Different year, similar reasons to celebrate and a FANtastic event; Iowa Football Fanfest, version 2005.
The brainchild of Matthew Engelbert, Iowa's Fanfest celebrated its third birthday this year, and it just keeps getting better. Perhaps that is because Iowa's football seasons just keep getting better, or the folks in Iowa's marketing and athletic departments who are the brains and brawn behind the event keep coming up with new ideas. I think it's both.
An event like this runs the risk of repeating itself or perhaps becoming stale. I have been to all three Fanfest events and each one has had a different tenor and new twists.
The best new twist this year, in my opinion, was having a panel of players field questions from the Hawkeye fans. That took place on Friday night, as Ed Hinkel, Chad Greenway, Jovon Johnson, Sean Considine, Abdul Hodge and Brian Ferentz each sat on the state with a microphone and ‘held court' for close to an hour. It was informative, insightful and humorous all at the same time. It was a great idea and it really got the weekend started in the right way.
The coaches ‘Chalk Talk' sessions are a common theme for this event and they alternate the staff members every other year t o keep it fresh. This year, Lester Erb, Ken O'Keefe, Chris Doyle and Norm Parker addressed the fans, as well as Kirk Ferentz's typical Sunday morning address.
Another new twist this year is bringing in a player from Hawkeye past; Andre Tippett was a Sunday speaker. Tippett starred for Iowa back in the early 1980's and would later move on to a very successful NFL career with the New England Patriots.
Another aspect of Fanfest that is enjoyable is the videos that are chosen to be shared with the fans. In the basement of the Iowa City Sheraton, where the event was held this year as well as in the inaugural campaign of 2003, there is a room with about 75 seats. There is a big video screen at the front of the room.
Two years ago, they played a highlight tape from the 2001 season. This year, they showed each of Iowa's seniors addressing the camera after being asked what being a Hawkeye has meant to them. I am guessing this tape was shown to the team just prior to the Wisconsin game, as it was shot during that week.
Matt Roth's segment was, as you would expect; intense, funny and heartfelt. The tape loops all day long, so fans can go in and watch it at their leisure.
At each event, there have been copious opportunities for the fans to meet and speak with the coaches and players, one on one. That is the neatest thing about this event from a fans perspective. The players have always been very accommodating. I think everyone should keep in mind that the players do not have to attend this event; they come on their own time as a way to give something back to the fans.
I enjoy standing back and watching the many children who come to this event meet their heroes. I enjoy reading the faces of the fathers and mothers as they see their children beam with pride after getting an autograph or after a player takes a picture with them.
I remember being a young lad and my father taking my brother and I to Iowa football and basketball games. I remember going to Carver Hawkeye and getting autograph's from Chuck Long and other Iowa legends. I still have those and will pull them out from time to time and think back.
I don't treasure those items because of the signatures, I treasure them because of the feelings those signatures emote. Simpler days and simpler times. Hawkeye athletics were very important to me when I was younger. They are important to me now for more reasons than just being a fan, but it's all more complicated now. That is just life.
To me, Fanfest is sort of like traveling back in time and being 12 years old again and remembering how awesome it was to get close enough to the floor of The Fieldhouse during pregame warm-ups and take a picture of Greg Stokes, or how much I loved getting my picture taken with Mark Gannon and Bobby Hansen when I was at a basketball camp, or how my brother and I would talk for days after seeing a Hawkeye walking in the Old Capital Mall.
Fanfest has those sort of powers.
During this complicated thing called life, we all need some diversions. The Hawkeyes have been a phenomenal diversion for me in my life, to the point where they are no longer a diversion; they are a passion, a career and a joyous endeavor.
My top moment of Fanfest 2005 was getting the chance to meet a Hawkeye fan named Ben.
Ben was not blessed with a clean bill of health in this life, or the physical normality's that most of us take for granted. Ben is in a wheelchair and he cannot say much, but if you were there you heard the sounds of joy emanating from Ben.
I had the chance to speak with Ben's family and shake Ben's hand. Ben listens intently, soaking up every word. His is a world of words, as the sights do not deliver the same impact to him than they might to your or me.
Ben listens to the Iowa games, and his father told me that his heroes are the voices that he hears on the radio. Gary Dolphin, Van and Bonnie and all of the WHO radio personalities are among his favorites.
Ben has another favorite, one that he shares with most Iowa fans; Jim Zabel. Ben has never met Jim, and I am so thankful that I got the chance to meet Ben and learn about such things, because I hope to broker a meeting between the two come this spring when Jim comes back to Iowa from his winter home in Arizona.
I was able to get to know Jim quite well this year as I was blessed with the opportunity to work with him on ‘Soundoff' after Iowa games during the 2004 season. And I know that Jim would love to meet Ben.
That's going to be a lot of fun, seeing two diehard Iowa fans come together and to see one of them realize a dream.
Ben got to meet Gary Dolphin this weekend, as well as Kirk Ferentz and so many others; those are also his heroes, his father told me.
Ben was able to realize a lot of dreams this weekend.
THAT is Fanfest; hundreds of Hawkeye fans realizing their dreams and getting to spend a weekend with the people who make them feel young again, in the case of the adults, and the people who make them feel very special, in the case of the children and my new friend Ben.
I have said this before and I will say it again in this space next year; plan to attend Fanfest at least once. And if you have children who love the Hawkeyes like you do, bring them, too. I promise that you will not be disappointed.
Hats off to Matt Engelbert, Toby Trail, Kelli Meyer, Rick Klatt and everyone who is involved with this special event.