By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - John Milani had one plan for college and that was to play football for the Iowa Hawkeyes, even if it meant doing it without a scholarship.
He talked briefly to a couple Division II and Division III schools, but didn’t really have a backup plan if his goal of being a Hawkeye fell through.
He also had no scholarship offers despite being a first-team all-state defensive back and the defensive player of the year in his district for Iowa City West High School.
Iowa didn’t offer Milani a scholarship, but he was offered a chance to walk-on, and Milani seized the opportunity and has stayed the course.
He is expected to at least play a key role on special teams this coming season, as he did last season while appearing in all 13 games.
Milani is also listed as the backup to sophomore Kaevon Merriweather at strong safety on the spring depth.
So in many ways, Milani is being rewarded for his determination, and for his love for the Hawkeyes.
“You come in here and they say they give walk-ons the same opportunities as scholarships guys and I fully believe that,” Milani said. “I’ve gotten the same coaching and everything.”
Milani’s individual goals have everything to do with the team.
Of course, he wants to start, and is pushing to do that as a fifth-year, senior. But team success is ultimately what matters the most to Milani.
“I just want to contribute to the team as much as I can,” said the 6-foot, 204-pound Milani. “Whether that is on special teams like last year, or if I get the chance to step in there as a safety. I’m just trying to give what I can to this team.”
Milani’s comment about trying to give what he can to this team epitomizes the true spirit of a walk-on.
It certainly takes some ego to be a walk-on, but it also takes patience, humility and unselfishness.
Milani was redshirted as a true freshman in 2015 and didn’t appear in any games during the 2016 season and in just three games in 2017.
And now Milani is listed behind a player who is three years behind him in school in Merriweather, who is a true sophomore.
“I think we’re doing a real good job, we’ve got great chemistry,” Milani said. “Everyone is helping each other. The younger guys are coming along really well.
“We’re like a family in there.”
It was his family that made Milani such a devoted Hawkeye fan.
He is originally from Burlington and his family has had Iowa football season tickets for as long as Milani can remember.
His grandfather also played football for Iowa in early 1950s.
“We’ve had season tickets since I was a kid and my dad and I would drive up here, and then I moved to Iowa City in eighth grade and have just loved the Hawkeyes my whole life,” Milani said.
Milani credits former Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan for helping to clear his path to Iowa.
Morgan was also the head football coach for West High in the 1990s, so Milani felt comfortable around him and they had something in common.
Morgan also had a knack for identifying overlooked talent, and if he felt that Milani deserved a chance to walk-on, that was good enough for Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“It just gave us a little common ground because he’s from West High and everyone talks about him as a legend and he truly is, here and at West High,” Milani said of Morgan, who retired recently after having spent 19 seasons on the Iowa staff. “So that was nice just seeing him come and talk to me.”
Other than paying their own way to school, which is a big deal, there isn’t much that separates and walk-from a player on scholarship at Iowa.
Ferentz truly is an equal opportunity employer and that helps to create a healthy environment for the walk-ons.
Milani said it’s hard sometimes to distinguish between walk-ons and scholarship players at Iowa.
“There’s times when it’ll be a couple years down the road and you’ll find out that a guy was a walk-on and you wouldn’t have even guessed it, like some offensive linemen,” Milani said. “Coach Ferentz just always talks about walk-on mentality for walk-ons or scholarship (players). So I think that just says it right there.”
Milani is one two walk-ons listed as a backup safety on Iowa’s spring depth chart. The other is sophomore and West Des Moines Dowling graduate Jack Koerner, who is listed behind Geno Stone at free safety.
Walk-ons have played a significant role under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, and it was the same under Hayden Fry.
Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line under Fry from 1981-89, so Ferentz saw first-hand how important walk-ons were to the program.
Ferentz has continued the tradition that Fry started, and there is even more reliance on walk-ons these days due to the 85 scholarship limitation.
The Iowa football team is fortunate to have walk-ons like John Milani because they help to fill so many gaps and because they add so much to the team-first atmosphere.
Most of the walk-ons don't become stars like former Iowa tight end Dallas Clark, but many of them, including Milani, have played key roles and have shown that they belong at this level.
Milani had a specific plan for college and he has let nothing stand in his way of achieving it.
That says a lot about him.