Tracing the rise of Cole Banwart from introverted small-town kid to potential Iowa Hawkeye starter

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

OTTOSEN, Ia. — Tina Banwart turned on her radio recently to eavesdrop on her son.

Cole Banwart was being interviewed on KLGA out of Algona about his status as a sophomore offensive lineman on the Iowa football team. Tina was taken by the confidence in his voice. It was rare to hear her son talk so effusively about his sport.

“We’re limited on the questions we can ask him,” Tina explained to a reporter last week with a weary laugh and a shrug of the shoulders. “Two questions and then he gets annoyed.”

Cole Banwart poses with his girlfriend Taylor Elbert after Iowa's final spring practice last month. The two met in preschool in West Bend.

There’s no cause for concern. Cole Banwart, the introverted farm kid who grew up rooting for the Hawkeyes, is doing just fine. He’s in line for playing time this fall. And who knows? He may just earn a starting spot at right guard or center.

“Very quietly, he was starting to ascend,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Banwart’s redshirt freshman campaign, which ended when he injured his knee in the regular-season finale at Nebraska while getting his most extensive playing time to date. “He was struggling a little bit earlier in the season and then gained some traction.”

Banwart was listed as the backup center on Iowa’s spring depth chart. He took over the starting spot at right guard after his friend Levi Paulsen was injured. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek went out of his way to praise Banwart during his news conference last month.

The Banwarts (there’s also father Craig and older sisters Chelsea and Mackenzie) soak all of this information up from a distance. Cole isn’t one to talk about himself, so they are just as likely to learn how he’s doing from his former high school coach at Algona, Andy Jacobson.

That’s how they found out Banwart had been named the Hawkeyes’ “scout team player of the week” two autumns ago. Jacobson casually mentioned it one month after it happened.

Tina called Cole to ask him why he never brought it up.

“We’re sitting here wondering if you’re getting your butt kicked,” she told him. “And that tells us you’re doing OK.”

Tina paused.

“He’s just quiet about that stuff.”

Banwart moves up depth chart, and finally meets with reporters

Banwart started climbing into Iowa’s plans last fall, when the team had veterans James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Keegan Render anchoring the interior of the line. Only Render remains, and the plan is to move him to center for his senior season. Banwart has shown that he can handle right guard if needed, but also could slide to center if Polasek decides he wants to return Render to guard, where he played most of last year.

It was shortly after Polasek bragged up Banwart this spring — with the memorable line that he was “taking the pajamas off and stepping into (his) big-boy pants” — that reporters were surprised to find the 6-foot-4, 296-pounder show up for a weekly interview session in the football complex. This was a first.

Cole Banwart grew up rooting for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and had the gear to prove it.

Banwart was wearing his favorite shirt, the one that advertises the family trucking business. He seemed surprised to find so many strangers surrounding him with tape recorders, but warmed to the task, especially when talk turned to his hometown of Ottosen.

“There’s more people in this little area right now,” Banwart quipped of a municipality that recorded 55 residents in the 2010 census.

Ottosen doesn’t have a gas station, Banwart confirmed. It does have two churches, a post office that’s open one hour a day and a grain elevator that he used to ride his four-wheeler to when the family was running low on dog food.

“So if you ever want to see something exciting, there you go,” Banwart concluded.

That sounded like an invitation.

So here’s what you need to know about Banwart’s childhood, and how it led him to be a potential Hawkeye starter.

Small-town kid makes a big-time pledge

First of all, the Banwarts live three miles outside of Ottosen, on a grain farm that has also housed a trucking business since 2006. Tina used to have a baking company until the trucks consumed too much of her time. A sign still hangs on the door advertising “Tina’s Cakes.”

Five miles in the other direction lies West Bend, where the Banwarts go to worship or get groceries and where Cole attended school through the 10th grade. It was there that he met Taylor Elbert in preschool. They’re still together.

The Banwart family attending a Minnesota Vikings game. They've had season tickets for years. That's Cole on the right.

Cole grew up attending his sisters’ dance recitals, being strapped in his car seat among a van full of girls heading to Humboldt, where he would sit and play his Game Boy during the performances. He dabbled in taekwondo, took lessons on the piano and trumpet, helped out on the farm and became proficient at changing tires on the truck.

