Former ISU defensive lineman Ryan Harklau in action against Iowa. Harklau beat the Hawks three times in his career — and played a key role in the 2000 Cyclones’ historic 9-3 Insight.com Bowl-winning season. (Photo courtesy ISU Athletics Communications).
[Author’s note: During these many sports-less weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cyclone Fanatic has been re-running many of my “Where Are They Now” features. Typically, we like to include an update at the end of these reissued articles, but that’s not always possible. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with the great Ryan Harklau recently, so please find an updated story on how he’s handling self-quarantine at the bottom of this “Where Are They Now” piece. —RG, April 21, 2020]
AMES — Ryan Harklau grew up an Iowa State fan, but didn’t want to be a Cyclone in the mid 1990s.
The then-budding star from Humblodt had attended some camps at ISU and didn’t like the feel, the culture, the program’s direction.
“At that time, what I was really looking at was Nebraska and Wisconsin,” said Harklau, the subject of this month’s Cyclone Fanatic ‘Where Are They Now’ feature. “(They) were probably, I would say, the two leaders. … Honestly Nebraska is probably where I was going.”
Enter Dan McCarney.
The new Iowa State coach advanced an ambitious vision for the long-downtrodden program that hadn’t played in a bowl game in nearly 20 years.
He delivered his message with vigor and bravado — making it clear that Iowa State’s long-awaited turnaround would be a matter of when, not if, and Harklau could play a key role in the seismic shift.
“When I met coach McCarney for the first time, I was done,” said Harklau, who endured three straight losing seasons before breaking through as a senior in 2000 as ISU went 9-3 and registered its first bowl triumph in program history. “I felt like he could do what I thought could be done at Iowa State. He did do it because of who he was, the leader who he was and the person. Obviously my son’s name is Mack. I thought the world of him the first day I met him and nothing’s changed since.”
Harklau — who totaled 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in his Cyclone career — did have a phone call to make after he’d committed to ISU and his senior season at Humboldt High School loomed.
“I will never forget the phone call when I told Nebraska I’d committed to Iowa State,” Harklau said. “Dan Young was the guy, the coach’s name, that was recruiting me from there.”
Harklau paused to briefly chuckle about the land-line exchange.
“I go, ‘Hey, I’ve decided to commit to Iowa State,’” Harklau added. “The first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘Why?’ The respect from Nebraska to Iowa State obviously wasn’t there and rightfully so.”
The Huskers were in the midst of attaining back-to-back national championships when Harklau changed course and chose McCarney and the Cyclones. Nebraska won another national crown during Harklau’s redshirt freshman season, which included a 77-14 Big Red win over ISU that could have been worse.
Still, Harklau never regretted his decision. He wanted to help build something at Iowa State — the team he’d grown up cheering on. He did just that, digging into the trenches of McCarney’s first rebuild and helping drive it forward to the history-making 2000 campaign.
“Everyone knows coach Mac’s enthusiasm,” said Harklau, who now serves as a Regional Vice-President for Farm Bureau Financial Services. “He could get you excited to eat breakfast in the morning, so that’s number one. But honestly his class as a person, I mean, I thought he was a person that I wanted to emulate. I wanted to be a lot like him. I wanted that enthusiasm in my life. How he carried himself and the classiness of that person is what I wanted to be around. I think that was probably the biggest thing that drew me to him and, truthfully, all of his staff. Coach (Paul) Rhoads was a big part of it. Coach (Mike) Woodley was a big part of it. Coach Kirby Wilson was a a big part of it — the running backs coach at the time. There were a lot of great coaches on that staff when he first came over.”
Ironically enough, basketball helped pave the way for his path to Division I football.
Harklau played select ball with two of Woodley’s sons, Matt and Andy — and drove and dunked on Humboldt hoops teams that lost just two games combined in his sophomore and junior seasons.
“I loved the game of football, but obviously when you’re winning and you’re more dominant as a basketball team, that was more fun, but football was always my dream,” Harklau said. “From day one, I loved the game.”
Harklau began his ISU career as a 6-4, 235-pound middle linebacker. He played the position his redshirt freshman season and was named the scout team player of the year. He continued to play middle, then outside linebacker part of his sophomore season — until a spate of injuries on the defensive line led to a position shift.
Undersized but full of spunk, Harklau sprang for 2.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Still, he knew a total body transformation was necessary so a plan emerged. It involved eating. A lot. Little attention was paid to the nutritive value of the food he’d be voraciously consuming.
“Honestly, it was calories in,” Harklau said. “A lot of what we tried to — supplements back then didn’t exist. All they really had was creatine at the time and I can’t say that I never used it, but I rarely if ever used it. I didn’t trust it. I don’t know. I felt like I could get there without it. And it’s not like it is today, where they’re tracking, like a dietician every single meal — when you’re eating, when you’re sleeping. It wasn’t like that then. For me it was about the calories being put in the body. You know, feed the machine.”
