May 12, 2011
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Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Friday, Aug. 13, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2010-11 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fatherly advice helped University of Iowa sophomore Matt Byers go from an adequate high school quarterback to an elite collegiate javelin thrower.
Brian Byers coached his son in football and track and field at Wichita East (Kan.) High School. During Matt’s freshman year, his father-coach strongly urged him to join the track and field roster as a way to avoid spending spring days sitting idle. At first Matt practiced with the sprinters and occasionally saw action in a 1,600-meter relay.
One day after a sprint workout, Brian had another idea: have his son toss the javelin a time or two to strengthen Matt’s right arm, all the better to heave those spirals in the fall.
With Matt’s assistance and perseverance, the javelin kept traveling further and further and further.
In the next three years, Byers set a school record in the event (219-feet-8), twice finished runner-up at the state and USA Junior National Championships and qualified for the 2009 USA Pan-American team.
Byers has also made a quick and authoritative imprint with the javelin at the UI. As a freshman in 2010 he won the Big Ten Conference with a throw of 220-6. He placed ninth (220-9) in the NCAA preliminary round in Austin, Texas, and advanced to the NCAA finals in Eugene, Ore., where he finished 21st (202-8).
“I want to win a national championship and I want to win Big Ten championships as long as I’m here,” Byers said. “I hate to lose no matter if I throw far and I still lose. That gives me more motivation to go to the next meet because that shows there’s someone better than me and it gives me more drive.
“My first goal is to win Big Ten’s and then go to regionals and throw far enough to get to nationals. Once I get back to nationals I’m going to let loose and try to win a national championship. My goal right now is to be top three; if I’m less than top four I will be disappointed because I feel with my technique, I’m able to be up with the best in the country.”
Here is an example of how far Byers has progressed in his two seasons as a Hawkeye: he became Big Ten champion last May with a throw of 220-6; at the Drake Relays on April 29 he threw nearly three feet further than that mark and placed fourth. It was the place — not the distance — that irked Byers.
“I was upset that two kids threw over 70 meters,” Byers said. “If they’re doing it, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be doing it — I shouldn’t use wind as an excuse, but I also look at with that wind, it’s a pretty good throw. Coach (Scott) Cappos stresses with me to keep getting better and stay humble. That’s what I’ve been doing. I know it only matters what you do on that day and you have to be mentally ready on that day because anything can happen at the Big Ten Championships, nationals or regionals — you always have to be prepared.”
On April 2 at the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, La., Byers set a school and Big Ten record with a throw of 245-8. The old UI and league mark was 244-8 set by Bill Neumann in 2002. This weekend Byers attempts to better the Big Ten Conference Championships’ record of 239-8 set by Allen Pettner of Penn State in 2007.
Cappos has developed an impressive stable of throwers during 15 seasons at the UI and Byers is on track to becoming one of the most decorated. He calls Byers “one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached.”
“Our No. 1 objective with an athlete like Matt is to win the Big Ten championship,” Cappos said. “After the Big Ten championship we’ll start focusing on getting NCAA championships. This year our goal is to finish in the top six at the NCAA championships and 2012 is an Olympic year, so we want to make the Olympic Trials and have an opportunity to make the Olympic team as a junior in college.”
A bond with grandparents he barely knew had a lot to do with Byers attending the UI. Brian Byers grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, before playing and coaching football took him to the states of Kansas, New Mexico and Texas. While attending Pittsburg (Kan.) State, Brian met Debbie, his future wife and Matt’s mother. Debbie was from Kansas and the couple agreed to settle there while raising a family.
“My grandpa and grandma on my dad’s side are buried (in Iowa),” Byers said. “Track is kind of a special thing to me because I remember in middle school (grandma) died during that season. I was depressed and sad, so I quit track and really didn’t have any intentions of doing it again. When I picked it up again, it has always been special to me — I was 15 when we came out here for my grandma’s funeral so I saw my grandpa and grandma’s grave and I’ve always been attracted to Iowa. It felt like a really good fit for me.”
Like many young children, Byers grew up dabbling with multiple sports. He played football, basketball, soccer and baseball until high school. Then he whittled his choices to football, basketball and track and field. Now it’s the javelin, an event that is contested exclusively during the outdoor season.
At first it was difficult for Byers, who missed the transition to a new sport every fall, winter and spring. But absence makes the heart grow more competitive.
“I want to get out there and compete and help the team score points; do whatever I can,” Byers said. “I feel like during the indoor season I’m not part of the team, and I wish I could do more. It helps me focus on the outdoor season.”
While his Hawkeye teammates participate indoors, Byers spends his time lifting weights, working with medicine ball and throwing once a week in the Bubble to keep his technique fresh, and his arm familiarized with the javelin throwing motion.
“I do run-ups, work on my running, work on my cross-overs and withdrawing the javelin,” Byers said. “I also work on sprinting, sprint technique and jumping.”
Cappos says that Byers improved as a freshman because of enhanced training from high school to college; now his gains are from better training and better technique.
“When we recruited Matt our hope was that he would be a Big Ten record-holder and Big Ten champion, but I didn’t know it would come so soon,” Cappos said. “He’s had a lot of success early in his career and with the success he’s had, it shows the great things he can do in the future.”
Fans have an opportunity to watch Byers and the Hawkeyes this weekend. The UI is hosting the Big Ten Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championships on May 13-15 at Francis X. Cretzmeyer Track. Byers will compete Sunday at 1:35 p.m.