By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Nico Ragaini had to sort of put his future on hold in order to better prepare for it, and now he is glad that he did.
Instead of heading off to college with his graduating class from Notre Dame High School in East Haven, Conn., Ragaini decided to attend a prep school for one year with the hope earning a college football scholarship.
And now two years, later, Ragaini is returning punts and playing a key role at receiver for the Iowa Hawkeyes as a redshirt freshman on scholarship.
So it’s fair to say that his patience was rewarded.
“At the time when I was sitting at prep school and I remember all of my friends were at college enjoying their time and I’m still in high school doing high school things,” Ragaini said. “But truly, I wanted this football scholarship so bad that I truly would do anything just to get this offer.
“So it was pretty much no risk for me. I got an extra year of playing football, maturing and getting bigger, faster and stronger. And then it ended up working out well and I’m here now.”
Ragaini knew very little about Iowa while growing up in Connecticut, but he had a connection to the Iowa football program in that he attended the same high school as Iowa quarterback coach Ken O’Keefe, although, they were separated by more than 40 years.
But Ragaini and O’Keefe, despite their age difference, still played for the same high school football coach.
So they had something in common that paid dividends after O’Keefe rejoined the Iowa staff in 2017 as quarterbacks coach.
O’Keefe had served as Kirk Ferentz’s offensive coordinator at Iowa from 1999 to 2011 before leaving to coach receivers for the Miami Dolphins.
Ragaini was in his senior year of high school when O’Keefe was hired to coach the Iowa quarterbacks in February, 2017.
They started building a relationship that grew even stronger while Ragaini attended prep school in the fall of 2017.
“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about Iowa,” Ragaini said. “I just knew that coach O’Keefe, the quarterback coach here, he went to the same high school as I did, so we had that little connection.
“So I was really hoping my whole time in high school, he was with the Dolphins, and I was hoping he would go back to Iowa, so that some coach would take me. And it worked out.”
It was O’Keefe who shared the life-changing news with Ragaini that Iowa was prepared to offer him a scholarship. Ragaini still remembers the call happening on a Sunday.
“He told me that they were going to offer me, and I literally committed right on the spot,” Ragaini said. “I said I’m coming. I hung up the phone and then he called me like ten minutes later and (said) we’re going to need you come out here in like four days.
“So the next day I drove up to my prep school and packed up all my stuff and put it on a plane and came out here.”
Ragaini twice was named the Male Athlete of the Year in New Haven, and he also earned All-New England recognition at Avon Old Farms Prep School in Connecticut.
He was a four-year lettermen in football, compiling over 3,300 receiving yards, a highly decorated lacrosse player and an accomplished sprinter in track.
In fact, Ragaini received more attention from colleges for lacrosse than football while in high school.
“I always played football growing up,” Ragaini said. “The offers didn’t come as fast as they did for me, so I had some offers early on for lacrosse. So that was, it’s awful for me to say, but it was pretty much my backup plan.
“But once I got this Iowa offer I knew this is what I wanted and I took it as soon as I got it.”
If Ragaini’s father had his way, his son would’ve focused on baseball, but Nico preferred sports like football and lacrosse because there was more activity.
“My dad used to play baseball and he played in college and he always dreamed of me playing college baseball,” Ragaini said. “And then in sixth grade I started getting bored with it and wanted to play a more active spot. So I quit and I joined the lacrosse team, and ever since then I fell in love with the spot.
“But I always knew that I wanted to play football in college because this is my true love.”
Ragaini’s true love will take him to Ames on Saturday where he will get his first real taste of the rivalry between Iowa and Iowa State. Ragaini appeared in three games last season as a true freshman, but he didn't play in the Iowa State game
He also knew nothing about the rivalry when he enrolled at Iowa, but now more than a year later, Ragaini is fully aware of what’s at stake on Saturday.
“I never really heard of it when I was back home because I’m from Connecticut, so far away,” Ragaini said. “You hear about the Midwest, but being here, I know how serious everybody takes it and how much of a big rivalry game it is.
“We all have respect for Iowa State and their coaching staff and their players. So we know they’re going to give their all and we’re planning on doing the same.”
Ragaini is among six Iowa receivers who have at least four catches after two games.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley also threw three touchdown passes in each of the first two games without throwing an interception.
Ragaini was asked on Tuesday why the passing game is working so well.
“I think everyone just trusts each other,” Ragaini said. “Stanley trusts us to get open and we trust him to make the right read and our line is doing such a great job blocking for Stanley, so it’s not one person on our team making every single catch. You can see that everybody is getting some love, which is awesome for all of us. They can’t double-team anyone really. So I think that’s what we have going for us.”
The Iowa coaches showed their trust in Ragaini by making him the team’s top punt returner.
But as Ragaini learned this past Saturday, it isn’t easy.
He struggled to figure out Rutgers punter Adam Korsack, who punted 10 times for a 47.6 average during Iowa’s 30-0 victory at Kinnick Stadium. Seven of Korsack’s punted landed inside the 20-yard line, and three landed inside the 5-yard line.
“He was really good,” Ragaini said. “He was punting the ball all over the place. I was trying to get to the ball.
“One of them I remember barely stayed in bounds and rolled all the way to the one. He really made me work and I’m learning from it. I’ve got to do better, and hopefully, this week I’ll be able to field the punts better.”
Ragaini isn’t about to let one shaky performance keep him down.
“It was my second game last week, so I’m not putting too much hardship on myself,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn from the experience and get better as the year goes on.”
Ragaini suffered through some growing pains last Saturday, and now he has to learn for it.
“Yeah, hopefully, it will help Nico,” Kirk Ferentz said. “That's about as tough as it gets. A new punt returner, it showed a little bit on Saturday. Hopefully, those experiences will better enable him to be a little bit better moving forward.”
Ragaini has a valuable resource and consultant in Iowa punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, who also performed well against Rutgers, punting six times for a 48.3 average.
Ragaini often turns to the 26-year old Sleep-Dalton for advice on how to read opposing punters.
“He’s always trying to talk to me as the game is going on and let me know what he thinks, which I love because he’s such a great punter, too,” Ragaini said of Sleep-Dalton, who came to Iowa this summer as a graduate transfer from Arizona State. “So definitely, I talk to him all the time about how to read the punts and what a punter is thinking and he knows what the punter is thinking as well so that definitely helps.”
Ragaini relishes the chance to make a big play on special teams, especially in a rivalry game.
“If you can make one of those plays that definitely would help out in a big rivalry game like this one,” he said.