IOWA CITY, Iowa – Through the years, we've seen Kirk Ferentz get choked up on more than one occasion. It happened in 2002 at Michigan and two years later after losing his father before the Penn State.
The Iowa coach's voice trembled a bit again on Saturday while talking about senior receiver Andy Brodell, who returned a punt for a touchdown late in a 17-5 victory against Iowa State. The home state product missed most of last season after tearing his hamstring.
"The two hardest things for a coach are discipline issues and injury issues," Ferentz said. "We throw injuries around all the time. We have to. That's part of your job. That's part of my job. That's part of the game.
"But, boy, I tell you, it just impacts a young person's life so significantly. When you talk about upperclassmen, it compounds that. When you see guys that have worked so hard, invested so much to get to the field, and then have an injury, I know the price these guys have to pay to get back; the unsung work our trainers do.
"But it all starts with that player having that desire to get out there and perform. That's part of being a team-oriented guy, and Andy fits that bill. You just feel good when a guy has a big moment. Nobody has worked harder than Andy for that. It's a pretty nice deal."
It really was storybook scenario for Brodell, who grew up a Cyclone fan in Ankeny. His parents owned season tickets to Iowa State, and he took some heat for picking the Iowa as his college choice.
Brodell suffered through a brutal rehabilitation to return to the field this season, and experienced some frustration as he tried to get back in the spring. His legs have been his main weapons as an athlete, and they weren't working like they had before the injury.
"It was hard sometimes, but I feel great today," Brodell said. "It was a lift off my shoulders being able to get the first touchdown since I've been injured and do it in that fashion."
The Hawkeyes were clinging to a 10-3 lead about midway through the fourth quarter when Brodell dropped back to field a punt from ISU's Mike Brandtner. The Iowa returner caught the ball on his own 19-yard line and scooted to the middle. He picked up a few blocks and broke it to the right sideline by the Iowa bench. He sidestepped the punter at around midfield and raced to pay dirt.
"The ball kind of sailed on me a bit," Brodell said. "It was kind of a borderline fair catch (situation). I took a chance and fortunately for me it worked out. I made a guy miss, I hit a seam, the guys blocked it up really well and I was able to get to the end zone."
Brodell felt like he had the touchdown when he put the punter behind him.
"Usually he's the last guy," he said. "When I got past him, I felt pretty good where I was at."
Even though more than six minutes remained when Brodell ripped off his return, you could feel the pressure of a tight game come off the Hawkeyes' collective shoulders.
"That's huge. I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it," Iowa Defensive Tackle Mitch King said. "You get a 14-point cushion with five or six minutes left, that's just huge. I'm proud to be in the senior class with the guy because he's a great player and a great person. He works hard every day in practice and that punt return just shows it."
Said Iowa Quarterback Ricky Stanzi: "It was huge. Special teams is one of the biggest momentum shifters in the game. It's easy to see. That punt return, hey, he gets tackled back there, we're in their territory, we go three-and-out and it's a whole different ballgame. He takes that punt to the house and it's unbelievable what that does for the team, does for the crowd, the other team. It takes them out of it."
Make no mistake, Ferentz isn't playing favorites feeling something deep down for Brodell. The coach has endured tough injuries throughout the years, including some devastating ones to his son, Brian.
But Brodell really has worked hard. He played running back in high school and struggled with drops early in his career. Then, the light bulb goes on at the end of 2006 when he finishes the year with outstanding performances against Minnesota and Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Brodell crumbled to the ground last season in Week 4 against Wisconsin. He underwent surgery on his hamstring and worked so hard on rehab that he was pushing to get back on the field if Iowa went to the postseason, which it didn't.
"That was the gustiest play I ever saw," Hawkeye Quarterback Jake Christensen said about Brodell's punt return against ISU. "To tear your hamstring away from the bone about 365 days ago this Saturday, I couldn't be more happy for him."
Christensen raced down the sideline to congratulate Brodell when he came off the field.
"Me and Andy are pretty good friends," Christensen said. "Last year, I know he was down in the dumps pretty bad. People have been bugging him about his speed, but I think he got it back today."
Brodell said that he proved something to himself on Saturday. He has fielded a lot of questions about losing speed to the injury. He wondered if he could break away for the big play as he did on Saturday.
"Regardless of how fast I am after my injury, it doesn't really matter," Brodell said. "I'm going to be out there and contribute any way that I can. Today, I was able to get to the end zone on a punt return."
Brodell also made a huge play in the first half when while fielding a punt, he was blasted by an ISU gunner before the ball arrived. He bounced up and said something to the Cyclone offender, but he didn't retaliate and the Iowa gained 15 yards on a personal foul.
"It was probably one of those situations where you fair catch, but when we looked at their punt defense we felt like we had a chance to do some things," Brodell said. "I made the decision to catch it and was hit before I did. It's one of those things that happens occasionally. As punt returner, you have to be able to flush it and forget about it the next return. I was able to do that in the fourth quarter."
Brodell wouldn't divulge the conversation he had with the offending party.
"I didn't say a whole lot," Brodell said. "I was a little upset with him. It's a personal foul and kind of a cheap shot."
Perhaps the biggest irony for Brodell on Saturday was that his father taking him to Iowa State games years ago got him interested in college football.
"I came to Iowa games, too, but it's safe to say that I was more of an Iowa State fan," Brodell said. "That was a big thing when I decided to come to Iowa that I was kind of going against what I grew up with. But I'm pretty happy with my decision to come to Iowa. I look at it this way, out of all the schools that offered me (scholarships), Iowa is the only school whose coaching staff is still around."