Rollins: Make the Best of the Moment

Sept. 24, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Vernon Rollins’ football career began with a trumpeted entry and ended with a soft murmur. In between there was prayer, tears and lessons learned.

Few University of Iowa football recruits were more highly-touted out of high school than Rollins, a native of Hackensack, N.J. He put his 6-foot-2 242-pound frame to good use, recording 126 tackles as a sophomore in 1996 when he earned honorable mention all-Big Ten Conference recognition. He was awarded letters in 1995, ’96, ’97 and ’99.

“We had a lot of guys when we got here in 1999 who thought they should go to the NFL or were going to the NFL, and they had absolutely no business thinking that,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Vernon is a guy who was going to the NFL. He had a great, great future.”

Until a knee injury jettisoned those dreams. But even before then, Rollins said he was slipping into routines followed by an average player, not a great one.

“There were little things I should have done to be great,” he told the current Hawkeyes after a walk-through Friday at the Kenyon Football Practice Facility. “We have fun in college, but there were two or three days out of the week where I was up until two or three in the morning. I used to eat at McDonald’s two or three times a week. We had training table, but I chose McDonald’s. I should have eaten the right foods to prepare my body.”

Instead of extra conditioning after practice, Rollins hit the showers.

Still, he called his Hawkeye experience “the greatest time of my life.” Rollins then challenged the current players to conquer the `what ifs’ that haunted him during his time as a student-athlete.

“You have a great opportunity this year,” Rollins said. “My teams were good and we went to bowl games, but I’m trying to give you the knowledge that I would have done so many things differently. This is your moment, this is your chance, and this is your year. Make the best of it.”

The redshirt senior season for Rollins was 1999 — the first for Ferentz as head coach of the Hawkeyes. Still trying to recover physically and mentally from injury, Rollins retired the gear and became a student assistant coach.

He called coping with injury “the hardest thing in my life”; Ferentz said the way Rollins handled the situation helped define him.

“The thing that impressed me most was how he dealt with it and how he chose to move forward,” Ferentz said. “We talk about attitude all the time. I think Vernon epitomizes what it is to have a good attitude and he sees the big picture. Football ends for everybody, unfortunately. He’s a great representative of this program.”

How does a 20-year old deal with the reality that the cheers have stopped and an eventual huge professional payday has been lost?

“It was prayer and talking to my mom,” Rollins said. “She told me there was more to my life and something was going to happen to me. It was tough; I didn’t feel part of the team. After you start 30 games and then your career comes to an end just like that — it’s difficult. There were many, many tears. I know I had some healing to do and I have healed. It’s been a long time, but I have healed.”

Rollins returns to Kinnick Stadium as honorary captain for today’s game against the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He has come a long way since arriving in Iowa City as a homesick teenager; in fact, he never left.

“The people, the coaches, the community…what’s not to love about it?” Rollins said. “I can’t even go (to New Jersey) now. There are too many people and too much cement. Iowa is my home now.”

Rollins, his wife, two sons (ages 8 years and nine months) and daughter (5 years) reside in North Liberty.

Ferentz first met Rollins when he was head coach at Maine and Rollins was a sophomore in high school. Ferentz was recruiting a tight end from Rollins’ team, and exchanged handshakes with the future Hawkeye along the way.

“This is one from the small world department,” Ferentz said.

“He was a great guy back then, too. He had a lot less gray hair, but he was a great guy,” Rollins said with a laugh.

It’s been awhile since Rollins has been able to smile and laugh on the Hawkeye football practice field. Thirteen years have passed since the injury. The physical and emotional wounds are healed.

“I love Iowa football,” Rollins said.