Sept. 11, 2013
- 2013 Game Day Central
- 2013 Fall Camp Central
- Read the September issue of Hawk Talk Monthly
- 2013 Signing Day Central
- Hawkeyes in the NFL
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- Big Ten Network: Free Hawkeye Video
- 24 Hawkeyes to Watch
IOWA CITY, Iowa — When it comes to popularity in the state of Iowa, Matt Whitaker was on top of the ballot Nov. 3, 1990.
That day, Whitaker, a tight end for the University of Iowa football team, caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Jim Hartlieb after the Hawkeyes lined up for a field goal against Illinois. Iowa took a 35-7 lead after the score in a game it won, 54-28, in Champaign, Ill.
Whitaker caught 20 more passes during his career as a Hawkeye, including one for nine yards in the Rose Bowl that same season.
The days of catching footballs are over for the native of Ankeny, Iowa, who turns 44 on Oct. 29. Whitaker now eyes the biggest catch of his life June 3, 2014: Becoming the Iowa Republican Party’s candidate for United States Senate.
“I went to my first caucus when I was a senior in high school and realized I had an interest in public policy and the discussion of the role of government in our society,” Whitaker said. “I have my education from Iowa and my experience as a football player to be involved in those discussions that I enjoy.”
Ironically, in high school Whitaker was so occupied with athletics that he wasn’t involved in student government. That didn’t affect the way he was perceived by his peers, who voted him Homecoming King in the fall of 1987.
Whitaker graduated from Ankeny High School in 1988 and followed his brother Todd to school in Iowa City where Todd played baseball for the Hawkeyes.
“When I showed up at the University of Iowa I knew that I would be part of a great football tradition, and I would have a great opportunity to get a premiere education paid for by my football scholarship,” Whitaker said. “I took advantage of that wonderful opportunity to get as much education paid for as I possibly could.”
“(Coach Fry) is and was loved statewide by Hawkeye fans and there are people that were not Hawkeye fans who appreciated what he did and how he turned the program around. In football, you learn how to work hard and if you do the right thing on a consistent basis you will get good results. The qualities of perseverance, hard work and stick-to-it-ness are key features that I learned playing for coach Fry.”
Former Hawkeye tight end
He received a bachelor’s degree in communications studies in 3 ½ years before enrolling in law school. While at the UI, Whitaker also earned a master of business administration, in addition to his juris doctor degree.
“In undergrad, I was in communications school, and I studied broadcasting and film production and wanted to work in Hollywood,” Whitaker said. “That changed when I got engaged to my now wife and we determined we didn’t want to live in Los Angeles.”
After working in the Twin Cities for a couple law firms and a large grocery company, Whitaker returned home to reside in Des Moines. In 2002, he lost his bid for Treasurer of Iowa, but from 2004-09 Whitaker was appointed by George W. Bush to serve as United States attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. When his term was up in 2009, Whitaker opened a law firm in Des Moines.
That is what sets him apart from any of his Republican primary challengers.
“I’m the only small-business owner that is paying for his own health insurance and paying for his employees’ health insurance in the real world,” Whitaker said. “Among other things that’s what differentiates me.”
Whitaker has also served as state chair for two presidential campaigns: Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty until he dropped out and Texas Governor Rick Perry. As a limited government, constitutional conservative, Whitaker grew up admiring the work of President Ronald Reagan, who played football at Eureka (Ill.) College.
“Ronald Reagan had a big impact on my life because I grew up in the 80s,” Whitaker said. “I named my youngest son Lincoln and I admire President (Abraham) Lincoln and some of the Founding Fathers like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.”
Reagan and Whitaker are among a list of football players-turned-politicians, and most of them are Conservatives: Gerald Ford, Jack Kemp, former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. One exception is David Bonoir, a liberal from the state of Michigan, who earned a letter in football for the Hawkeyes in 1966.
Hayden Fry was head coach at Iowa when Whitaker was involved in the program from 1988-92, compiling 34 of his school-record 143 wins. At the time there weren’t many Iowans more popular than the football coach who transplanted from Texas.
“(Coach Fry) is and was loved statewide by Hawkeye fans and there are people that were not Hawkeye fans who appreciated what he did and how he turned the program around,” Whitaker said. “In football, you learn how to work hard and if you do the right thing on a consistent basis you will get good results. The qualities of perseverance, hard work and stick-to-it-ness are key features that I learned playing for coach Fry.”
Whitaker and his wife of more than 20 years, Marci (a University of Iowa College of Engineering graduate), have three children: Calvin (15), Alison (who turns 13 on Sept. 24) and Lincoln (nine).
As you would imagine during a campaign, Whitaker is on the road frequently with an event nearly every night. During the final week of August, he traveled from Greenfield to Searsboro, to Dickinson County to Calhoun County in a span of five days. Whitaker knows he needs to cover the entire state if he wants a chance to become Senator Nov. 4, 2014.
“In the June primary election, geography is going to matter in this election, and I will have to count on my Hawkeye background to be a warm introduction to the Republicans across the state,” he said.
With Whitaker as a player, the UI went 5-6 in 1989, 8-4 in 1990 (Rose Bowl), 10-1-1 in 1991 (Holiday Bowl) and 5-7 in 1992.
“I was part of a couple really good teams — the ’91 Rose Bowl team and the next year we were 10-1 in the regular season,” Whitaker said. “I had a great experience on the football team. Iowa City is a special place, and I enjoyed being a student and living in Iowa City.”