'A great run': Mary Ferentz reflects on Iowa Ladies Football Academy ahead of final camp

A significant chapter in Mary Ferentz's life will close for good on Saturday. The wife of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz will be at the Hansen Football Performance Center and Kinnick Stadium for an event catered specifically for women. 

Twelve years ago, Ferentz began the Iowa Ladies Football Academy, a fundraising event for the University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital. The program began with a question: "What can we do?" to help raise money for the new hospital that overlooks Kinnick today. 

"I mean, women make up a huge percentage of the fan base," Ferentz said in an interview with the Register. "And we often get overlooked, so we decided we'd try this ladies football academy. Sounded like a good idea." 

Mary Ferentz's Ladies Football Academy has raised more than $2.4 million for the Stead Family Children's Hospital.

Nine camps have raised more than $2.4 million. The 10th will be the last. The COVID pandemic prevented the event from happening in 2020 and 2021. Some of the yearly participants are still processing the reality that this year is the final camp. 

"I'm in the denial phase of the grief process about this ending," said Annette Taylor, the event's top fundraiser. "I'm just refusing to think about it. I told Mary I'm going to be lost. I don't know what I'm going to do." 

The hospital's building fund received $1 million, and $1 million went to pediatric research. The third and final $1 million installment is an endowment for the child life specialists in the hospital, a department that's become critical to the hospital's success. 

More than 600 women are scheduled to attend, and the academy hopes to leave a lasting impression. 

"We try to keep it as authentic as it can be," Ferentz said. "And it is definitely authentic."

LFA's mission led to substantial donations

The Iowa Ladies Football Academy offers an opportunity for women to connect with the football program.

Ladies Football Academy gives women a glimpse into Iowa football that few people get to see. The inaugural camp saw around 150 participants, and now it's nearly quadruple that amount. 

"A total immersion into Iowa football," Ferentz said. "Learn things that you didn't know before. It's not always X's and O's, it might just be, you know, kind of an operational thing or just meeting some of the players ... you never thought you'd ever get to meet and stuff like that." 

Registration begins in Kinnick Stadium's press box. The day consists of extensive tours of Iowa's football workout facilities, locker rooms, practice fields and more. The coaching staff and team make themselves available for the day. Coaches, players (dressed in their jerseys) and the women engage in meet-and-greets, pictures, lunch and Q&A sessions.

Then a football camp is held inside Kinnick led by the Iowa coaches and players. Attendees go through drills, reenact The Wave (when people in the stadium wave at patients inside the children's hospital) and participate in The Swarm (the Hawkeyes' walk-in routine) with "Black in Black" by AC/DC playing through the stadium speakers. 

Mary Ferentz, left, and Kirk Ferentz are co-organizers of the Iowa Ladies Football Academy. The program has raised more than $2 million for the Stead Family Children's Hospital over the last decade.

"It's fun to see the facilities and hear about the players' routine," Taylor said. "And I think why we keep coming back is just that personal connection where you get to know the players and the coaches as people, have conversations with them and ask questions." 

Each attendee must donate or raise a minimum of $500. In Taylor's first year, 2011, she raised $4,000 as a project for her 40th birthday. That year she finished eighth, and her prize was a football autographed by Kirk Ferentz. The next year, she earned top fundraiser at $5,000. The grand prize: sideline passes to a home game in the fall, including watching The Swarm up close. She hasn't relinquished the title since.

To date she's raised more than $50,000 and this year alone raised $39,000. How does she do it? A variety of ways, including garage sales, a vending machine she has set up at her job, and maneuvering through Iowa City tailgates and asking each person for one dollar. 

"They're experiencing the game obviously from a different perspective than I am," Taylor said. "It's cool because now we've swarmed down the tunnel several times as a part of ladies football. And so when they show that on the big screen, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I've done that.'" 

The final endowment is for a worthy cause

Mary Ferentz, left, with Christopher Turnis, now 17, in 2011. Ferentz and Turnis developed a relationship while he was a patient at the Stead Family Children's Hospital.

The last payment from LFA is an endowment of child life specialists at the hospital. The specialists are trained health care professionals who work with children and their families to help them cope with the emotional and mental toll of being hospitalized. 

They set up fun activities for the patients, the most notable is organizing the kids for The Wave during football games. Those inside the hospital will tell you their position is critical. 

"A lot of the things that go on there couldn't happen without child life," said Christina Turnis, mother of former patient Christopher Turnis. 

They offer emotional support before and after surgeries, help patients grieve when a fellow patient passes away, and utilize distraction techniques when patients draw blood or receive shots. 

"They would come in with these big bubble makers," Turns said. "They would start the bubble makers and that would distract him enough that they could quick get their little thing done. He would hardly know what's going on."

Mary and Kirk Ferentz have donated millions of dollars to the Stead Family Children's Hospital over the last two decades.

Currently child life is not a billable service, meaning hospitals are not reimbursed for the care and services provided. Hospitals like Stead Family Children's Hospital rely on philanthropy to offset costs. This endowment will ensure child life's place in perpetuity. 

"Everybody needs them and I think the need is growing," Mary Ferentz said. "They're amazing. They might be helping cancer one day and something else the next day. They're incredibly knowledgeable and just great personalities." 

Ferentz is a frequent visitor to the hospital and has relationships with many of the patients, including Turnis. 

Like "Kids Captains" during football season, Ferentz selects an honorary captain for each academy. Turnis was the honorary captain in 2016 and a Kids Captain in 2018.

On Saturday, Ferentz is honoring every honorary captain from previous years. Turnis, now 17, is attending. 

"If you ask Christopher who his favorite Hawkeye is, it's Mary," Christina Turnis said. 

The LFA will leave a lasting impact

On Saturday, June 11 2022, the last Ladies Football Academy will take place.

Why is this LFA's last camp? Mary Ferentz pointed to a single reason: scheduling. The growing time commitment by coaches has made it extremely difficult to find a date on the calendar. 

"Football has changed a lot, mostly from recruiting," Ferentz said. "We did it June because June was really the only (free) time, but now June is filled up with recruiting and camps. We thought OK, we're going to end on 10. Ten is a great run. It's a milestone year. Let's end it on a really good note." 

Ferentz is at peace because of what she's gained from it. That includes friendships she wouldn't have had otherwise and getting a new understanding of what it takes to run a successful Power 5 football program. 

"People say you're married to a coach, I must know everything," Ferentz said. " I really don't. I have learned so much just in terms of what goes on. In 42 years of marriage I've asked my husband many times, 'Seriously, what do you do all this time over there?' Now I have really seen just what all goes on and how much is involved and just how much time and work goes into it." 

Ferentz hopes the large number of participants on Saturday means they'll cross the $3 million threshold. 

"Raising more money than we even expect," Ferentz said. "That's what I'm looking forward to." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.