The Iowa Hawkeyes' football team spent Christmas morning touring the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. They will take on Boston College in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl on Wednesday. Bryon Houlgrave / The Register
NEW YORK — College football players always become tourists in the days leading up to bowl games.
But the sightseeing isn’t typically as poignant as it was for the Iowa Hawkeyes on Monday. The team spent Christmas morning visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
“The bowl experience itself is always something the coaches stress — ‘take it all in, we’re extremely lucky and grateful to be able to go on a bowl trip,’” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said. “But I would say this is my first bowl trip where we experienced something like we did (Monday) morning. We weren’t going to the beach or hanging out by the pool. It was something where we’re going to go as a team and we’re going to get the opportunity to see a place that’s rebuilt itself from 9/11.”
The Hawkeyes are in town preparing for Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Boston College. Both teams took separate tours of the 9/11 museum and observation deck Monday.
None of the players are old enough to truly remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The upperclassmen were in kindergarten at the time. But it’s part of their history. Gervase, a junior, was moved by what he saw.
“It was definitely sad, and it was hard for me at times to walk around where the buildings used to be and see all the names. And all the people that it impacted,” he said.
Senior running back Akrum Wadley is from New Jersey, but was making his first visit to Ground Zero. He found it so emotional that he vowed to bring his family the next time.
The view from the observation deck was more to Wadley’s liking. He overcame a slight fear of heights to soak in a new vantage point of his city.
“When I got off the elevator and saw the view, it was crazy,” Wadley said with a smile. “The view of New York and the view of New Jersey. I wish I had binoculars.”
Hot ticket for Wadley
Wadley said he’s already fulfilled 43 ticket requests for friends and family. He also let it be known that he would gladly accept any other extras that his teammates are willing to part with. Each player gets six tickets to the game at Yankee Stadium.
“For the most part, I’ve got most of my family on the list, as many as I could get,” Wadley said. “Anybody else, if they’re not using it, just send it to me. That’s what I said.”
The Iowa running back talks about going up in the observation tower and taking some teammates out on the town Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
Wadley, of Newark, said he first approached freshmen on the team seeking tickets.
“They’ve got to pay some respect to the big guys,” he said, “guys that have been here.”
That didn’t work on wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, though. He also is from Newark.
“I tried to muscle him for some tickets,” Wadley said. “He said: ‘I’ve got people coming, too. This is my city, too.’”
For years, Wadley’s family has gathered in the New Jersey living room of his aunt to watch Hawkeye games and cheer on No. 25. For some of them, this will be their first chance to see him play in person — in his final college game.
It has become a tradition for Wadley to receive video clips of his relatives — especially the young ones — celebrating wildly as they watch one of his long runs on TV.
“It’s just breathtaking, priceless,” he said.
Wadley’s favorite reaction video came during his 70-yard catch-and-run against Penn State. He still has that one on his phone.
“There’s about 100 kids in the living room and they see me running against Penn State, and they’re screaming and they’re saying my name. It’s just funny,” Wadley said.
It’s not always humorous, though. Wadley’s older cousins like to send him clips of plays that didn’t work out so well, when he would get trapped behind the line of scrimmage.
“They tease me with that, like, ‘What are you doing? You suck. You’re garbage,’” he said.
“So it’s both ways.”
Maintaining their footing
The Hawkeyes are well aware that Pinstripe Bowl participants have sometimes been seen slipping on the Yankee Stadium grass. The venue hosts only one football game a year, after all.
That makes footwear a primary concern. Senior linebacker Josey Jewell said the team has already figured out what cleats the players will wear.
“You don’t want any of those things to be excuses. It’s good that we got all those things knocked down,” he said.
Two years ago, it became a talking point after Hawkeye players appeared to be sliding around in a 45-16 loss against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Jewell wouldn’t blame that on wearing the wrong shoes.
“I don’t know. We slipped a lot,” he said.
“If you practice on any grass fields, they’re mostly going to be the same thing. It’s not like this is Boston College’s home field. They don’t play on it all the time.”
Gervase said he’s not planning to change anything Wednesday. He has worn the same cleats all year and will stick with them one last time.
“Obviously, if we get out there and it’s something different than we’re expecting then we’ll have to make an adjustment,” Gervase said.
“We’ve had some practices on a grass field these last two weeks just to get used to it.”
Wadley is superstitious about what cleats he wears. He has brought more than one pair, he said, and will test them out before the game, then make a decision.
It’s possible he could wear the shoes he unveiled for Iowa’s 55-24 home upset of No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 4. Wadley accumulated 158 yards from scrimmage in that one.
“I felt untouchable,” he said, admitting he hasn’t worn them in a game since.
“I usually go with the cleats that got me here,” Wadley added, a touch of mystery in his voice.
Last game at safety?
Gervase (free) and Amani Hooker (strong) will be together as Iowa’s starting safeties for the first time since the Hawkeyes’ rout of Ohio State. Hooker has been out since then with a bruised knee.
“He’s been back to practicing for a couple weeks,” Gervase said Monday. “Everything looks fine. He’s healthy and ready to go.”
But after Wednesday’s game, the question remains: Will both players be safeties in 2018?
It’s plausible that either one could be switched to a hybrid outside linebacker role next season to replace three-year starter Ben Niemann. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker floated the possibility of moving a safety there “at times.”
The Hawkeyes should be plenty deep at safety next year and will be rather green at linebacker. Gervase will be a senior, Hooker a junior, and former starter Brandon Snyder is hopeful to return to the team after his second ACL tear. True freshman Geno Stone also has been impressive in spot duty.
And it’s been done before. Former walk-on Kevin Ward moved from defensive back to become Niemann’s backup this fall. Ward, a senior, is listed at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds.
Hooker is 6-0, 210. Gervase is 6-1, 210. By adding a little weight, either guy could add experience to that uncertain position for the 2018 Hawkeyes.
“I couldn’t tell you a thing about that,” Gervase said. “I’m focused on this next game as free safety. I’ve got one year left. Wherever the coaches want me to play, I’ll play.”