On Oct. 15, 2012, I had the privilege of attending the ISU Letter Award Ceremony in the Jacobson Athletic Building hosted by the ISU Letterwinners Club. Thinking back, this is the 9th one of these ceremonies I have personally attended since they started doing them. At this ceremony, Iowa State student athletes, who earn their first letter in their particular sport, receive their letter jacket with the gold I on their left chest. There are two ceremonies held each year. In the fall, all the student athletes who compete in sports that compete primarily in the spring earn their letters. In the spring, all the student athletes who compete in sports that compete primarily in the fall receive their letter. On this particular day, we were honoring student athletes who competed in Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Men’s Gold, Women’s Gold, Gymnastics, Softball, Women’s Swimming and Diving, Women’s Tennis, Men’s Track and Field, Women’s Track and Field, and Wrestling.
To help show the long legacy of this letter, ISU student athletes who no longer compete, are invited back to attend these ceremonies and interact with the current student athletes. We sit at tables among the current student athletes and ask about their lives and their stories of what they are going through and in turn we tell some of our stories. We tell them what it is like when we played. We talk about how much being an ISU student athlete has meant to us in our lives. We try to help them understand the importance of what that letter jacket really symbolizes. It is a beautiful jacket. The body of the jacket is made with red felt and the sleeves have heavy red leather. Over the left chest, right over the heart, is a large capital “I” made of gold. That is it. It is simple and elegant. There is no name on the jacket. Nothing says Iowa State, it is just the “I”. The men’s and women’s jackets look the same.
The “I” looks great on the jackets, but it is so much more than just a letter. The I and that letter jacket it symbolizes everything Iowa State University stands for, not just athletically and academically, but its highest ideals. When you wear that jacket you represent all of the past student athletes who came before you at Iowa State and have done countless amazing things in all of their respective sports as well as in their lives. When you wear the jacket you represent all of the current student athletes who are competing in sports at Iowa State and everything they are doing on and off the battlefields of competition. When you wear that jacket you represent all the kids out there who look up to you and will one day be a student athlete at Iowa State. You represent all the things they will accomplish here at Iowa State and in their lives in the years to come. It is a great honor not to be taken lightly. If the other student athletes are like me, they will not fully understand the importance of it until after their years of competing here at Iowa State are over. My letter jacket means more to me now than it did while I played football at Iowa State and it will continue to mean more and more to me as the years go by.
When I have attended the Letter Jacket ceremonies in the spring, I always sit with football players because that is the sport I competed in. In the fall, I have sat with all types of different athletes. On this particular night, I found that my seat was with the ISU Women’s Basketball players. I sat at a table that included head coach Bill Fennelly, associate head coach Jodi Steyer, and past ISU Letterwinners Club President, Jeff Gibbons, who wrestled at Iowa State in the late 80’s. On this night, there were four young ISU women’s basketball players being honored with their first ISU letter. They were Fallon Ellis from Missouri City, TX, Nikki Moody from Euless, TX, Brynn Williamson from Kansas city, MO, and finally Peyton Stensland from Waverly, IA. As we sat and ate our meal together we talked about life as a student athlete. Their practices were just starting and they talked about how physically demanding the practices were. They talked of classes and tests they had coming up. As I listened to them talk, I found my self going back to when I was a football player here from 1995-1999. I thought of that cold day in 1996, when I found out that I had earned a letter and would be getting my letter jacket. Back then the ISU Letterwinners Club did not hold a fancy banquet where we were recognized. We received a slip in our locker that said we had to go pick up our letter jacket at Beyer Hall. At that time, they were building the current Jacobson Building and laying the grass field at Jack Trice Stadium. The coach’s offices, player’s locker room, and the weight room were temporarily over at State Gym until our new home was completed. Once I received my slip saying I had earned a letter, I walked across the street to Beyer Hall and to the clothing pickup window. I was meat by a large man they affectionately called “Bear.” He took my slip and walked back to the back of the room. A minute later he returned with my brand new letter jacket. I was so excited that I immediately put it on. Upon doing so, I discovered that it was a couple of sizes too big for me. I asked “Bear” about this thinking there had been a mistake, but he told me that it was no mistake and that I would thank him many years from now. Well, it is now 16 years after that day and even though my jacket is much tighter than it used to be, it still fits so I guess I owe “Bear” a big thank you. Once I had my jacket I wore it everywhere around campus. It was warm and it was very cold out so that worked perfectly. I felt important when I wore it out and about.
