Desmond King ends his career with the Hawkeyes in his own way

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time Desmond King played a football game at Kinnick Stadium, a national TV audience saw everything — the raw skill and emotion — that makes him such a great competitor.

There were seven kick returns, six tackles, a pair of middle fingers and one touching display of sportsmanship after  the Hawkeyes' 14-13 upset over his home state's Michigan Wolverines.

“It was like a whole different game for him. He said it was personal. Why? I don’t know,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said Tuesday of King’s passionate — and sometimes reckless — play on Nov. 12.

Iowa cornerback Desmond King bobbles the ball but is able to recover in one of many memorable plays from the Hawkeyes' upset of Michigan on Nov. 12. The senior will play his final home game Friday.

It got really personal in the second quarter. King was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after popping Michigan center Mason Cole in the facemask — not a smart move by Iowa’s senior cornerback. For one thing, Cole stands at 6-foot-5, and weighs 305 pounds, putting him six inches and 102 pounds above King’s weight class. The penalty yards also helped Michigan score the game’s first points on a field goal.

King’s response — caught in a screen grab that quickly made its way around the Internet — was to glare and flash his middle fingers toward the Wolverines' sideline — probably not the mature way to handle the situation, but King’s teammates certainly took notice.

“I loved it,” Johnson said. “I wish I did it first.”

“It was just very emotional at that point. A couple words was going between me and one of their players,” King recalled. “I just got caught in that moment from hearing something from him. And I just kind of blacked out at it.”

Two hours later, in the hubbub that followed Keith Duncan’s game-winning field goal on the game’s final play, with tens of thousands of fans streaming onto the turf, King raced toward the Michigan tunnel to locate a childhood friend. Jourdan Lewis is also one of the nation’s best cornerbacks, and his emotions were markedly different than King’s as he headed for a losing locker room for the only time this season.

King pulled Lewis into a hug and the friends reassured each other of their love.

“That’s the relationships that you build as you grow older. That’s what it’s really all about it,” King said. “Without football, what’s your relationship like with other people in your life?”

King will play his final game at Kinnick at 2:30 p.m. Friday against rival Nebraska. It’s a moment that was never promised anyone — coaches, teammates, fans or King himself. The winner of the Thorpe Award — honoring the best cornerbacks in the nation — as a junior, no one would have blamed King for heading to the NFL a year early and leaving Iowa far behind. He could easily be expending his considerable energy on Sundays, rather than Saturdays, this fall.

It was a difficult decision for King in the offseason, he said. Two things drew him back: the camaraderie he found in the Hawkeyes' locker room, and the chance to make some family history as the first to graduate from college. He said he has never regretted his decision.

So he will walk on to the Kinnick Field turf one final time, greeted by a group of family led by his mother, Yvette Powell, the woman who still refers to King as her “baby.” He will play his rear end off for 60 minutes as the Hawkeyes try to run their record to 8-4 and land a better bowl game. And on Dec. 17, he will walk across a stage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to receive his diploma — proof that he earned a degree in mass communications.

The latter is the prouder achievement, King said, and more likely to bring a tear to his eyes.

“I think walking across that stage, getting my degree and shaking our president’s hand will be very emotional for me,” he said.

Next spring, King will almost certainly be a first-round NFL Draft pick. It’s been a long, strange journey for the under-recruited kid from Detroit.

“I didn’t really know what Iowa looked like until I came down here,” said King, who was just another homesick freshman four years ago, about to discover a love for corn and his university. “You can make friends anywhere on this campus. It’s very kind people here. … This is the best decision I made — to come here.”

King’s choice to come back for his senior season worked out pretty well for the Hawkeyes, too. He has been one of the team’s four captains for most of the year — a title he lost for a couple of weeks early in the season for reasons that were never explained. But you can bet it wasn’t because he was being too soft on his teammates.

Against Michigan, King said he was conscious of the impact his play would have on the players around him — he wanted them to follow his lead, obscene gestures and all.

It worked that night. Sometimes it goes the other way.

“There are times when he loses his cool and I’ve got to grab him, curse at him a few times — really get in his head,” Johnson, another of the Hawkeyes' 14 seniors about to bid farewell to their stadium, said of King.

“And after that, he just flushes it and plays his best football.”

Iowa fans have seen that time after time from King. He’s a once-in-a-generation athlete, and competitor, and will surely hear loud, sustained applause when his name is announced Friday.

What fans are unlikely to see is another two-fingered salute to the opponents. King’s mother was not pleased by that particular display. Powell let her son know it.

“She told me to keep my emotions inside of me,” King admitted.

“ 'Don’t let anybody see your weakness'.”

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