But mostly he played sports.

Cole was always large for his age — thicker around the torso and a head taller than the other boys. His parents got him a weight-lifting set when he was in eighth grade. He attacked it with gusto.

Finally, one of Tina’s friends suggested she do something to get him extra training. She took him to Athletic Republic, a gym in Spirit Lake, where trainers taught him how to run with the short steps that football linemen must master.

After Banwart’s sophomore season playing eight-man football at West Bend, he transferred to Algona, roughly a half-hour from home, where he could compete at the higher Class 3-A level. Tina worried about how her shy son would adapt to a larger school.

She was floored when Brian Morgan, Algona’s wrestling coach, pulled her aside at a parent-teacher conference and relayed what had occurred during one of his social studies classes. The students were asked to stand before their peers and reveal what they hoped to do for a career. Cole said he wanted to play in the NFL.

“I was like, ‘He said that? In front of a class?’” Tina recalled. “That’s like standing up and saying, ‘I want to be a ballerina when I grow up.’ And Mr. Morgan just said, ‘Tina, I believe he can do it.’”

Banwart looms large (and surprisingly nimble) at Algona

Jacobson was in his first season as coach at Algona, so he and Banwart arrived together. It became a natural bond. Jacobson put Banwart in the middle of the line in his 3-5 defense so opponents couldn’t run away from him. On offense, Banwart was nimble enough to be a pulling guard or tackle in the wing-T formation. He played every down without visible fatigue.

“He had a motor on him, and he was physical,” Jacobson said. “I remember watching his footwork and watching him just drive somebody down in practice and remember turning to one of our coaches and saying, ‘Holy cow, he might play offensive line somewhere.’”

Cole Banwart (75) smiles at his friend and fellow lineman Ben Mawdsley before an Algona football game. Mawdsley now plays at Drake.

Jacobson said early in one practice session, Banwart was goofing around and got into the punt-return line. Banwart snatched the ball out of the air and made a spin move that wowed the whole team.

“He’s light on his feet. He’s carrying a lot of weight (285 pounds as a high school senior), but he doesn’t look like it,” Jacobson said. “He can change directions.”

Jacobson also offered this about Banwart: “He would hate that we’re talking about him.”

It wasn’t long before a lot of people were talking about him, however. College coaches started finding their way to Algona. Northern Iowa, Iowa State and both Division I schools in South Dakota.

The Banwarts set up an ambitious tour of summer camps for Cole between his junior and senior years. There were to be 10 trips. The first stop was Nebraska on a Friday, and the coaches there were enamored with Cole, constantly pulling him out of line to run extra drills.

The Banwarts hopped on Interstate 80 for the long haul to Iowa City for a Sunday camp. Ferentz offered Cole a scholarship that evening. Banwart scrapped his other eight stops.

The Hawkeyes were his top choice all along.

Two parents' tearful bond: 'A lot of little boys want to play for Iowa'

While Cole settled in at Iowa, Tina started mingling with the other parents of football players. She quickly formed a friendship with Teri Hockenson, whose son T.J. is a starting tight end in the same class as Cole.

They watched their sons run out of the tunnel for the first time as Hawkeye freshmen and shared a tearful hug.

“It was like, ‘Can you believe it?’” Tina recalled. “And it’s like, ‘You know what? If not Cole, who? Why not him? Why not our kids?’

“A lot of little boys want to play for Iowa, and our sons have the chance.”

The Banwart family poses for a Christmas photo last year in Iowa City. They visit Cole often and plan to never miss one of his Hawkeye football games.

Cole certainly isn’t little these days. But he does have a chance. It’s evident in his rise up the depth chart. In the way Hawkeye coaches single him out for praise.

Banwart, in his one interview with beat writers, even sounded like a veteran Hawkeye lineman.

“I’m always just working to be the best player,” he said, a sentence that manages to say everything and nothing at the same time. “I don’t know where I’ll end up or where I’ll be, but I’m just focused on the next day and where I’m going to be tomorrow.”

The Banwart family knows where they’re going to be. They’ve made a pledge to be at all of Cole’s games, even leasing a condo in Iowa City for their frequent 3 ½-hour treks.

“He got drug around to all his sisters’ stuff for a long time,” Tina said. “So now it’s just his turn.”