Growing Up Mennonite, Growing Up Hawkeye

Among my earliest memories are those of two strains: memories of growing up in the Mennonite Church and memories of athletic contests either as a participant or spectator.

On occasion the two strains converge and the result is particularly evocative of my own experiences as a sports-crazed Mennonite. I remember foot races with packs of elementary-aged kids running around the outside of Pigeon (Michigan) Mennonite Church, and playing church league basketball on bitterly cold winter nights in the Iowa Mennonite School (IMS) gymnasium before IMS became the strong interscholastic athletics force that it is today. Some local wags even half-joke that IMS has become an athletic “factory.” The school has a higher public profile than ever due in large part to its athletic success.

But at the time my rooting interests were focused on the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. I believe, though I have not studied the matter, that one marker of the twentieth/twenty-first century mainstreaming of Mennonites into the broader American culture is a rooting interest in both professional and collegiate athletics. Growing up in Iowa City I wore black and gold, learned to disdain Iowa State, and suffered when the Hawks lost, which was more often than not the case.

And perhaps nowhere does this melding exert more power than in the connection between First Mennonite Church in Iowa City and the “worship” of our beloved Hawkeyes. There are at least three significant reasons for this black and gold mania:

1. Iowa, Iowa City, and the University are all on the “small side” of the Big 10 Conference. When I was growing up, Iowa was the smallest Big 10 state and Iowa City was the smallest metropolitan area in the conference. Only the private Northwestern had a smaller enrollment at the time. When we lose we are too small; when we win we are “Napoleonic,” with our smallness belying our abilities.

2. There are no major league professional sports franchises operating in the state of Iowa.

3. First Mennonite is just a few blocks from Kinnick Stadium (the university’s football venue), and was also in close proximity to the Iowa Fieldhouse, the raucous former home of the Iowa cagers. We are the “little guys,” and we both benefit from and suffer from the undiluted attention of the entire state. The church I grew up in exists in the shadow cast by a major state university.

However, my introduction to college football occurred before I became a Hawkeye.

In the summer of 1963, my family moved to Urbana, Illinois. That September, my dad took me to my first college football game. The Fighting Illini played the University of California Golden Bears in Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois. Illinois won the game, and, led by future National Football League Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, they went on to win the Rose Bowl game at the end of the season.

I never became an Illinois fan, though. We lived there for only one year and my first allegiance had always been to the University of Michigan Wolverines. I knew them through television exposure in the small Mennonite farming community of Pigeon, Michigan, where I was born. The Wolverines had a mystique that even a seven year old could grasp. They had the biggest stadium, a hummable school song, and strange helmets. Plus, Michigan was my home state. They were irresistible.

But in 1964 we moved to Iowa, and in the fall of that year my dad took me to watch the Wolverines play the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. Early in the game the heavy-underdog Hawkeyes scored a touchdown to take the lead. I sat quietly and began to cry; I was still a Wolverine. My Dad and I watched as Michigan eventually took control of the game and won easily. Afterward, his arm around my shoulder, my Dad explained that he understood my loyalty, but we lived in Iowa City now, and we were Hawkeyes.

From that autumn day in 1964 to this, I have been a Hawkeye. The transition to being a Hawkeye was not difficult. It was orientation by immersion. Everything in Iowa City is about the Hawkeyes. Depending on your perspective, this focus is either wholly appropriate or completely oppressive. It is probably a bit of each. My fandom involved both joy and pain. I cheered and waited through the lean years with coaches Jerry Burns, Ray Nagel, Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings. And like many Iowans, I rejoiced during the Hayden Fry era (1979-1998) when our Hawks became consistent winners, putting up a .613 winning percentage.

This condition has continued under current coach Kirk Ferentz, whose success and long tenure in Iowa City has made him the Dean of Big 10 coaches. For fans of my age or older it is hard to understand more youthful Hawkeyes complaining about seven-win seasons. Remembering what Hayden Fry began in 1979 at Iowa and what his coaching progeny did at Kansas State and Wisconsin, among other places, should give all of the downtrodden hope.

