Home of the Hawkeyes: Hundreds of former student-athletes, coaches put down roots and never leave Iowa City area
For former Iowa linebacker Vernon Rollins, the birth of his son in November 2010 is a constant reminder of why he feels fortunate to live in the Iowa City area.
At first glance, little Vernon V seemed normal. He had all his fingers and toes and weighed a healthy 7 pounds, 1 ounce at birth. But he wasn’t breathing properly and doctors soon discovered that little Vernon was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, which in some cases can be fatal.
The doctors and nurses at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital then saved little Vernon’s life, Rollins said.
“He had a 50-50 chance of living or dying,” Rollins said.
Rollins told that story to help explain why he and his wife, Kelly, who also attended UI, chose to stay in the Iowa City area to raise their family after finishing college. Rollins appreciates that his three children — he also has a 10-year old son and a 7-year-old daughter — live in an environment far safer than where he grew up in Hackensack, N.J.
“Going back to New Jersey where there is only cement and traffic just didn’t make much sense,” said Rollins, who as a junior in 1997 suffered a career-ending knee injury in the third game of the season versus Iowa State. “Where I grew up, it was always you had to worry about somebody beating you up or taking your sneakers or doing other things.”
Rollins, 37, is one of dozens of former UI student-athletes who chose to stay in the Iowa City area after their college career despite growing up in a different part of the country or the world.
It’s impossible to count how many former UI student-athletes live in the Iowa City area. But there are dozens, possibly hundreds of examples, not of just former student-athletes, but also former UI coaches and athletic administrators who have made the Iowa City area their permanent home.
“I’ve thought of that a few times over the years because I can count on probably two hands the number of friends I have that are former players that are out here doing stuff in the community and being active,” said Josh Schamberger, who is president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. “If I had to just take a guess or speculate, I think part of it has to do with the Iowa Hawkeyes being the NFL pro team of this state.
“And with these athletes, first of all, they’re high-quality individuals. That’s been a staple of Iowa recruiting for a number of years and these guys are very likable and they get connected in the community and they get picked up very quickly and opportunities present themselves because the majority of business owners around here are die-hard Hawkeye fans and they want to surround themselves with these good folks.”
Schamberger also thinks the quality of life in and around Iowa City plays a factor.
“We have such great opportunities available here,” Schamberger said. “We’ve shown ourselves to be a bit of a recession-proof community. So the economy here is strong and the quality of life is great.”
The Press-Citizen began compiling a list of former UI student-athletes now living in or around Iowa City and found that it includes hundreds of men and women from all sports and from different parts of the United States and beyond.
Schamberger just had the concrete for his backyard patio poured by former Iowa linebacker Mike Humpal. Schamberger also lives in the same Coralville neighborhood as former Iowa football players Matt Melloy and Marcus Schnoor, and he competes with them in a golf league.
“They’re right at home in the community,” Schamberger said. “As soon as one of these guys comes to town, they’re treated like family and they want to stay.”
Former Iowa wrestler Luke Eustice said there are “dozens and dozens of former Hawkeye wrestlers now living in the area. That includes the 33-year-old Eustice, who is from Blue Earth, Minn., and now works as director of operations for the Iowa wrestling program.
“I think you spend a lot of your time and a lot of your energy while you’re wrestling here,” Eustice said. “You’re committed when you’re here and you want to continue to be a part of something.”
Eustice also considers Iowa City to be appealing in terms of size. He grew up in a town with a population of about 3,200.
“It’s a big town, but it also has that small-town feel,” Eustice said of Iowa City.
Matt Hughes, 37, started at linebacker alongside Rollins at Iowa and was in the same 1994 recruiting class. Hughes grew up in Eastland, Texas, but now lives in North Liberty and is the new football coach at Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin.
Hughes finished playing at Iowa in 1998 and then played briefly with the San Francisco 49ers and for four years in arena football before moving to Oklahoma, where he lived from 2002-04 and worked in medical sales. He often thought about returning to Iowa City while living in Oklahoma but even more so after his bother-in-law became seriously ill while living in Des Moines.
“That’s when I really felt like Iowa was home and I needed to get back up this way,” Hughes said. “Iowa City was the place to be. That’s where my network is, a lot of acquaintances. So it was a good place to come back and start growing some roots.”
Former Iowa track star Diane Nukuri-Johnson was born in Burundi but then fled to a suburb of Toronto in 2001 to escape the Burundi Civil War. She lived with relatives in Canada and continued her ascent as a distance runner. Nukuri-Johnson, 28, now lives in Iowa City for personal and professional reasons. Her husband is from Cedar Rapids and is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa Law School. Nukuri-Johnson also still trains professionally under Iowa track coach Layne Anderson.
“I love the city,” said Nukuri-Johnson, who transferred to Iowa from Butler County Community College in Kansas. “I’ve been here for seven years now and I’ve been working with the same coach for seven years. I don’t have any reasons to leave now.”
Nukuri-Johnson said there are many advantages to living in the same town where you attended college. She won a Big Ten title in cross country in 2007 and and outdoor title in the 5,000 meters in 2008.
“There is something about being in the town where you went to school,” Nukuri-Johnson said. “I’m very comfortable. The people are very supportive here.”
