Two weeks ago I was speaking with Arturo Gomez (Big Game Air CEO) about my friend Tyler Sash while we were watching the Iowa/Iowa State game. Sash was an Iowa Hawkeye and a Super Bowl Champ with the NY Giants (DB/Safety). It was the 2nd year anniversary of his untimely death and Arturo and I were reminiscing about some of his standout plays. I’m a very proud alumni and former wrestler of the University of Iowa. I’m sure it’s true of most schools, but our athletic programs share a strong bond and benefit from a strong support network. I met Tyler when he was a sophomore and became a mentor to him. Years later, while he was in New York, he asked me to look out for his childhood friend who was moving to Chicago from his hometown. Steve Staggs (Iowa WR) and I became friends the moment we met and have remained close. We recently spent some time thinking about our friend and discussing big games- especially surrounding our alma mater.
Eric Heneghan: How did you and Tyler become friends?
Steve Staggs: I’ve known Tyler most of my life. We started at the same elementary school and became friends when I was in first grade and he was in second. We participated together in AAU sports and got really close.
E: What sports did you guys play at that age?
S: Everything. We started in flag football and then tackle starting in 6th grade. The rule was that you couldn’t carry the ball if you were over 100 pounds and I remember Tyler was 102 pounds, just barely over the weight limit. They found a way around the rules. They put him at tight end so he could catch it and fall down. If there was a way for him to get his hands on the ball, he was always going to do that.
E: His dad was your coach at some point, right?
S: His dad was a coach and so was mine from 2nd grade up until 7th grade. Then AAU made it more age defined. We started doing national travel teams and on different teams until High School. We were still together for everything and always hanging out. We loved watching Iowa sports together and never missed a game- the biggest fans. More so than any professional teams since there weren’t any around. The only thing that mattered was Iowa Athletics.
E: Explain that to people. I got it the moment I stepped foot there from Hawaii. Explain what it’s like to grow up in a small town. Actually Oskaloosa is pretty big compared to a lot of Iowa towns. That passion starts at a very young age.
S: It’s just different than a city or even a state like Chicago and Illinois where you have the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, Sox and Blackhawks. It’s not like St. Louis or Minneapolis. In our state the biggest thing there is is the Iowa Hawkeyes. The majority of the state is very blue collar and a lot of people can relate to Iowa athletics that are built the same way. Wether it be the wrestling success of Dan Gable, or football with Hayden Fry and Lute Olson with the basketball program- I think a lot of people can relate to it and they make it their own. It’s a lot of very proud people and they take ownership on what we do have. It’s not a lot, but hey we have the Hawkeyes and I think a lot of people cling to that. It gets passed along, like you said, as a passion. You grow up knowing that and appreciating it.
E: And for the two of you, it had to be boyhood dream to go a be a part of that, right??
S: When we were really little, probably our favorite athlete was Tim Dwight. We would run outside in our #6 jerseys and draw..he had that barbed wire tattoo on his arm..we’d draw that on our arms to be like him. It just started from there.
E: A funny aside there was the two us were at a bar one night and you didn’t realize you were sitting next to him the entire time.
S: (laughter) I didn’t. Funny how things happen.
E: Coincidently a night game. It’s a long day.
S: I have another memory- this probably would have been Tyler’s junior year, my sophomore year. We were in Sports Column in Iowa City and Tim was there. At that time Tyler started to become a big name and we were like two kids in the candy store – giddy – when we saw him. Nobody wanted to go up and talk to him at first. We finally did and we got to take a picture with him.
E: So you get to meet your childhood hero while you’re on the team.
S: Yup. When Tyler and I eventually got to play together at Iowa, I’ll never forget my first game. I was a redshirt and wasn’t going to play. It was the season opener against Maine.
E: Where Coach Ferentz—Head Iowa Coach since 1999—used to coach.
S: Yup, I think he was there for 2 years, but anyway it was cool to be a part of it even if I was just going to stand on the sidelines. We were coming down the tunnel and I was about to run out on the field for the first time. Tyler comes running down the last part of the tunnel. He bumps into me and he says to me, “you’ve been waiting for this your entire life.” It was such a surreal moment for me that I blacked out. I don’t really remember running out of the tunnel that first time. The last thing I remember was Tyler finding me and saying what he did. We ran out hand and hand together.
