Lots of individual star power and class within Hawkeye athletics as shown by three special athletes

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Megan Gustafson

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - This column is about one teary-eyed interview, one agonizing decision and a noble and patient warrior in defeat.

It’s about the power of the Hawkeye spirit and the power of friendship and trust.

It’s about handling adversity and disappointment with class and dignity and loving something that is greater than you, no matter how great you become.

This column is about three of the greatest Hawkeye student-athletes of all time and how each one recently responded to a difficult circumstance in an uplifting fashion.

Megan Gustafson and T.J. Hockenson will forever be linked in my mind for how they both so eloquently explained what it meant to be a Hawkeye, while Spencer Lee made a huge impression for how he handled a horrrible situation.

Gustafson’s career had been over for just minutes this past Monday when she told the media how lucky she was to have played for the Iowa women’s basketball team, which lost to Baylor 85-53 in the Elite Eight on Monday.

She also praised and gushed over fellow seniors Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart, who were seated next to her.

It was hard not to cry while watching Gustafson wipe away tears because you knew how much she was hurting. The smile that fans had grown so used to seeing during her ascent to stardom was replaced by tears.

Losing a game of that magnitude was bad enough.

But Gustafson’s pain went beyond losing a game and beyond anything to do with competition.

She was suffering from the finality of it all.

One of the greatest times in her life was over and there was no turning back.

“I just tried to do my job here at Iowa and just tried to work hard every single day,” Gustafson said. “God has just blessed me with an amazing ability to play basketball, and I’m so, so blessed and thankful that the University of Iowa chose me and I chose to play for them.”

 



 

 

There is a lot of truth to the old saying “once a Hawkeye, always a Hawkeye,” but it’s still not the same as being a current Hawkeye.

Gustafson for the past four years has built her life around being a Hawkeye student-athlete. It has dominated her identity and her focus.

She also became arguably the greatest player in program history, and while losing the opportunity to build on that distinction certainly had something to do with Gustafson’s tears on Monday, her sadness went far beyond anything individual.

Gustafson wasn’t losing her friends on the team because those bonds will last forever. But she was losing them forever as teammates, and that hurts.

Lisa Bluder will forever be a friend and a mentor to Gustafson, but she’ll never be her head coach again, and that hurts.

Life will never be the same for Gustafson again because college is a unique experience all by itself regardless if you’re a celebrated athlete. But throw in all of the incredible stuff that Gustafson and her teammates accomplished in college and her story becomes even more unique, more precious and more difficult to accept that it’s over.

Gustafson’s emotional response made me think of when Hockenson was agonizing over his decision to either declare for the 2019 NFL Draft or return to Iowa for his junior season as a star tight end.

It seemed like a no-brainer that he would leave after Hockenson won the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate tight end, and after he started projecting as a possible first-round draft pick.

But it still took almost until the deadline for Hockenson to announce that he would declare for the draft. He probably had made his decision before that, but something kept Hockenson from making it official.

My guess is that Hockenson struggled with the same finality that brought Gustafson to tears.

The NFL, and its riches, were too good to pass up, and that’s understandable.

But you still had a sense that part of Hockenson wanted to return to Iowa for another season, the part of him that loved being a Hawkeye and loved being part of the Swarm and part of the team for which he grew up cheering in his hometown of Chariton.

It seemed pretty obvious after Iowa’s 27-22 victory over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl that Hockenson had played in his final game as a Hawkeye, but he still waited nearly two weeks before announcing his decision to declare for the draft.

Hockenson was overcome by emotion on the field in the moments after the Outback Bowl, and that fueled the belief that he had played in his last game for Iowa.

“It was very emotional,” Hockenson said to reporters after the game. “Because I don’t get another game with these guys, this group of seniors. These people are some of the best people that I’ve ever been around.”

Hockenson would go on to say that he owed everything to the University of Iowa, and to the Iowa football program. He also thanked as many of the seniors as he could remember.

Hockenson was interviewed several times from the end of the regular season to the start of the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1st, and there were at least two interviews that I remember where he nearly broke down in tears when talking about the people at Iowa and about the relationships that he has built.

Hockenson’s rise to stardom only took three years, and the first year he spent as a redshirt.

So his fame, and what life has to offer came pretty suddenly.

And so did Spencer Lee’s stunning loss by pin to Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni back in late February.

Piccininni escaped with 38 seconds left in the second period then was able to take the reigning NCAA champion down to his back for the fall near the edge of the mat to give Oklahoma State an early 6-0 lead.

The Cowboys would go on to win the dual 27-12 in Stillwater, Okla.

I already had a lot of respect for Spencer Lee before he lost that match, but my respect for him grew immensely because of how he handled losing that day.

He waited patiently at the center of the mat while Piccininni huffed and puffed and flexed for his adoring fans.

Lee even extended his hand first for the post-match hand shake.

He was obviously disappointed and upset about losing, but handled the moment with dignity and class.

I remember thinking after watching the video of Lee getting pinned that I wouldn’t bet against him at the NCAA Championships, and then he validated my confidence by marching to his second consecutive national title at 125 pounds.

And he won those matches just like he lost the match to Piccininni – with class and dignity.

Lee never shows up his opponent or makes it all about himself.

He gave credit to his teammates and coaches after winning the national title last month, saying that he couldn’t have done it without their encouragement and support.

“It feels great, I went through a lot of adversity this year,” Lee said after winning his second national title. “But I really attribute all of my success to my coaches and my teammates who believed in me every step of the way even when maybe I didn’t believe in myself.

“I remember losing at Oklahoma State and I had the whole team grabbing me and telling me that they loved me and we’re a family and we’re going to be in this together. And I know that moment there was when I knew I had to move on. I’ve got to be the better version myself, and thanks to them.”

Maybe on the mat Lee had to be a better version of himself, but the person himself shined brightly in defeat on that day in late February.

Spencer Lee is an incredible talent, but his gifts go beyond his wrestling prowess.

It’s the same with Gustafson and Hockenson, who in addition to being star athletes, are just good people who understand that it's a privilege to be a Hawkeye..

And sometimes, that’s worth pointing out.