issues began in Week 3 against Pittsburgh -- Beathard elected for late-January surgery. The recovery has been slow, but Beathard was a full participant in Wednesday’s fourth spring practice out of 15. In portions that were open to media, Beathard did not appear limited. He dove on the ground during fumble drills and ran close to full speed.

“There’s still pain in the groin area, but I think it’s more from the surgery -- the surgical procedure they did down there,” Beathard said. “I don’t think it’s the same feeling that I was feeling during the season, so that’s good.”

His weekly go-to line last fall was some variation of the one he brought out again Wednesday in his first interview since Jan. 1: “I’m not 100 percent yet, but it’s getting there.”

He barely practiced during some stretches last season while trying to rest the injury, and he said he’s practically been living in the training room the past few months.

So, rather than resting some more, he’s out on the practice field trying to improve his craft.

Still, the wait to be 100-percent pain-free continues.

“It’s going to be tough right now when I’m constantly doing stuff on it,” Beathard said. “I guess we’ll see after spring ball, get a little more time there to rest it. But it’s getting better, so that’s good.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior-to-be is the most important Hawkeye on the roster. Despite being limited with one of his most effective traits -- a mobility that was evident with two long runs that turned around the Sept. 10 win over Iowa State -- Beathard’s record as a starter grew to 13-0 until a Big Ten Championship loss to Michigan State and the Rose Bowl blowout against Stanford.

“It was a fun season, but obviously the Rose Bowl Game wasn’t the way we wanted it to go,” said Beathard, who was sacked seven times in that 45-16 loss. “I think it’s a little bit of a motivation for next season.”

After getting battered in Iowa’s school-record 14th game, Beathard felt surgery was the best option.

“I thought I might as well get it out of the way, get it over with and move on,” he said.

About a week later after that operation in Philadelphia, Beathard was in the headlines for completely different reasons -- the Trump event in Iowa City, days before the Iowa Caucuses.

Beathard, a native of Franklin, Tenn., and 11 of his Hawkeye teammates (including walk-on tight end Peter Pekar, who flashed a Hawkeye jersey with “TRUMP” and the No. 1 across the back) were called on stage by the billionaire businessman and polarizing Republican front-runner in the race for President. Trump claimed amid the event the players were endorsing him.

But Beathard (who Trump called “the next Tom Brady”) said that wasn't the case, at least personally. He viewed it as a chance to meet a famous reality-TV star, brought about by an invitation from Trump supporter Brad Zaun -- an Iowa state senator and father of former Hawkeye walk-on and Beathard friend Drew Zaun.

“I listen to politics. … That wasn’t me coming out saying I’m voting for Trump or whatever,” said Beathard, who said he did not caucus and remained undecided on a favorite candidate. “It was Donald Trump. If he wasn’t running for president, I probably would have done the same thing, wanted to meet him.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the first name of an Iowa state senator was incorrect. Brad Zaun is the father of a former Hawkeye football walk-on, Drew Zaun.