E: For people reading this who don’t know about Iowa tradition, explain the swarm.
S: I believe that was a Hayden Fry thing.
E: He started it in 1979.
S: I’m sure that’s right. He was big on family and playing as one, a unit and not an individual thing. Every time we run out on and off the field, everyone joins hands and runs as a swarm. It’s a pretty neat tradition.
E: Agreed. What’s that feel like as a kid- 18, 19, 20 years old? It probably never loses it’s luster, even as a senior. It only happens 7 times a year.
S: No it doesn’t. I think it may have more meaning at first to kids who grew up in Iowa, who grew up watching the Hawkeyes, as opposed to someone that comes in from a different state. Maybe they didn’t grow up appreciating it like we did, but I know once they get there just about every guy gets to be around the program and see the passion of the fans and the state. They definitely leave appreciating it the same way I grew up appreciating it.
E: I also think one of my favorite traditions in sport, it was unique to a kid from Hawaii, but one of the things that I think is special, and has become more special with the video screen, is the national anthem. It’s the thing that always gets me. In fact I made a big deal out of it to the co-founders of Big Game Air—they first got the idea for the business after flying into Iowa City for last years Michigan night game. I was sandwiched between Todd Rubin (President) and Arturo Gomez (CEO). Todd likes to joke that he had to console me, but he’s not joking – he’s for real. He put his arm around me during Kinnick’s speech before the anthem. Tell people about what Iowa does.
S: So before every national anthem they play Nile Kinnick’s, who the stadium’s named after- our lone Heisman Trophy winner, acceptance speech. It’s important to Iowa fans—Nile Kinnick was deployed to the Navy during WWII and he was killed, the first Heisman trophy winner to die, when his plane went down in 1943— in it he says:
“Finally, if you will permit me, I’d like to make a comment which in my mind, is indicative, perhaps, of the greater significance of football and sports emphasis in general in this country, and that is, I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather, struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre.”
E: A lot of people feel that it was the best speech given by an athlete. It chokes me up every time. The other thing I love about it as that they never have a singer, or anything else. It’s just Kinnick Stadium and all of it’s fans singing at full volume. It’s such a patriotic football team and you’ve had some characters leading the charge- wether it be Pat Angerer or Ricky Stanzi. Talk a little about those guys.
S: It gets back to them being midwestern, blue collar guys. They appreciate what they’ve been given and the opportunities they have. It resonates with the fan base and, not to be redundant, but it’s a reflection of the program. We’ve done a lot of things like the card stunt, to Captain America Herky and the decal on the helmet. It’s something I was always proud to be a part of- it was important to my program and coach.
E: Not to invoke him, and I’m not sure how to phrase this, but one of my favorite poems is To An Athlete Dying Young and I think of it a lot when I think about Tyler. There is something poetic that the timing of his passing coincides with the Iowa State game. We talk about Hawkeye pride, but the Cyclones are also well represented and passionate in the state. You both had a lot of friends/teammates that support both teams. Growing up in Osky there is a division of loyalty.
S: It’s a very heated and hated rivalry, but at the same time almost everybody works with a Cyclone and Hawkeye fan in the state of Iowa, and the good thing about it is that everyone goes back about there business the next week. They’re the same people although one may have more bragging rights than the other after the game, but in the end we’re all Iowans. There’s a really cool picture from last week of a Hawkeye and Cyclone fan helping another fan in a wheelchair. The caption says, “at the end of the day we’re all Iowans.” I think that’s pretty cool and an accurate depiction.
E: One of my favorite Tyler memories is of his having 3 picks at Iowa State. He razzed some Cyclone buddies from Oskoloosa from the field.
S: He had 3 and (Brett) Greenwood had 2. His first pick ever was against the Cyclones. It was also his first time starting. On the pick he cramped up and ran out at the one yard line, but it probably could have been a 99 yard return. He never let that one go. It was his first start, pick (one of many) and against Iowa State. Of course we were just giddy about him being on the field the week before and now he was starting. What was cool about him is that he always wanted to share it with his friends.
