NO WORRIES: The ‘Hero’s Journey’ winds on for ISU’s resilient seniors

Sep 9, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Allen Lazard (5) catches a touchdown pass against Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Manny Rugamba (5) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Simba’s lost most of his golden sheen.

The “Lion King” stuffed animal’s scarred and a bit battered, but still enjoys a hallowed place in Allen Lazard’s room.

It’s a treasured relic of his childhood — and helps tell the story of the record-setting senior Iowa State receiver’s triumphs and travails during a memorable four-year rise that comes full circle for Saturday’s 11 a.m. top-25 Big 12 Senior Day matchup against Oklahoma State.

“There’s a hole in its nose,” said Lazard, who hopes to help the No. 21 Cyclones (6-3, 4-2) topple with the No. 15 Cowboys as the curtain closes on his home career at Jack Trice Stadium. “My dog bit the tail off a little bit. It looks really dirty, but I think that’s just what makes it even better — the more sentimental value it has to it.”

In other words, the now-tawny talisman of sorts has distinct character, just like Lazard and his 19 fellow seniors.

Disney’s “The Lion King” follows the classic Joseph Campbell-inspired script of “The Hero’s Journey,” where Simba, the protagonist, must find courage and resolve amid a series of emotional setbacks.

That journey, in many ways, is mirrored by the one Lazard, linebacker/quarterback Joel Lanning and offensive tackle Jake Campos have shared as Cyclones. These three central Iowans absorbed, processed and ultimately channeled tumultuous times in Ames into a season marked by a pair of top-five wins and a chance for further success stretching through November and beyond.

“I didn’t even know what I would be capable of doing, or what I’d be doing,” Lanning said of his path from backup to starting quarterback-turned-star MIKE linebacker. “The last thing I’d think I was going to do is play defense. I thought I was going to have a pretty significant role on the offense, but it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason.”

Hard knocks lead to big breakthroughs as long as the body is willing. “Hakuna Matata” means “no worries,” but it also creates a crossroads that forks toward either resignation or redemption.

Lazard, Lanning and Campos chose the more difficult, latter path and are being rewarded for their commitment.

“Toughness and perseverance,” said Campos, who missed all of last season with a broken leg. “We’ve gone through everything as a senior class: injuries, coaches, bad seasons, good seasons. So we’re in our good season right now. So I’d say just perseverance. We’ve all really come together and decided we’ve had enough and we need to get this changed.”

***** “The past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” — Rafiki, from “The Lion King”

Lazard first met Lanning, a former Ankeny star, while playing safety for Urbandale High School. Lazard interception Lanning as a freshmen — then endured a painful encounter the following season.

“It was pretty close game,” recalled Lazard, ISU’s only player to ever record four 40-plus catch seasons and four 500-plus receiving yard seasons. “They had the ball on the 20-yard line or so. I don’t even know what their offense was called — the Wing T or something. I’m playing safety and I come downhill and he just runs my ass right over and just gets up in my face and starts (yelling). I’m like, ‘Damn, this kid’s big.’ That was a very humbling moment for me at that time, but that’s probably one of my favorite memories I had.”

Lanning would eventually become the quarterback feeding Lazard’s successful jaunt to the top of the Cyclones’ all-time mark for touchdown catches. The Paul Hornung Award finalist started several games at quarterback in 2015 and 2016, throwing for 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions before the surprising switch to defense.

“He’s as great of a competitor that I’ve ever been around and as a great of a warrior that I’ve ever been around in this sport,” ISU’s second-year head coach Matt Campbell said. “You’re talking about what this kid’s done for this football team and this program. It’s unheard of.”

Lanning’s role Saturday will be critical as the Cyclones seek to curtail Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph’s almost always significant impact on the game.

ISU’s defense has allowed just 24 second-half points in six league games this season and the successful integration of Lanning into the defense along with fellow seniors such as Kamari Cotton-Moya, Vernell Trent and J.D. Waggoner,  is a big reason why.

“It’s an incredible group of seniors,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “I’ve been doing this quite awhile and transition’s very difficult for everyone. This group has done a tremendous job of really taking change by the horns and really becoming, I don’t know, I think the voice of the locker room is what I would call it. They run the team. They know what’s expected. They lead by example. They handle situations and I’ve been nothing but impressed by them. They’ve made my job — I love this group. They’ve made my job a lot of fun. I go every day and I can’t even think about being down, tired, anything. When you’re around those guys, they’re just incredible. … One of the best senior groups I’ve been around in all my years.”

 ***** “Remember who you are.” – Mufasa, from “The Lion King”

Lazard, Lanning and Campos all arrived on campus in Ames as winners. Campos, a star at West Des Moines Valley, said he probably lost six games combined as a Tiger. ISU struggled as these three central Iowans began reshaping the program while growing into leadership roles — and eventually the man who recruited them, Paul Rhoads, was let go along with most of his staff.

Lanning called that juncture a critical one. It was hard on them. Campbell came in and lifted them up, but the mood around the program was abysmal.

“The coaching change, I think, was kind of one of the deals where, ‘All right, either we come together or it’s going to be like a bad deal,’” Lanning said. “These guys came in and I don’t know, it had to be their sophomore year, guys like Allen, they lost coach Rhoads — it’s tough when you’re young. I’d never been through it either and I was kind of a veteran guy at the time, a sophomore, redshirt sophomore. I had never been through the situation either, so I think that’s kind of what brought us together, you know, either we’ve got to stick together or this thing’s going to get even worse than what it has been. We just all stuck together. Bought into what coach Campbell said and never looked back, honestly. He’s just preaching the process and we’re just following him.”

Saturday, the Cyclones — 6.5-point underdogs — have a chance to win their seventh game of the season and retain control of their own destiny in terms of possibly reaching the Big 12 title game.

ISU won a total of eight games in the past three seasons.

Lazard, Lanning, Campos and all the other seniors had to believe this kind of turnaround was possible and they never wavered as each challenge threatened to derail a season-long rebound.

“It will be emotional Saturday for me, just because I know what those — it’s hard to create change,” Campbell said. “It’s hard to create change in our society, it’s hard to create change, period. And these (seniors), some of them have been here four to five years, some of them have been here now two years and one of those guys just being one. They’ve created change. The consistency, they’ve stayed the course, and what they’ve been through to where they’re at today, I don’t know, myself, everybody that follows Iowa State football, I mean, you can’t say anything more than these young men have sacrificed to make us who we are right now today. We wouldn’t be here without them. Every single one of them has a story. Every single one of them has had a profound impact on why we’re improving and getting better and why we’ve been able to stay the course, through the good and through some tough. We owe so much to those guys.”

 ***** “I laugh in the face of danger.” – Simba, from “The Lion King”

The “Circle of Life” sometimes twists toward dark destinations, but for Lazard, Lanning and Campos, it’s nearing its full cardinal and gold-based revolution.

Each opportunity seems bigger than the last, but these three central Iowans shun “big picture” talk and prep for success on a scene-by-scene basis.

“We’ve really just got to treat this game like every other game,” Lazard said. “Obviously the emotional value is a little bit more in this game and whatnot, but I think if we just go out there and play like we have been the past few weeks and prepare the same way, then we’ll be fine.”

Looking ahead is not how Lazard got here, on this unique, but classic hero’s journey.

No worries. No surrender. Simba wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Just kind of the persistence that Simba has throughout that entire movie,” Lazard said while describing what that timeless story means to him. “He goes through something very devastating. … and to run away, but then have his back against the wall and come back and kind of just save his tribe and whatnot, or his family from Scar and the hyenas — I can just kind of relate it to my life.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.

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