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By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The final 25 yards to the end zone were a struggle.
“I was a little tired for sure,” admitted University of Iowa junior safety Brandon Snyder.
His 89-yard pick six came at a pivotal time in the Hawkeyes’ 45-16 Big Ten victory over Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Snyder’s play tied for the sixth longest return in school history. It also highlighted the feel-good story of the season.
Snyder was back on the field just 5 1/2 months after ACL reconstruction surgery, a remarkable tale of heart and determination.
“I’m so thankful for all the people that helped me get back,” Snyder said. “This moment’s priceless, that’s for sure.”
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz likes to reflect, when asked, about previous games and players he has coached. Good stories, he calls them. On Saturday, Snyder completed his own chapter.
“For him to get a pick-six today, and give us a spark like he did, that’s just poetic justice, if you will,” Ferentz said.
As Snyder closed in on the end zone after picking off Illinois quarterback Jeff George, Jr., he reflected on the rehabilitation path just completed.
“It has been a long process to get back there,” Snyder said. “It was a cool moment to run into stands full of Iowa fans in the end zone. It’s a great way to come back.”
Iowa was clinging to a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter. Illinois had the ball first-and-10 at the Hawkeye 22. George overthrew tight end Louis Dorsey, and Snyder changed momentum 89 yards later.
“The pick six was a play that they’ve run for the last year and a half, over and over again” Snyder said. “I didn’t do my job, but I kind of knew the play. The throw was a little behind him. But I was in the right spot at the right time.”
Running back Akrum Wadley had his 12th career 100-yard rushing game Saturday, but he was more than happy to talk about Snyder.
“He represents what we stand for as a program,” Wadley said. “He does everything right.”
Snyder got emotional afterwards, when he talked about coming down the tunnel with his teammates before the game and running onto the field in the Swarm.
“I think every time I didn’t get to participate in the Swarm and I watched it from the sideline, I’d tear up,” Snyder said. “Guys who leave, all they talk about is one more Swarm with the guys because of what that represents and the bond it represents.
“Watching that, and not being a part of it with your teammates, is hard and pretty emotional.”
Wadley was standing nearby and heard Snyder discussing the Swarm.
“When he wasn’t in uniform I saw it in his eyes, how bad he wanted it, how bad he wanted to go out there,” Wadley said. “He stayed true to his game. He just kept going, and he had a great day. We are all proud of him. We needed that. Playmakers make big plays. He’s one of our playmakers. He delivered when we needed it.”
Snyder’s journey back wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“The hardest part is just how mundane it is, and day-to-day you have to stay on it,” Snyder said.
There were a multitude of hurdles to clear. Running in a straight line. Changing direction. Getting back to practice. Getting cleared by the medical staff to play.
“You have to have those little goals along the way to keep you driving,” Snyder said. “You can’t look at the big picture. It’s one day at a time. If you look at the big picture, you’ll go insane.”
Snyder was cleared last week at Michigan State, but didn’t play. He started Saturday.
“I had goose bumps seeing Kinnick full,” Snyder said. “You can’t buy that.”
Illinois had it first-and-10 at the Iowa 11 in the first quarter of a scoreless game. Snyder made a shoestring tackle of Reggie Corbin for no gain on first down. He blanketed Dorsey on a second-down incompletion, and did the game to Dominic Thieman on third down. The Illini settled for a field goal.
“Any time they get in the red zone, you’re trying to put out the fire,” Snyder said. “I wanted to show everyone I was back.”
His 89-yard pick six removed all doubt.
“I’d never had a moment like that,” Snyder said. “That’s what you envision. Making that play doesn’t happen if you don’t envision it, or see it 1,000 times, trusting your preparation, trusting you eyes, and being in the right place at the right time. That’s what got me through the whole thing. I kept envisioning that.”