Harklau’s machine began to add gears and bulk. By his junior season, he was playing at 280 pounds. By his senior season, he’d bulked up to 290 — and, remarkably, with only 12-13 percent body fat.
“I was not strict,” Harklau said of his weight-gain strategy. “Not at all. I wish I could say that I was. Honestly looking back, it’s probably one of my regrets. I wish I would have; it’s just no one paid attention at the time to a strict diet. So I wish I would have been better at that than I was.”
Harklau’s fast-food approach to physical growth nonetheless worked — so much so that he became a well-known patron at a local McDonald’s.
“You know it’s bad when the drive-thru people are wishing you luck on next week’s game,” Harklau said. “They knew who you were. You got to the McDonald’s that frequently, but it’s a time thing. You come from class, you’re grabbing something, you have to get to the facility to get taped, watch film and get on the field.”
Somehow, the dollar menu fed Harklau’s much loftier dreams very well.
After going 4-7 in 1999 he knew the Cyclones were poised to shine the next season.
All the hard work — and the leadership skills acquired along a bumpy path riddled with close losses — pointed to what’s commonly (and erroneously) referred to as “overnight success.”
“My junior year in 1999 we were so close to winning and making a bowl game,” Harklau said. “And what I mean is I think we won four games that year and we had Texas on the ropes at home. We had Kansas State on the ropes at home. We were up 21 at half, I think 28-7, and they come back and torch us in the second half and beat us. Texas kicks a field goal at the end and we almost block it at the end of the game. I remember that vividly. So there were some games we were close in my sophomore and junior years where I knew it was coming. So our senior year, there was no doubt what we were going to do. There wasn’t one person in the locker room that had any doubt of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. And truthfully, our coaches were great leaders, but the peer leadership in that locker room was awesome. The accountability came from your peers as much as it did by any coach.”
That Cyclones’ stellar 2000 defensive line featured six players who at least saw time in NFL training camps — and produced three players, Reggie Hayward, James Reed and then-young backup Jordan Carstens — who would enjoy successful pro careers.
It’s amazing, those guys,” McCarney told Cyclone Fanatic recently. “When we talk about Ryan Harklau, just the loyalty, the character, the work ethic, the class, the integrity. You could never ask him to do too much, whatever the workload was. As coachable as anybody I was ever around.”
Harklau — who likely would have made the Jacksonville Jaguars’ roster in 2001 if a severe MRSA infection hadn’t sent him to the hospital — said that meeting room is where he grew immensely as a man as well as a football player. Sure, the talent was great and broad-ranging, but so were the life experiences, the different gradations of adversity faced, and the singular goal that united them all.
“I came from a town of 5,000 people,” Harklau said. “And in rural Iowa, there’s no diversity at all. It just unfortunately doesn’t exist. When I say unfortunately, once I learned the culture of Saginaw, Michigan — I don’t know about Saginaw, Michigan until James Reed. James Reed became a very good friend of mine. And Reggie Hayward’s from Chicago, Illinois. Reggie Hayward went to a high school that I had no understanding of what high school was like in Chicago, where they might play a high school game during the day because it’s safer. I’m a better person because of those guys. And Kevin DeRonde and I — he’s from Pella and that’s the same thing. Humboldt and Pella are very similar communities, but honestly as a person and having a true understanding of where James came from and where Reggie came from and where Nigel Tharpe came from in Detroit and learning about their backgrounds and understanding them, man, it’s one of those things where whenever we get back together it’s like we were never apart. You hug each other and then, bam, you’re just right back in the same conversation. Those are the guys you love. I honestly love those guys because they changed my life for the better and opened my eyes to a lot of things and made me a better person. That’s what made us special as a team that year because it just didn’t stop there. It was Sage (Rosenfels) and Ennis Haywood and J.J. Moses — everybody came from so many different parts of the Midwest that when we came together it didn’t matter where you came from. And that’s what made that team special.”
So did achieving the program’s first bowl win — after a 21-year stretch that ended without postseason play of any kind.
“Leaving a winner,” Harklau said of the pride stemming from that win over Pittsburgh in Phoenix. “Not many teams get to do that, not even if you make it to a Jan. 1 bowl game. Only half those teams get to leave winning. And we were able to leave with nine wins on an awesome atmosphere, awesome game. That’s the proudest moment honestly. That was just the stamp you put on it when you walk out the door.”
He was also able to celebrate it with dozens of family members — and what felt like the “whole town” of Humboldt.
“Again, that’s the Humboldt thing,” Harklau said. “That’s a small town. People in Humboldt cared about Iowa State. They cared about me. They cared about how I was doing and how the team was doing. I don’t know the number, but all I know is we had Christmas early and all my aunts and uncles from my mom’s and dad’s side were all out there. And cousins — I’d hate to guess. Forty or fifty (family members), maybe north of that. And plus a lot of hometown people there.”