When my family arrived in Iowa City the Hawkeyes were coached by Jerry Burns. He had succeeded Forest Evashevski, who to that point was Iowa football’s most successful head coach since the early 1920s. Evashevski was innovative, tempestuous, and confident. He was also our neighbor a few blocks down Summit Street. He guided the Hawkeyes to great success in the late 1950s and then after just eight years at the helm and an 8-1 record in 1960 he abruptly resigned. His resignation shocked the world of college football. It also ushered in nearly 20 years of futility on the field for the Hawkeyes. We wandered through the desert with Coaches Burns, Nagel, Lauterbur and Commings to 54 wins, 124 losses and 2 ties in their 18 years in charge. We never appeared in a bowl game, and with the exception of Jerry Burns’s first year as coach we never had a winning season.

Those were the formative years of my fandom. Great players, teams and coaches visited Iowa City and departed victorious. Woody Hayes brought his Ohio State Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler his Wolverines. Duffy Daugherty’s dominant Michigan State Spartans shut us out in 1965 and then crushed us in East Lansing the next season. We played Oregon State for eight consecutive seasons when the Beavers were led by the legendary “Great Pumpkin” Dee Andros. We played Ara Parseghian’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1967 and 1968, losing 56-6 in South Bend and 51-28 in Iowa City. We played John McKay’s University of Southern California Trojans four times in the 1970s, losing by a total score of 171-19. The absolute nadir of this period was 1973, the year I graduated from high school. Frank Lauterbur’s final team lost all 11 games and was outscored 401-140. Three opponents, including Illinois, scored 50 or more points.

After that season Lauterbur was fired and an Iowa alumnus, Bob Commings, was hired. As a player Commings was a dramatically undersized lineman whose energy and willingness to fight through adversity carried the day. He had played for Evashevski, and that brought some credibility to his cause, but the Hawkeyes improved only slightly and acquired a reputation for less than sportsmanlike conduct on the field while also running afoul of the law in Iowa City.

Little did we know that help from Texas was soon to appear. In 1979 Hayden Fry brought a “new way” to the Hawkeyes and their fans everywhere. Three years after his arrival we played in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions. In retrospect he was a Messianic figure.

Iowa City is in many ways a quintessential “college town.” It offers the charms of small town Midwestern life coupled with the global cosmopolitanism of a world class university. Its population is in large part turned over every four years or so, and this continued renewal both anchors and cleanses. The regularity of change, rather than being disorienting, is a constant reminder that the arrivals and departures of students mark the state, national and global importance of Iowa City. It is a mecca that draws talent of every stripe to southeastern Iowa.

When my family moved to Iowa in 1964, we spent our first year in the country, but then moved into Iowa City in 1965, settling on Summit Street blocks from Plum Grove, home of Robert Lucas, the first territorial governor of the state. I often tell my own children that they grew up “in Paradise.” Their version of the place is Bloomington, Indiana. But I was there first; Iowa City was a great place to grow up.

Homecoming was still a very big community-wide event in the 1960s. We attended many of the activities as a family. Iowa had a synchronized swimming organization for co-eds and every year at homecoming they put on the “Dolphin Show.” The Scottish Highlanders were a bagpipe and drum corps that performed during the Homecoming Parade and at halftime of the game. Iowa alumnus and professional football star Alex Karras was Grand Marshall of the parade one year and I got to shake his hand. I had never stood next to such a large person.

On Sunday mornings as I delivered the Des Moines Register, I could relive Saturdays past by sneaking a peek at the “Big Peach.” The Register’s sports section, so named for its colored newsprint, and known for its sequential photographs of key plays, was the “official version” of every Hawkeye win, or, more often, loss.

During the mid-1960s the Hawkeyes had an offensive lineman of Mennonite heritage named Scott Miller. Not only was he a good football player, but as my mom often reminded me, he also “made it to church.” Scott was a gentleman, friendly to all, and a good Hawkeye ambassador to First Mennonite. When my friend John Hershberger became a pastor at First Mennonite, the Hawkeyes in the pews could always look forward to some opening remarks about yesterday’s result. Mennonites are reputed to be humble people, but when the Hawks won we occasionally succumbed to the sin of pride.

During those days, elementary-age fans were admitted to the stadium in the “knothole section” for $2.00! In the 1960s the stadium in Iowa City had a capacity some 20,000 seats less than it does now, and there was a lot of grass for young fans to run in between the discrete sections of seating.

