How Parker Hesse turned heads at an Iowa football camp five summers ago, and never stopped
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Perry Hesse really wanted Iowa's coaches to get a good look at his son, Parker.
It was the summer of 2013 and the Hawkeyes’ evaluation camps were filling up fast. Perry signed up Parker for back-to-back days. Parker Hesse, busy playing baseball for Waukon High School, was not amused by this extra demand on his time.
Two things happened on those two days that changed the course of both Hesse’s life and the Iowa football program. First, the coaching staff did take notice of Hesse’s skill as a football player, although they weren’t certain what position he could play (Linebacker? Tight end?).
More important, they got a glimpse at what a terrific teammate Hesse was likely to be.
On the second day of the camp, defensive line coach Reese Morgan showed Hesse how to run an agility drill involving cones. There were precise steps the coaches wanted to see. Hesse performed flawlessly, then headed to the back of the line.
The next athlete in line, however, did not understand what he was being asked to do. Hesse ran to the front to explain it in detail to the boy, a complete stranger.
“We’re looking for that kind of leadership," Morgan told Perry Hesse later. "A lot of players would have been too shy to do that or thought, ‘If he does it wrong, that makes me look better.’ When we saw how Parker handled himself like that, we decided that’s the kind of guy we want in our locker room.”
Hesse has been a mainstay in that locker room ever since. He’ll make his 46th start as an undersized defensive end at 11 a.m. Friday when Iowa (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten Conference) hosts rival Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) in the regular-season finale. Hesse’s last hurrah in Kinnick Stadium will be broadcast on Fox-TV.
Perry Hesse, along with his wife Marcia, will be there in person, of course. They’ve only missed three games in their son’s remarkable career.
“I’ve seen a lot of Senior Days and lot of players in street clothes and crutches getting out there. And two or three years ago, I thought, ‘Gosh, my only wish is Senior Day, Parker’s in uniform, helmet in hand, running out there,’” Perry Hesse said this week.
“It’s hard to stay healthy playing football.”
Hesse has done that. He’s only missed one game to injury.
He’s also had one of the most productive careers in Iowa history after surprisingly being moved from linebacker to defensive end at the end of his redshirt freshman season. At 6-foot-3, 261 pounds, Hesse relies on his instincts and his motor to shed blockers 50 pounds heavier and plant ball-carriers into the turf.
He has accumulated 173 tackles, 30.5 of them for loss. He has 16 sacks and another nine quarterback hurries.
But any Hawkeye player or coach will tell you that Hesse’s leadership is his most important attribute.
“He always tries to be the hardest worker in the room, always tries to just beat you at everything that he possibly can,” said Iowa senior defensive tackle Matt Nelson.
“You just try to match that level of intensity.”
“I think one of the toughest things to be is a good practice player, and Parker’s the best practice player we have, always moving, always getting to the ball, and that’s how you make plays in the game,” marveled sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who has been backing up Hesse for two seasons.
Then there’s this, from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz: “He really is the guy that everybody looks to, I think, on this football team right now. … Nothing is ever negative out of his mouth. He's just all about the team, and demonstrates it, and he is extremely mentally tough. Just unbelievable that way. But doesn't talk about it.”
Hesse has been reluctant to reflect on his career and what his final game at Kinnick will be like. The focus needs to be on the game, he said. He’ll think about the rest of it afterward.
But he did acknowledge how perfectly his playing days at Iowa worked out. He still can’t believe he’s about to start a 35th consecutive game at a position he didn’t even play in high school.
Hesse was an outside linebacker hustling around the field on the scout team as a wide-eyed freshman. Ferentz hinted to him during preparation for the TaxSlayer Bowl that a position switch was coming. Hesse assumed that meant inside linebacker.
“I just wanted to contribute in any way the next year. I thought if I could get on the punt team, the kickoff team. I just want to have a role,” Hesse said, before turning the praise to his coaches.
“Their trust in me as I was going through that learning curve allowed me to trust myself.”
Ferentz sold Hesse on moving to defensive end as a way to get onto the field quicker than if he remained at linebacker. A month later, Hesse saw his name behind Drew Ott’s on a winter depth chart.
“’As of today, I’m a defensive end,’” Perry Hesse recalled his son excitedly telling him after the phone call from Ferentz. “They weren’t lying to him.”
Ott got hurt in 2015. Hesse suddenly found himself starting.
He’s never stopped.
What Iowa coaches saw five summers ago in Hesse is exactly what they’ve gotten.
NEBRASKA (4-7, 3-5) at IOWA (7-4, 4-4)
When: 11:05 a.m. Friday
Where: Kinnick Stadium
TV: Fox (Brian Custer, Ben Leber, Jen Hale)
Line: Hawkeyes by 9 1/2
Weather: Steady light rain and high of 44 degrees; winds from the south-southeast at 10-20 mph