E: Now for a little ego — what was your favorite memory about yourself?
S: There’s a lot of good ones. One of the best was when we beat Michigan State in 2012- my senior year. Le’Veon Bell (RB) was their guy and they’d won the B1G West Division the year before. It was cold and rainy, all the worst conditions you could try and play a game in. We went up there and got a tough victory, beating them in double overtime. The locker room atmosphere was great. Singing the fight song and it was Ferentz’s 100th win. Getting his 100th win against a team like Michigan State was pretty sweet.
The other one would have been the Penn State State night game in 2008. I was redshirted. Tyler got an interception when it looked like all PSU had to do was just run out the clock by getting a first down. Tyler got the pick, ran it back and we went on our march down the field setting up (Daniel) Murray’s game winning field. It’s a big part of our history. They were ranked #3 and playing towards a national title. Joe Paterno thinking they had a shot, but I don’t think they were looking past us. We were on a run of our own. We ended that season by beating South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Just being there for Tyler’s historic play was great- he had a knack for showing up on the big stage. When he did anything cool I felt a part of it. We went on to win and the fans stormed the field. I’d never been a part of anything like it. If there were 75,000 fans in the stands, there were 70,000 fans on the field after.
E: It was unbelievable.
S: It took 10-15 minutes to walk from midfield to the locker room- just trying to get through the people. Everyone was so pumped, congratulating you and patting you on the head- chaos. One of our guys had his shoe taken off. Those kind of moments never get old.
E: It kind of reminds me of the last second FG to win against Pitt in a night game during the 12-0 run in 2015. CJ Beathard (QB) lost his helmet and it was found later on a student downtown. He apparently was feeling no pain and enjoying the moment.
S: A lot of drinks were taken out of that thing from what I heard.
E: That leads into my last question, especially for Big Game Air clients, about why a night game is so worth the trip. Of course I’m biased, but I love a night game at Kinnick. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to a lot of different stadiums. I know you’re just getting into the fan side of things because you were playing so it’s new to you. I think of the picture of us celebrating the 10th straight win, first time in Hawkeye history, after the Minnesota night game. It was the same day after 50,000 plus people—they stopped taking tickets and the count—piled into Kinnick to watch a wrestling match that morning. It’s a different and unique place. Night games, for whatever reason, are intense. The games are already intense and amazing, but a night game..I don’t know how to explain it to people who haven’t physically been, but it’s unlike anything else.
S: My first reasoning is that for a lot people HS football is big and for the most part it’s played under Friday night lights. They’re usually a night game and the fans in Iowa are used to it. From a fan aspect they get the day to tailgate.
E: With that all day tailgate, I’m always amazed that they make it to kickoff and last.
S: It doesn’t matter if the game starts at 11am or 7pm they’re still there tailgating at 5am and ready to go. As a player it’s different you get a chance at being on at prime time. They’re have been some amazing night games we’ve been a part of- Columbus the Overtime game in 2009 for the B1G title, at Penn State and that White Out.
E: Your boy (Adrianne) Clayborn blocking a punt, scooping up that ball and running the other way for 6.
S: Yup. Hearing 100,000 people being that loud and then silenced on the block of a punt where you could hear a pin drop. The Michigan game where we striped the stadium for the first time.
E: I’m biased, obviously, but Iowa always seems to perform in night games regardless of their record. Beating #3 Penn State on their title run or beating #3 Michigan last year. You don’t know it’s going to be that way when it’s scheduled. The best one I can remember, outside of Kinnick, was the B1G title game in Indy two years ago. It was crazy- amazingly intense.
S: It’s just different. Fans get a chance to get up for it. Anything different brings out a different response. That’s especially true at Iowa because most of the games are at 11am. You play 12 games in a season and then you get that one night game. It’s that one moment that’s different. It’s a little more electric and exciting. It might be nationally televised. As a player you can feel the electricity when you come out on the field for warm ups. You can feel the buzz from the fans, the opposing team. Everyone has a little more juice about them. There’s more hype and more time to think about it during the day while you’re waiting to go out and play. The fans are the same way. The opportunity to attend a night game for your alma mater is priceless.
E: Well thanks my brother, and you are my brother!
S: Alright brother, Go Hawks!