Oct. 4, 2004
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One late Saturday night in 1972, Darrell Hand searched his radio to find the long-range AM signals originating hundreds of miles away from his home in Birmingham, AL, broadcasting faraway football games into the darkness.
By luck or by fate, he caught a clear voice from WHO in Des Moines announcing the Iowa-Minnesota matchup.
That event, 22 years ago, sparked a lifelong interest in the Hawkeyes which has climaxed in the last three years when Hand has made the 800-mile journey to Kinnick Stadium to finally get to see Iowa play.
“It started out as a novelty,” Hand said Saturday before Iowa defeated Michigan State in a different type of Homecoming game for the Alabama-native. “Jim Zabel was a great guy to listen to, and it got to be interesting. I always wanted to come and three years ago, I was finally able to make the trip.”
In the 1970s, Iowa was hardly known as a nationally-ranked team that produced big-name NFL players. And that makes Hand’s interest in the faraway team even more implausible.
“Back when I started listening to the Iowa games it was a very low point in our football history,” said Hand, whose easy southern drawl quickly adopted a possessive construction. “They only won a couple of times in those years, but you could hear it in the way that people called into WHO after the games. They loved the Hawkeyes. If people can be resilient like that, they’ve got to be good people.”
Hand’s interest in the Hawks only increased after Hayden Fry took over the team in 1979. Hand had seen Fry and future NFL standout Jerry LeVias – then at Southern Methodist University – play against his other favorite team, Auburn, in the late `60s.
“I’d seen them play, so when he came over I really go into it,” Hand said. “Being an Auburn fan with the University of Alabama in the state is a pretty tough thing.”
But it has been the people that have kept Hand’s interest, as well as the fact that Iowa’s 4-0 with him in attendance. The same “resilient” Hawk fans that he heard late into the evenings became fast friends after Hand made his first trip to Kinnick in 2002.
While Iowans are not exactly known for their warmth and hospitality, as Meredith Wilson’s Broadway show “The Music Man” portrayed, Hand hasn’t found that the stereotype fits.
“Back when I started listening to the Iowa games it was a very low point in our football history. They only won a couple of times in those years, but you could hear it in the way that people called into WHO after the games. They loved the Hawkeyes. If people can be resilient like that, they’ve got to be good people.”
In fact, he made some pretty high-profile friends after his first visit in November 2002.
“I have not found that to be true,” Hand said. “I walked up to the parents of Derek Pagel and Scott Boleyn and I said, `Just tell your sons that someone came from Alabama to watch your sons play.’ And they said, `Why are you here?’ I told them the story and they said, `You’re coming with us.’
“Folks have always reached out and been really, really nice.”
Hand brought his 17-year-old son, Colby, up to the Penn State game last year and again this year too. They say it’s going to become a tradition.
“It’s turning into that,” Hand said. “He had heard me rave about the Kinnick experience so much; he would not have missed the trip. My son loved the Kinnick/Iowa experience. He even commented about the warmth of the people and the atmosphere at the game. From a 17-year-old who is not easily impressed, Kinnick got rave reviews.”
Colby says he appreciates Iowa’s wide-open farmland, which stands in stark contrast to the Birmingham metro area he’s used to.
“He took the greatest picture of a sunset as we were driving back toward Des Moines last year and made a comment about how gorgeous it was up here,” Hand said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Hand made it to the Outback Bowl last January as well, and while the fans were the same hospitable group he had come to expect, there was something missing.
“Tampa wasn’t Kinnick,” he said, “but neither is anywhere else.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com