His family even rented out a room atop a bar for the post-win festivities. Among those in attendance, his younger brother and future ISU walk-on, Nick — then around 13 or 14-years-old — who danced and frolicked, but of course drank only soda pop while the adults fully reveled in the historic victory.
“He sure was having fun,” Harklau said. “He was celebrating. I’ll never forget him dancing with all of us, all my buddies after that game. That was a pretty cool experience that night, having all my family there, family and friends and a lot of the players kind of celebrating that win.”
Many of those players — fellow seniors — embody the success that 2000 represents. McCarney and Harklau see the same thing happening with the 2017 Cyclones, too.
“That senior class, I think you’re seeing it now with this Iowa State team,” McCarney said. “They have to lead the change. If you’re going to change the culture, change the attitude, change the perception and change the results, those seniors have to do it. And Hark was one of those amazing seniors that did that for us in 2000. He led. Every day. And you just see these guys now, he was such a great example of it.”
Harklau’s carried those lessons to his current position. How he describes attaining and maintaining success may sound very similar to the message the man currently shaping an ISU resurgence routinely crafts and delivers. No smoke. No mirrors. Just everyday attention to detail that’s as consistent as it is exacting.
“Being an athlete you learn how to deal with adversity,” said Harklau, who resides in Humboldt with his wife, Abbey, daughter, Brett, and son, Mack. “And when you get knocked down you learn how to get back up. You’re never too high, never too low. So as good as you think things are, they’re probably not (hat good and as bad as you think things are, they’re probably not as bad. They’re probably somewhere in between. I think how to respond from adversity is probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from Iowa State. And secondly, learning how to win is actually something. It’s hard to explain. But once you know it — at Iowa State we had to learn how to win. You do the little things right all the time. You don’t skip over. You don’t take the easy route. Winning happens in August and not just on an October night. It happens in July and in the winter and what you do on a day-in and day-out basis. So what I do in my job today is affecting 2018, 2019 and 2020 results. And I think that’s what’s affected me the most, is understanding the small things, the details of what we do every day affects what’s going to happen two to three years from now.”
*****UPDATE STORY BELOW*****
Ryan Harklau’s used to being on the road.
As the regional vice president of Iowa for Farm Bureau Financial Services, he’s often shaking hands, cementing partnerships and meeting face-to-face with both agents and colleagues.
Now, of course, the former Iowa State great is doing that “virtually” for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and enjoying having more in-person time with his wife, Abbey, daughter, Brett (soon to be 16), and son, Mack (13).
Harklau’s parents taught Mack the game of Cribbage after ISU’s loss to Notre Dame at the Camping World Bowl in Orlando. Apparently, they taught him too well.
“Unfortunately he’s beating me right now,” said Harklau, who totalled 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles as a Cyclone. “Like six games to four, so he’s way up on me. But that’s the stuff that’s been awesome and fun, though. That’s been so awesome to be able to do that. In the past we wouldn’t have done that.”
Harklau also went on a two and a half to three-mile run with his daughter, a track and cross country athlete, over the weekend.
“It’s just been good,” the Humboldt native said of the marked increase in family time. “I don’t know what else to say. It is what you make of it. Do I wish we were stuck in our house or kind of socially distanced? No, but at the same time, it’s been a little bit of a blessing just for our family as we spend time together. It’s been good for us.”
Harklau is a stalwart tailgater at home Iowa State football games, but recognizes that routine is likely to be upset this fall. It stinks that he might not be able to hang out near Jack Trice Stadium with former teammates and friends such as Josh Rank, Sage Rosenfels, Ryan Gehrke, Jamie Kill, Cory Kulver, Lane Danielson, and Jack Whitver, among many others, but he understands why that may be put on hold as the nation and the world grapples with both economic and health-related turmoil.
“The struggle that everyone’s having with this is the economic crisis and the health crisis going on at the same time,” Harklau said. “And they’re both important. I don’t have an answer and I don’t want to jump in on that debate because I don’t know if there is a right answer. I just know that there are two sides that we’re trying to solve.”
Harklau’s convinced Iowa will eventually get back on track sooner than most states because of its backbone: Agriculture — and the tirelesss men and women working in the field (and fields).
“We’ll climb out of this, I believe, faster than most — and it’s all because of the farmer,” Harklau said. “They’re not not going to go in the field because there’s something going on. They’re going in the field. They’re our food supply. So that group of people is literally going to pull the whole state of Iowa out of this thing and they’re going to do it by going out and doing what they’ve always done. … They don’t let little things slow them down. They have a job to do and that’s what they do. They always get it done. They always get it done. And that’s I guess why we’re so lucky to have that group being our foundation as our state.”