ISU offensive lineman Derek Schweiger in action. (Photo courtesy Cyclones.com)
Derek Schweiger lay on his back.
It hurt. A lot. The wear and tear of practicing football had taken its toll on the walk-on offensive lineman’s body.
The lightly-recruited hulking figure from Plymouth, Wis., had already beaten the odds by securing even a chance to be on Iowa State’s roster in 2017. And flat on his posterior in a dark bedroom as the stars beamed overhead — far, far away, unseen, self-doubt inevitably crept in, if only for a fleeting moment.
“There for a second and then (it’s) gone,” said Schweiger, a former walk-on who has molded himself into a high-performing starter for the No. 20 Cyclones. “Because you think about it: a couple months before that I wasn’t even thinking about playing college football. And it’s like an opportunity that a lot of other people in the world don’t get, especially coming out of high school. And then the motivation of my parents and everyone around me saying, ‘You can do it.’ You just keep pushing forward. It was never gonna be easy. Coach (Matt) Campbell always preaches that it’s never gonna be an easy ride. Nothing’s easy. Everything that you get has to be earned.”
Through grit. Through pain. Through arduous work.
Schweiger — who didn’t even entertain thoughts of playing college football until toward the end of his senior year of high school — against all odds found fertile ground for his dreams in Ames.
The now-6-3, 311-pound redshirt junior didn’t even make fall camp as an ailing freshman. His back hurt so terribly. Still, his parents and other loved ones told him not to give up and his indefatigable spirit coaleseced with a deep desire to exceed external expectations.
In short, Schweiger was an unlikely D-1 prospect. He had no offers, except from relatively obscure schools. He’s a testament to “the process,” which isn’t unique to ISU even though it’s a signature piece of Campbell’s motivational repertoire.
“Honestly, in my junior and senior year (of high school), I really had no thought of playing football at the next level,” said Schweiger, ISU’s top-rated offensive lineman according to PFF College through four games this season. “But once I stopped playing after my final game of high school, I missed it and felt like it was something I needed to have. So I started with the process of getting recruited pretty late. Obviously, in November of your senior year, it’s probably not the time to start it, but I did have some D-III, D-II’s just around Wisconsin, which is where I’m from and my major is food science. A lot of smaller schools don’t have that because it’s kind of a newer and up-and-coming major, I would say. So I really knew that I had to go somewhere bigger and my brother (Drew) was at Iowa State already in the engineering department. I had been here a few times and I’d visited here and really thought I was gonna come here even if I didn’t play football. … So I reached out to (ISU director of player personnel) Derek Hoodjer on Twitter and said, ‘You know, I’m really interested in playing football. Here’s my height, my weight, my GPA, I’m studying food science, do you got anything for me?’ He said, ‘You know, obviously our scholarships are full, but we’ve got a walk-on visit this weekend. If you come down, we’ll see where we can go from there.’ So I ended up coming down. It really just fell into place. By the grace of God, I ended up here at Iowa State doing school and football.”
Academics towered above sports from the start — and it’s shown as Schweiger is now a two-time first team all-Big 12 selection when it comes to his proficiency with coursework.
But athletic acumen rapidly closed the gap on his well-documented book smarts. Schweiger — a multi-sport athlete in high school — came to Iowa State as an obvious long shot, yet this season earned a starting spot on an ever-improving offensive line that’s thrived even after graduating four seniors and enduring upheaval because of injuries of varying severity suffered by Trevor Downing, Rob Hudson and Joey Ramos.
“I think the biggest thing we all bought into is we’re gonna need everyone,” Schweiger said of offseason and early season work that has helped the Cyclones weather those injuries. “It’s gonna take everyone. Everyone has to be ready and, you know, we literally just brought each other along every day. One guy maybe had an off day, but we were bringing him with. Like, we were trying to get everybody on the same page at all times. We knew it was gonna take everybody. We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. We knew that we were kind of the question mark in a lot of areas because we had graduated four seniors last year. … But we all bought in and just said that we needed everybody and everybody really bought into that and really developed that sense in their mind — that my opportunity (might come) and I need to be ready. So I think we’re a really tight-knit group. It just helps us be able to develop week in and week out.”
This bye week is no different. Hudson is back. Ramos? Who knows. Downing? He’s been out since sustaining a lower-body injury in the season opener, but Darrell Simmons — who like Schweiger, was an unheralded recruit — has stepped in ably to help carry the load.
The key: “We’re gonna need everyone.” ISU prepared that way amid this unprecedented pandemic and that hard-earned depth and collective belief is shining through.
When the Cyclones (3-1, 3-0 Big 12) suit up on Oct. 24 against No. 7 Oklahoma State (3-0, 2-0) at Stillwater, they can further distance themselves from the rest of the conference by remaining unbeaten in league play.
But first things first. It’s vital to finish off this week of practice with precision and focus while living in the moment as Campbell often stresses.
“It’s easy to look ahead and think, ‘We can do something that’s never been done before. We can win the Big 12. We can go there. We can do this,’” Schweiger said. “But every week is the same. It’s be the best version of yourself and play the best football this team can play. We still believe we haven’t played our best football, so every week it’s about getting better. You getting one percent better every day. And in the end, just hoping it all works out because if you give everything you’ve got each day in and day out and you make every day worth it, things will fall where they are.”
And where they should be — even for former walk-ons such as Schweiger who is now a mauler clearing swaths of turf for one of the nation’s top tailbacks in Breece Hall.
“Derek Schweiger, I think, is a young man who’s been ultra-impressive,” Campbell said after last Saturday’s win over Texas Tech.
No doubt. A guy who never thought he’d play college football — let alone big-time college football — is now one of the best offensive linemen on a team poised to turn the corner.
How about that.
“I think it’s an experience that I’ll use for the rest of my life,” Schweiger said of his rapid rise from walk-on to key contributor.
Playing defensive end in high school helped Schweiger hone the skills needed for the job. Pitching on his high school baseball team aided him in crafting a can-do approach to everything. He’d plant, swivel, and hurl toward who knows what — and hoped they’d miss.
“I was a little smaller, a little skinnier, but still a pretty big human being out there on the mound,” Schweiger said with a laugh about his former pitching days. “A big lefty.”
A crafty and driven one, too. Imposing, if not overpowering.
“I wouldn’t say a great heater,” Schweiger said of his fastball, which stalled in the low to mid-80s. “It would get you off balance, but I had some breaking balls. That backdoor slider will get you any day.”
Indeed, it will. Just like an underdog lineman can sneak up and take a starting spot no one thought he’d ever earn. Let alone a scholarship, which Campbell gave Schweiger just before the onset of fall camp — along with his frontline position.
Schweiger’s undoubtedly imposing now in the trenches, having overcome long odds to make a huge difference. He won’t lay down. He’ll always stand up.
“Coming in, you’re not really sure about anything,” Schweiger said. “And the work that you put in, coach (Campbell) always says, ‘You’ve gotta let the process be a part of it.’ Well, I bought into that because I felt like I could really do something. I just kept coming in every day and working hard and doing what was entrusted in me. I mean, people understand what a walk-on is and I think people acknowledge that it is a grind, it is tough. And it’s something that you’ve gotta be pretty strong-powered — you’ve got to have people in your corner helping you out, supporting you and making it a (powerful) experience. I think once you realize that being a walk-on gives you all these possibilities that all these people in the country (don’t have), it’s something you can’t forget. It’s something that other people really recognize and see that you really kind of started from the bottom and you’re where you’re at.”