Many of the jobs, critically important to a large scale athletic event, were performed by “amateurs.” Kids just like me were vendors. Iowa City public school teachers were ticket takers. My dad took tickets at what is now Gate E on the press box side of Kinnick Stadium. It is the ramp that leads to the “best seats in the house” on the 50-yard line. The school teachers were under strict orders to disallow “crossovers,” ticket holders from other sections trying to access their own seats or the seats of others by using the wrong ramp. This policy led to my dad and his co-worker turning back Governor Robert Ray during a game in the 1970s. Arriving a bit late and caught in the crush at the ramp, the Republican governor, surrounded by his security detail and traveling party, tried to crossover without any luck. My dad was a lifelong Democrat.

As a junior high school student I earned extra money during football season as a vendor.. On home-game Saturday mornings, after I finished delivering theDesMoines Register, I would go across the Iowa River to the stadium. Once there, I would stand in line with other kids from all over town to get a vendor's badge that allowed me to sell Coca-Cola and Bubble-Up.

Beginning an hour before kickoff until the end of the third quarter, I would go back and forth from the supplier in the bowels of the stadium high up into the student sections where mixers were in constant demand. I don’t remember any preaching against vices at First Mennonite, and while alcohol was only rarely served by my family, as in most college towns it was in the forefront of student consciousness, including in the football stands. At any rate, I thought I was a vendor in order to sell and sell I did without qualms. Then, as the teams readied themselves for the fourth quarter, I would return my badge, count my earnings, and find an empty seat where I could enjoy the rest of the game. When I outgrew selling, I started to buy season tickets, which did not require an extravagant financial commitment, but took an emotional toll as the Iowa program floundered.

When I went away to college, I always managed to get home to Iowa City for one game each fall. Growing up in a Big Ten town surrounded by the sights and sounds of Hawkeye football was a wonderful experience. Autumn is still my favorite time of year. Iowa City crackled with excitement in that season. The cold snap colored the leaves, and the students crowded the Pentacrest on campus, spilling into the downtown business district. Each fall was new and full of hope. September marked the start of a new year more than January l, and college football ushered in the season.

Now security companies scan the tickets and professional vendors have replaced junior high kids, few remember the knothole section and fewer still how the tradition began, no one gets in for $2.00, and children don’t run free in the grass. But the “bumble bees,” as legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson called black and gold-clad Iowa fans, still descend on Kinnick Stadium in the fall, fans still tailgate in front yards and parking lots, and the fall weather in Iowa is still something to behold. Visiting teams still dress in Hayden’s pink locker room and the Hawks still “swarm” hand in hand coming onto the field. Our uniforms still evoke those worn by Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers and our helmets still sport the ANF (America Needs Farmers) decal, Fry’s public response to the farm crisis of the early 1980s.

Today the relationship between the team and First Mennonite Church also remains strong. For years, First Mennonite’s Mennonite Youth Fellowship (MYF) has parked the church lot to bursting with the vehicles of Hawkeye fans on game days. The take has been considerable and fairly stable win or lose, no matter the opponent. MYFers could help park cars and still run to the stadium without missing much more than the kickoff if they were so inclined.

After all these years, the football memories of my youth remain fresh in my mind: the Notre Dame fans arriving on a train from South Bend in the shadow of the stadium minutes before Terry Hanratty, Jim Seymour and company administered a fierce beating to the Hawks; the flower vendors on Homecoming, selling the bright yellow mums with black construction-paper block I's to all of the dating couples; and a Saturday, late in November, when Minnesota came to battle for the Floyd of Rosedale, the trophy contested between the two schools each year. That afternoon we sat high up in the stands inside sleeping bags stuffed with crumpled newspaper to combat below freezing temperatures. We always stayed until the end, no matter the score or the weather, and then we went home, wondering about next Saturday.

I’m a little older and the players of today are much bigger, stronger, and faster. It has been a few years since I last visited Kinnick. My parents have passed away, but among their greatest gifts to me and my siblings was the chance to grow up in Iowa City, Mennonite, black and gold.

The author thanks Steve Roe, Director of Athletic Communications at the University of Iowa, for providing materials corroborating and/or correcting his memories.

About the Author

Charles R. "Chip" Frederick, Jr.

Charles R. “Chip” Frederick, Jr. is a graduate of Goshen College and Indiana University, where he currently works. He lists his parents and his Goshen professors Ervin Beck and John Fisher as important writing mentors. His Ph.D. dissertation was about the creation of social life via the festival aspects of college football in the American South, and how the sport is way more than “just a game.”