If there’s one thing I’ve learned about bowl games — or big games, in general — it’s that you prepare the same as you would for any other game. The only way the game becomes bigger than it is, is if you let it. But when it’s your last game, it feels undeniably different. You can’t avoid it. You really soak in every moment with your teammates and coaches. It’s like you’re writing the final chapter of something, and you want your story to have — as corny as it sounds — a happy ending. You know, to go out on a high note.
I remember my final high school game at St. Thomas Aquinas. It was the Florida Class 5A State Championship Game. We won, 29-7, and finished atop the national polls to win the national championship.
That was my first “final” game. My second “final” game came one year ago as the quarterback for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the TaxSlayer Bowl. A loss to Tennessee — not the high note we had hoped for. But what really made my final game at Iowa different from that high school state championship game was that I knew going in that it would be my last game at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Going into last year’s bowl game, I had no idea it would be my last as an Iowa Hawkeye.
I’m going to go to win my job back.
That was my gut reaction when I got the call from my coach at Iowa, Coach Ferentz. It was a couple of days after the bowl game, and he called to tell me they were going to move forward with C.J. Beathard as the starting quarterback.
I was speechless. I was confused. I felt blindsided. They had talked about trying to get C.J. more reps during the season — more meaningful reps, as coaches like to say — and they had done that. They even came into practice about halfway into bowl prep, and said C.J. and I were going to split reps, and alternate series.
Sitting at 7-5 and playing in the TaxSlayer bowl wasn’t where we wanted to be, but we were a much better team than our record suggested. Three of those five losses came by three points or less, and four of them were one-possession games. I had performed well enough to maintain my job throughout the season. I never felt like my job was in danger.
I was going to be a fifth-year senior. I’d always been a Hawkeye, and I didn’t want to leave Iowa. But after talking it through with my family, I decided to explore all my options. I was eligible to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule, so even though I was fully intent on staying at Iowa, I went out to see who was in the market for a quarterback, who could come in and play for one year, and a few teams showed some interest.
One of them was Michigan.
Michigan had a lot to offer. The history of the program. A tradition of academic excellence. Coach Jim Harbaugh — a guy who played and had a lot of success at my position, and who’s proven he can win at any level. Throw in the fact that I already had a relationship with Coach Jedd Fisch, who recruited me out of high school when he was at Miami, and Michigan had the perfect formula to convince me that despite my attachment to the Iowa coaching staff, the players and the university itself, it was time to move on.
I think Coach Ferentz saw it coming. He was upfront with me when he first told me C.J. was going to be the starter. He told me that transferring was an option because he wanted me to know all my options. That’s just the kind of guy he is — a very standup guy who cares about his players as people, and wants to see them succeed under any circumstances. But even though the writing was on the wall — just like it was when they handed my job to C.J. — I think he was still pretty shocked when I actually called him to tell him I was transferring.
I walked across the stage in graduation at the University of Iowa on a Saturday. On Sunday, I packed my things and made the six-and-a-half-hour drive to Ann Arbor. I wanted to get there as fast as possible. I had a new school, new playbook and a new team to learn. I didn’t want to waste one second.
I’ll be honest. When you’re a quarterback in the Big Ten conference, the prospect of playing in the NFL is always somewhere in the back of your mind. You don’t really think about it because it’s so far down the road, and if you don’t take care of your business day to day and week to week, that dream will never come to fruition. But the idea is always there. And by transferring — especially as a fifth-year senior — you feel like those chances slip a little bit. Any time you’re going to a new place, it’s tough. Learning people’s names. Understanding the city. Balancing school, athletics and everything else you’re doing. But earning teammates’ trust is the most difficult part of transferring, especially as a quarterback. So the moment I stepped on the Michigan campus, I wanted to show everyone that I was going to work hard every single day — during summer workouts, lifting weights, conditioning. I made it a point to throw with the guys outside of organized team activities to work on timing and chemistry.
The only thing that mattered to me was that guys looked at me and thought, This guy is willing to put the work in. That’s a guy I want to go to battle with. That was how I was going to make the most of this opportunity, and how I was going to earn guys’ trust.
And, for me personally, the Harbaugh factor has been huge. I think any time you have a coach who played your position, that’s big. He’s very hands on. He’s got his cleats on at practice, running around on the turf, showing guys exactly what he wants. His enthusiasm is contagious. If he was allowed to put pads on and practice with us, I guarantee he would. There are so many little things he’s taught be about playing the quarterback position. Like how to “flip the channel,” as he likes to say. If you get locked into one receiver and nothing’s happening, just flip the channel and move on to something else. It’s something you’ve always known — going through your progressions — but the way he frames it helps you understand it and apply it. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s the quarterback position. But that’s where the “coach” comes in — in his ability to relate it so you can better grasp the concept.
But perhaps the most Coach Harbaugh has helped me has been off the field.
Remember that NFL dream I said is always in the back of your mind? That’s one of the reasons I came to Michigan. For the football education I’d get under Coach Harbaugh. But after majoring in multidisciplinary sciences, and minoring in global health and anthropology at Iowa, I wanted to continue my education by pursuing pediatric medicine. And since I’ve been on campus at Michigan, Coach Harbaugh has helped connect me with the people at the medical school. He’s hooked me up with doctors at our children’s hospital. How I’ve been able to connect with influential people at Michigan in such a short amount of time has been extraordinary.
It’s these things that are so important to me and my future, because as much as that NFL dream is still alive as my college career winds down, with Michigan having one of the largest alumni networks in the country, I have no doubt I’ll be set for life because of the connections I’ve been able to make in such a short time here, and that’s a tribute to Coach Harbaugh. It’s also something I never would have been exposed to if I never decided to leave Iowa for Ann Arbor.
I guess the extra work I put in to help build that trust and chemistry with my new teammates paid off, because somewhere along the way, the guys on the team started calling me “Dad.” Probably because I’m older, and they say that sometimes I treat them like my children. You don’t get to choose your nickname. You just hope you get a good one — or at least something you can bear.
I can live with “Dad.” I take it as a compliment.
After all, I’ve been through a lot in my college career. I spent four incredible years at Iowa, where I made great friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Where I played in front of amazing fans and earned a degree from great university. Even after I came to Michigan, I’ve still kept in touch with my old teammates and felt the support of the Iowa fans, and I, myself, have been a fan of the Hawkeyes this season. It’s unbelievable what they’ve been able to accomplish.
It’s just funny how things work out. When I stepped on the campus at Iowa, I thought I was going to be a Hawkeye for life. And I will be. Those people and that university will always be a huge part of the man I’ve become. But when I suit up for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Friday, I’ll be going out as a Wolverine. As a Michigan Man. And my final game as a collegiate athlete will come on the same field on which I played my final game in high school — that state championship game — before heading off to Iowa. A game we won to end my prep career on a high note.
Now it’s time to see if these kids can help their old “Dad” go out with a win on Friday.