Not unique to Iowa City
Steve Malchow, senior associate athletics director at Iowa Sate University in Ames, has worked in the athletics communications and media relations field for the past three decades. He said he knows of many former student-athletes who live in the same town in which they attended college.
He saw it happen at UI, from which he graduated in 1984 before taking a job in the Iowa sports information department. He saw it happen in Madison, Wis., where he served as sports information director for the University of Wisconsin from 1990 to 2005. And he has seen the same thing happen in Ames.
“This is a very typical thing at the three schools I’ve worked at previously,” said Malchow, a native of Sioux City. “And my thought on it is when you go somewhere to college, a lot of times you’re away from home for the first time. That’s where your lifetime friendships are made.
“It’s the first time you’re on your own and people get very accustomed to the college life. And so many people, when they have a chance to return to that, it’s a very fine time in their life, and they do so.”
Malchow said the size of a college also plays a role in attracting former student-athletes. UI has an undergraduate enrollment of 21,564, which is small by Big Ten standards, but large compared with many other colleges.
Iowa City’s population is 70,133 according to the United States Census Bureau. But the presence of a major university helps create a big-city feel, many of the former-students who now live here say.
“The three schools I’ve worked at are all big schools,” Malchow said of Iowa, Wisconsin and Iowa State. “So there are social activities that come with big schools. There are cultural activities. And I think when you’re in a university town, that’s a separator.
“And it’s usually a fun environment to be in. It’s usually a lively environment, a progressive attitude. And it’s an enjoyable time. I think people all love their college days for different reasons, and a chance to kind of reconnect with that is something that’s very appealing.”
Iowa and Iowa State are similar in that both campuses are about a 30-minute drive from a larger city, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, respectively.
ISU Sports Information Director Mike Green made a list of at least 40 former Cyclone football and men’s basketball players who either live in Ames or in the Des Moines metropolitan area. That list included names for only two of the university’s 18 sports.
“It’s such a unique environment to live in a college town, and I think with a lot of these guys is what happens is they get done and they realize this is probably the best times of their life when they played sports here,” Green said. “And I’m assuming a lot of this happens with the guys at the University of Iowa.
“I think a lot of them want to go back because it kind of captures their past and people know who they are. They recognize them, and it is such a warming feeling knowing that you’re still revered.”
What Iowa City offers
Rollins, 37, and his wife live on a quiet street in North Liberty in a house that was built about five years ago alongside a pond.
They say they live among neighbors who care about them. That was apparent during little Vernon’s ordeal, which happened right before Thanksgiving in 2010.
“We had Thanksgiving dinner delivered to the house,” said Kelly Rollins, who is originally from Western Springs, Ill., and is a former member of the Iowa dance team in college. “We had neighbors removing the snow for us all winter. We had them taking the (other two) kids for us so we could spend more time at the hospital.”
The family also received plenty of support from UI, where Kelly now is employed as an administrative assistant for the Iowa Cancer Consortium.
“My work was awesome,” Kelly said. “I got a ton of time donated from physicians just so I could take as much time off to be with him in the hospital. So we love Iowa.”
The proximity to quality medical care is one of the big reasons the Rollinses are thankful they live in the Iowa City area. Without it, they say, little Vernon might not be here today.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report this past week that ranked Iowa as the seventh-best state to raise a child. In addition, the UI Children’s Hospital recently was ranked in all 10 specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report and is the only hospital in Iowa to be nationally ranked for children’s care by the magazine.
The attraction to Iowa City goes far beyond access to quality medical care, though.
“I think it’s the people,” said former Iowa men’s basketball coach Tom Davis, who coached the Hawkeyes for 13 seasons from 1986-99. “I like the way the people and the fans supported what we were doing and hung in there with us.”
Davis, 74, chose to stay in Iowa City despite being forced to resign from his position in 1999 because former Iowa Director of Athletics Bob Bowlsby refused to extend his contract. Davis also coached for four seasons at Drake after leaving Iowa but still kept a home in Iowa City and now lives here in retirement with his wife, Shari.
It pleases Davis that so many of his former Iowa players live in the area, a list that includes Brad Lohaus, Val Barnes, Acie Earl, Michael Morgan, Kenyon Murray, Duez Henderson, Jason Price, James Moses, Roy Marble Sr. and Greg Stokes, among others. Davis didn’t recruit all of them to Iowa, but he helped influence their college experience and he still keeps in touch with many of his former players.
“It makes you feel that you did the right thing by recruiting them into the environment,” Davis said. “Not every situation works out, of course, but it gives you a good feeling. You’d like them to be successful. You want them to be happy and have a good life. And it’s a good feeling to watch them do that.”
Kenyon Murray, 39, has lived in Eastern Iowa longer than in his native state of Michigan. Since graduating from UI in 1996, he has lived in Iowa City, and now in Cedar Rapids.
“I figured I’d go to school here and probably whether it was basketball or something else, I would move away,” said Murray, who grew up in Battle Creek, Mich. “I always thought I might make it back to Battle Creek to do some different things.
“But everything happens for a reason. I could never have imagined that I’d be here for 20 years plus now.”
Murray’s reasons for staying put were personal and professional. He met his wife, who is from Anamosa, shortly after graduating from UI, which gave him a connection to the area.
Murray also was concerned about the struggling economy in his home state of Michigan.
And it means something to be Kenyon Murray around here.
“Obviously, being a former Hawk doesn’t hurt,” he said.