Howe: Gardner Another Great Underdog Story

Unlikely heroes have popped up throughout the Kirk Ferentz Era. Another emerged Saturday when Drew Gardner delivered the final tackle in a 34-27, double-overtime victory against Michigan State. Columnist Rob Howe caught up with Gardner on Tuesday to find out his story.

Even if Drew Gardner played his last down of football against Michigan State last Saturday, he'll always have something to tell his grandchildren. He delivered the final play in Iowa dramatic 34-27, double-overtime victory.

Iowa under coach Kirk Ferentz has been built significantly on underdog stories, walk-ons, the next-man-in heroics. Guys like Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders have attached fame to it, but also there are Ramon Ochoa, Tyler Luebke and Sam Brownlee, to name a few. Warren Holloway stamped Hawkeye history with one memorable moment and likely never again will buy a meal in Iowa City.

If you're invited to the Iowa program, by scholarship or walk-on status, the coaches afford you an opportunity. They come in all different sizes.

Gardner stepped in for an injured Bradley Fletcher, who had replaced a hurt Adam Shada. Gardner was assigned to stop one of best receivers in the conference – Michigan State's Devin Thomas…in the second overtime…with 70,000 plus at Kinnick bearing down on the field…and his family and friends watching back in New Jersey

The next-man-in stories seemed so plentiful three or four years ago. They haven't popped up as much the last few years as the Hawkeyes have struggled. Sometimes the next-man-in turns into "What's going on, man?' during the bad times.

That's why it was great to see Gardner step into the spotlight on Saturday, surrounded by the media at game's end. We haven't witnessed enough of these great stories recently.

It's great to see the ultra talented quarterback, running back or linebacker accomplish great feats of athleticism. But that helps create room for the underdog, the overachieving hard-worker with whom many of us can relate.

Gardner fits perfectly into that mold. The 5-foot-10, 178-pound cornerback was lightly recruited after playing on a prep team that struggled. He received some recruiting letters from Division I schools, but it didn't go beyond that. He ended up at Widener University, a D-III school just south of Philadelphia.

You hear a lot about guys transferring down levels in college football. You have to figure there aren't a whole lot of players making the jump from D-III to the Big Ten.

"I sold myself to (the Iowa coaches)," Gardner said. "I asked (Widener) for my release forms in order to communicate with other colleges. Iowa was my No. 1 choice."

Gardner always felt like he could play at the highest level. Prepping in the talent rich South Jersey area, he held his own against plenty of athletes who grabbed full rides from big colleges. Among those stars were current Hawkeyes Albert Young and Harold Dalton.

"I definitely try hard to prove myself," Gardner said. "I always wanted to have the opportunity to show that I could compete at a high level. To have the opportunity (at Iowa) is the greatest feeling of my life."

Young and Dalton played in successful high school programs. Gardner recalls Young rumbling for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns on 12 carries against him and his overmatched teammates.

It's tough to highlight your skills when your team is getting pounded most weeks. Gardner fell victim to that.

"There are a lot of guys that might not look imposing athletically or physically that come out here and work hard," Dalton said. "They put themselves in position to be successful. That's all about the American dream, working hard to achieve your goal."

Gardner jumped on the train of South Jersey players to Iowa, but his reasons for taking the chance seem more steeped in his upbringing. He mentions his parents frequently.

"My parents, they're really hard working people," Gardner said. "They always told me to never give up. Anything can happen at any given moment."

They also instilled confidence. That looked so obvious when Michigan State went at him on Saturday. Thomas caught the ball in isolation with Gardner. The Spartan star was free to create a path into the end zone. Instead, the Iowa reserve squared up, hit and wrapped. End of game.

"It was a really good feeling to just get a body on him and take him down," Gardner said.

Gardner was mobbed by teammates after the play.

"That's the greatest moment of my life," he said. "That's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me."

Gardner received a voicemail from his mother, who was crying from happiness. His sister sent him a four page text message.

You might think that the play maybe earned Gardner more credibility with his teammates. But despite being surrounded by scholarship athletes at his position, he always felt like he belonged even though he saw most of his minutes in spot duty and special teams.

"I do feel like I have my place," he said. "I work hard. I feel that the guys on the team do respect me even though I don't have a scholarship."

Ferentz was asked Tuesday if he had yet given a scholarship to Gardner. The coach said that rules don't allow that in the middle of a season, but you could see the wheels turning that one might come down the road.

"Drew's a very nice guy, and I hope for the best for him," Dalton said. "Hopefully he'll earn a scholarship."

If he does, it will be more than for one play. It's the hard work and dedication that prepared him to make the play when called upon.

There are a lot of players that bust it every day in practice and don't get to experience the moment as did Gardner. But it's that moment for which they keep pushing so we can be treated to their stories.

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