I felt like I had really accomplished something special and I had. At the time my sights were set very short-term. I was concentrating on my next test, my next practice, my next game, my next study hall, my next meeting. I was always proud in the moment with what I had accomplished, but I was never satisfied with where I was at. I was always striving to accomplish my next goal in life. I was never going to settle for being anything less than the best that I could be. I was proud, but didn’t fully appreciate it. I was still on my journey. The years went so quickly and before I knew it, I had played my last football game and just like that it was over. As I thought back to that last game in my head, I thought back to a quote of what a man I respect as much as anyone else in this world said upon his departure from this great university in 2006. He said “Don’t cry because it ended, smile because it happened.” That man was Dan McCarney, who was my coach, will always be my friend and mentor. Those words he said will stick with me the rest of my days. For those of us who are ex athletes, our playing careers are over and will never return, but the memories will last us our entire lifetimes. The ISU Letterwinners Club gives us an outlet to share those memories with those who shared them with us. Our teammates, our coaches, and our families. This club allows us to stay connected and reconnect with those special people from our special time here as an ISU athlete. I am so thankful to this club for doing this for us and that is why I have been so intimately involved with the ISU Letterwinners Club. The club’s ideals are held very close to my heart so it is only natural that I would want to serve this club. It has been a match made in heaven for me and I have cherished every moment that I have been involved with this club. When I am at an event of the club, it takes me right back to those important days in my life.
As I sat there and watched all the student athletes getting their jackets that night, I smiled too knowing that we were now brothers and sisters in the same family. A family made up of Cyclones. The slogan for the ISU Letterwinners Club is “Once a Cyclone, Always a Cyclone.” That is so true to me and becomes truer with each passing year. As Iowa State student athletes, our playing careers at Iowa State are very short, but our memories will last us a lifetime. Even when we no longer wear the uniform, we wear the jacket and we are cyclones for life. It never leaves you. You still feel the excitement on game day. I still have my same letter jacket I got back in 1996. I now wear it one day a year. I wear it each fall at the ISU Letterwinners Club Football Reunion. When all the past ISU football players go down on the field to be recognized for their contribution to ISU football and we are all wearing our red letter jackets and the crowd of 50,000 + fans stand and cheer, you better believe that those moments are special. Those are the moments that make this life worth living.
As I sat there that night and saw the joy the student athletes had at getting their new letter jackets, it made me think of my mom. She had been an athlete here at Iowa State in the early seventies. She competed in two sports, women’s swimming and tennis. Back in those early days of college women’s athletics, women were not recognized as they should have been. They did not receive letters for their contribution to their university. Please understand that this was not just an Iowa State thing, none of the women at any of the universities around the country were getting letters at that time. Women’s sports were viewed as inferior to men’s sports. That really is a shame. In the early 2000’s though, Iowa State did something to make it right. They went back and awarded letters to all those former ISU women athletes who had competed at ISU and earned the right to have letters, but had never gotten one. Over a several year period, they brought these women back to Iowa State and presented them with their gold “I” that appears on the letter jackets. They had banquets to bring them together and they honored them at halftime of various basketball games during that period.
I can still see the genuine joy and appreciation on the faces of those women, including my mom. Even though they had been overlooked for so many years, they still had nothing but love for their university. I took my mom’s “I” and had it framed along with some pictures, the program from the recognition ceremony, and an old ISU pennant my mom had from when she went to school at Iowa State and gave it to her for Christmas one year. She proudly displays it in her home as a remembrance of the sacrifices she made for her university. A few years ago, when the ISU Letterwinners Club made available the option for former ISU letter winners to purchase new letter jackets, I bought my mom one of her own. She finally had her very own letter jacket. When she wears it around at special ISU events, I can see the pride she has when she is wearing it. It is a pride that I share with her in a way that only past ISU letter winners could ever understand.
I had the pleasure of serving as the president of the ISU Letterwinners Club a couple of years ago and I remember speaking at the 2009 ISU Hall of Fame Induction. In my speech I talked about what it means to be a Cyclone and what characteristics we possess. I would like to share with you my ideas of what those characteristics are.
Our character is our legacy; it is how we will be remembered.
We will do whatever it takes, no matter how hard, to get the job done.
We know that we are only as strong as the weakest player on our team. We will play as a team and always lift your teammates up.
We really, truly care about something with everything inside of us.
We have pride for our team, this athletic department, and our school. It is why we stand up when we hear the fight song.
Do whatever it takes to succeed within the rules
We will sacrifice whatever it takes to have success.
When someone goes down, we pick them up
We will never leave behind a fallen teammate.
Never stop fighting until the final whistle
We don’t ever give up even when the cards are stacked against us.
We are proud of what we represent.
We will set the example for others to follow. Follow me to victory.
We will show up everyday to work and improve.
Always act in a first class manner, even in defeat
How we represent our school, our family and most importantly ourselves will always be in a first class manner.
We know that it is not worth winning if we have to lower ourselves to cheating to accomplish it.
For a Cyclone there is no mountain too high, no challenge too tough. The toughest challenges define the people we are.
We can’t get is done without a plan. Goals are our road map to where we want to be.
We know that success does not come overnight. It must be worked at to try to achieve.
We always support our school. Never give up on a Cyclone. We will always find a way to get it done.
We are all these things. The “I” on our jackets define us. They make us who we are. They make us Cyclones. We all wear the same letter, but it’s so much more than just a letter.
“Once a Cyclone, Always a Cyclone”