Oct 31, 2020; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Landen Akers (82) runs the ball as Kansas Jayhawks cornerback Karon Prunty (9) defends during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State senior safety Lawrence White once doubted he could steer through a patch of personal turbulence.
“I wasn’t sure if I would make it here to see my senior year,” he said.
Fellow senior Landen Akers wasn’t certain how much he’d be able to contribute at wide receiver — and if the team’s ultimate goal of playing championship-level of football could be attained.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said.
Yet another Cyclone senior, offensive tackle Sean Foster, just yearned for a second chance after a less-than-auspicious moment early in his career.
“A lot of things went down for me,” he said.
A deep personal challenge can stir feelings of dread and despair. But these three senior’s stories and myriad others offer concrete proof that one’s approach to adversity — not the adversity itself — defines one’s legacy.
And here we are. Here they are. ISU enters Senior Day Saturday against West Virginia (2:30 p.m., ESPN) ranked ninth in the College Football Playoff, alone atop the Big 12 standings, and all but assured a berth in the Dec. 19 conference title game in Dallas.
No doubt. “No joke, no scam,” as my 12-year-old son likes to say. The Cyclones (7-2, 7-1) have fully arrived, evolving from “laughingstock” to prime contender in the span of head coach Matt Campbell’s — and his 17 seniors’ — cardinal and gold-framed career.
“I think this group has got a really special bond as a senior class,” said Campbell, whose team would fully cement a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win against the talented Mountaineers (5-3, 4-3). “How they’ve responded to adversity, whether it’s been positive or negative, and the ability for them to lead not only themselves but their units and the ability to have really meaningful in-depth conversation about leadership and what the expectation and standards that we’re looking for in each phase of the week and each phase of the day (has been big). And then, allowing us together to come up with the standard and then hold everybody accountable to the standard. I think it’s been it’s been a real joy to watch those young people lead and without them and without their demand to be the best version of themselves, we would certainly not be a football team that’s succeeding. A lot of credit — and really all the credit — goes to them.”
The Bakersfield, Calif., native navigated through some self-described “dark times” early in his ISU career with the help of coaches and teammates. He’ll stride away from Jack Trice Stadium Saturday having made his 23rd consecutive start and secure in the knowledge that he’ll be the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“Four years ago I didn’t think I’d make it here,” said White, who recovered a fumble in last week’s 23-20 win at Texas. “All the things I’ve been through and this team’s been through (were) challenging but we all made it and I’m proud of everybody. But it is emotional. I don’t want to leave this team. I don’t want to leave this place. It holds a special place in my heart. It’s given me a lot of opportunities over the years. I met a lot of great people, had a lot of good friendships and still do. I met some of the people who are going to be in my wedding here, so it means a lot. I’m gonna definitely miss this place.”
And how about Akers? A couple of weeks back, star tight end Charlie Kolar said the Cyclones have to find a way to get the speedy slot receiver into the end zone for the first time. So far, that hasn’t happened, but the “long journey” of which the Cedar Rapids Washington graduate spoke has nonetheless been marked by successes on game day and behind the scenes.
“When I think of Landen, I think of the glue that makes our football program really special,” Campbell said. “He’s a young man that’s really become the best version of himself that he can be in every way, shape and form.”
That’s true whether he finally strides into the end zone or not as the season winds down.
“It’s been a very emotional season with all the ups and downs and everything, but (Campbell) believed in us from day one, so it’s really great to see things starting to pay off,” Akers said.
Circle back to Foster.
That day in 2018 against Iowa, he made his seventh career start. The Cyclones lost, 13-3, and totaled just 19 rushing yards.
Foster played in just four of the next 25 games — but has started each game at left tackle this season.
“I really didn’t put myself in the best position to be able to play at my best when my best was needed, like coach Campbell says,” Foster said about that Iowa game and his ensuing growth. “So after that, I just really devoted myself to figuring out what I needed to do to get better at. Really trying to perfect my craft in every way possible and if it wasn’t for the rest of the guys on the O-line and the D-line who helped me get through some stuff, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Campbell said Foster’s character allowed him to surmount early struggles.
“One of the things that Sean was forced into early, here, because of our O-line situation was to have to get on the field in moments where maybe he wasn’t physically ready,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately it probably wasn’t fair to Sean, but it’s where we were in our program at the time. What would happen to a normal person is they’d have that experience, and it wasn’t a positive one, and it’d shut most people down. What I’ve always appreciated about Sean is he’s always had the mental approach that the team always comes before self and he’s always had the mental approach to go to work to continue to get better.”
Foster’s transformation is one of the many reasons Campbell chose to give each senior a ‘C’ patch this season. They all deserved to be captains not only because of what they’ve been through but how they’ve continued to grind from good toward that ever-elusive standard of great.
“It made zero sense to single out one player when I knew that without each of them, leading together, there would be no way we would have had an opportunity to grow as a football team like we have,” Campbell explained.
So far, so good. ISU’s seniors — from JaQuan Bailey, to Chase Allen and Rory Walling and beyond — have all put the team before themselves. Saturday’s outcome, good or bad, won’t alter that commitment. It’s the bedrock for the Cyclones now; the foundation from which a true contender has been wrought from “laughingstock” beginnings.
“This senior class, from day one, has been really special,” Campbell said. “This is a group that came here on hope and has given back hope to everybody else around this program. For me, to watch our (17) seniors go through their last home football game here in Jack Trice Stadium, it’s going to be really special for myself, this coaching staff and hopefully everybody involved.”