AMES — “Some guy.”
Iowa State legend Darren Davis chuckled as he spoke those words over the phone from his hometown of Homestead, Fla.
Those perfectly apt two words, composed of seven letters and two syllables, form the bridge that links the ordinary to the extraordinary — a triumphant high-arching structure traversed by the likes of him, Adam Runk, Seneca Wallace, Bret Culbertson, Steele Jantz, Jake Knott and most recently, Cole Netten, as fond memories, both near and distant, merge during Cy-Hawk week.
It’s Iowa-Iowa State. An intra-state Big Ten/Big 12 football fracas so intense, yet now so tightly-contested that it boggles the mind to consider it was once a foregone conclusion that the Hawkeyes would not only win, but likely win big.
Now we talk matchups. Now we focus on schemes — such as how much 3-4 will ISU’s defense play against a powerful rushing attack? Or will the Cyclones’ talented receivers light up the Iowa secondary? Now, thanks to what Davis started, we wonder who will be “that guy” who turns the tide, assumes the role of hero, and leads the sprint toward the Cy-Hawk trophy.
“It’s going to be close game every year,” said Netten, whose 48-yard field goal stunned Iowa 20-17 last season at Kinnick Stadium. “And both teams know it.”
Didn’t used to be that way. From 1983 through 1997, Iowa piled up 15 straight wins in the series, including a 57-3 rout in 1985 at Jack Trice Stadium.
By the time that streak reached its end point, then-Cyclones coach Dan McCarney was in his third year at the helm. An up-and-coming assistant by the name of Paul Rhoads was on McCarney’s staff. The Hawkeyes won the 1997 Cy-Hawk game 63-20 and ISU limped to a 1-10 mark — its eighth straight losing season.
“You were talking about the kids that we were recruiting had never seen Iowa State beat Iowa,” recalled Rhoads, who stands 3-3 all-time against the Hawks. “They couldn’t recall a victory. It happened when they were one-year-old or two-years old — that’s when it happened. And that was time in the state, where if you drove across the state, the tire covers were Hawkeye tire covers. The bumper stickers were Hawkeye bumper stickers. The backboards were Hawkeye backboards. And that’s what we were battling not only on the field, but that’s what we were battling in the recruiting wars as well. So that 1998 victory changed the course of not only the series, but I believe the fortunes of this program.”
It’s Sept. 12, 1998. The Cyclones are coming off a 10-point home loss to Texas Christian, then a nationally irrelevant WAC team coach by Dennis Franchione.
Davis and his teammates sit in a pink locker room in Kinnick Stadium. The streak weighs on their minds and Iowa’s a heavy favorite. A crowd of 70,397 assembles to celebrate the expected outcome.
“I’d never been in front of a crowd so huge,” Davis said.
The stage was set. The teams took the field. Lighting struck.
Davis sparked the streak-shattering stream, rushing for 244 yards and a touchdown as ISU took a sledgehammer to the long-established balance of power, winning 27-9 and turning that pink locker room into a raucous party site.
“It was something that you don’t understand until you get in the game,” said Davis, who also starred in ISU’s 17-10 win in 1999 that fueled a five-game winning streak in the series. “After the game was just wonderful, knowing you broke something that stood up so long.”
Some guy. Some win. Something easily forgotten now that the series is typically competitive on an annual basis.
“I think we set the bar after my couple years out there and now they understand they can get beat — Iowa can get beat,” said Davis, who went on to play professionally in Canada and now is a high school offensive coordinator. “It was just something that we took pride in and we went out there and did it.”
So while we dissect Sam Richardson’s performance at quarterback and discuss whether the Demond Tucker-led defensive line can take another positive stride, or the offensive line can improve with or without Daniel Burton, pause to remember the heroes and the circumstances that led to their rise.
Some guys, like Davis, naturally assumed the role, eclipsing 200 rushing yards in a game six times — and twice against Iowa.
“It was my time,” he said. “Those couple of years I stepped up and the O-line did an outstanding job for me. Coaches put the ball in my hands and let me work. Everything we worked at and all that preparation that week showed out on the field.”
Some guys, like Jantz, were here a few years then gone in a flash, happily receding into a world of his own making, one wiped clean of past achievements and disappointments.
“There’s really nothing I cling to,” the enigmatic figure once told me when I worked at The Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Some guys, like Culbertson and Netten, achieve hero status via a single kick (or five).
“As far as being one of those guys, that was definitely an experience for sure,” Netten said.
Cy-Hawk legends come in many shapes and sizes. There’s the thrill of the win and then there’s the aftermath. The heart keeps pounding, though the memories slowly fade.
A lot of things I remember and also a lot of things I don’t remember,” said Netten, who followed up his heroic boot by playing ‘Destiny’ with his friends, one of whom is a Hawkeye fan, long into the night. “Kicking it was all just kind of blur. It all came down to muscle memory, so it was something I’ve done a million times and my body just did it. I didn’t watch it the whole way, because when I felt it off my foot, I knew it was in. I turned around and started running. I had no idea where to go or whatever. And then things started to calm down.”
Netten, like Davis, is ready for a repeat run across the top of the marquee.
Will it happen? Could it, even? No one knows.
But when I asked Davis that kind of pep talk he’d deliver to these Cyclones — some 17 years removed from his streak-busting turn as hero — he ended up sounding a lot like his former coach.
“It ain’t going to be fun if you lose, man,” Davis said, chucking again. “You’ve got to go out there and what you’ve worked on all week, how you prepared, just leave it out there on the field.”