By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The coolest thing I witnessed on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium had nothing to do with Keith Duncan breaking the Big Ten record for most field goals in a season or with Nate Stanley throwing for more than 300 yards or with the Iowa defense holding Illinois to just one touchdown.
The coolest thing I saw actually happened a few minutes prior to kick-off when Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, and his wife Mary, represented senior defensive back Devonte Young during the Senior Day ceremony at midfield.
Young is from Maryland and he told reporters after Iowa’s 19-10 victory over Illinois that his parents have decided to attend the bowl game instead of Senior Day due to several factors, including other family obligations, and of course, distance from home.
“I’d rather have them at the bowl game because that will be my last game,” Young said. “Because I have a lot of other brothers and siblings, so they’ve had to travel between sports with them.”
When it became known that Young’s family wouldn’t be at Saturday’s game, Young was asked who he’d like to represent him and he chose the head Hawk, or as Young describes Kirk Ferentz, the head man.
So Kirk Ferentz and his wife stood in the reception line and waited until Young was introduced to the fans. Mary Ferentz also wore Young’s No. 17 Iowa jersey and they shared a warm embrace that nearly brought me to tears in the press box.
“They told me beforehand that they were going to come out with the jersey, so I already expected it,” Young said. “But it was pretty nice, though. I really loved it.”
Young has earned Kirk Ferentz’s respect and admiration by staying on what has been a difficult course at times.
Young came halfway across the country to Iowa as a receiver, but switched to defensive back in hopes of getting more playing time.
But even the switch to defense didn’t lead to more playing time for Young.
His biggest impact has been on special teams where Young made a key fumble recovery that helped to secure the 18-17 victory over Iowa State on Sept. 14 in Ames.
Young very easily could’ve transferred from Iowa when it became apparent that he wouldn’t play a significant role, but he was determined to finish what he had started.
Unlike so many college athletes these days, Young didn’t bail or quit at the first sign of disappointment.
His resolve and commitment has made quite an impression on his head coach.
“I think it’s something that he really admires,” Young said of Kirk Ferentz.
Young was among 19 seniors who were recognized before Saturday’s victory, which improved Iowa’s record to 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten.
It was Kirk Ferentz’s 21st Senior Day ceremony as the Iowa head coach, and three of the previous ceremonies had Kirk and Mary sharing the milestone moment with their three sons, all of whom played football at Iowa.
“Not quite the same as when the other three boys were out there, but unfortunately, Devonte's folks couldn't get here, so I was thrilled that he asked, scraped the bottom of the barrel on that one,” Kirk Ferentz said in his true self-deprecating fashion. “I'm not going to tell you every one of these guys is like one of our sons, but we spend a lot of time together.
“And I think Devonte, it's fitting because of his story – every player that comes here hoping to start every game, have an NFL career. But the best bet is getting your degree and just bringing a good attitude and a good work ethic every day, and that's exactly what he's done.”
Some Iowa fans after learning about Young’s situation on Saturday voiced their displeasure with the NCAA on social media, saying with as much money that football generates, there should’ve been a way to help Young from a financial standpoint.
That is certainly a valid argument, but it’s unclear how much money was a factor in Young’s parents not being able to attend Senior Day.
However, it isn’t cheap traveling halfway across the country, so money probably was a factor.
Kirk Ferentz also received a $500,000 bonus for leading Iowa to an eighth victory on Saturday, and that just shows the difference in power and influence between head coaches and student-athletes.
I don’t blame Ferentz for having that kind of bonus in his contract because Iowa agreed to pay it. And who wouldn’t take the money under those circumstances?
Young apparently doesn’t have a problem with how much money Ferentz makes. Young considers Ferentz to be almost like a second father to him, while the team is Young’s extended family.
Kirk Ferentz is paid handsomely to win football games and Saturday’s victory was his 96th in conference play, tying former Iowa coach Hayden Fry for fourth all-time in conference history.
“Probably means I've been here a while,” Ferentz said when asked to comment on the milestone win.
And while that’s true, Saturday’s game also showed that a head coach has more responsibility than just trying to win games.
Kirk Ferentz also has the daunting task of turning teenagers into responsible young men who are prepared for life after football.
So in that regard, Devonte Young is another one of his many success stories.