Derek Pagel

Defensive Back, 1999-2002

January 28, 2015

Written by Mitch Smith

Derek Pagel was an unknown walk-on from Plainfield, Iowa — a town of less than 500 people. He was there for Hayden Fry’s final season, and played on Kirk Ferentz’s inaugural Iowa team that went 1-10 overall and winless in the conference.

By the end of his collegiate career, the Hawkeyes were Co-Big Ten Champions, and Pagel was an all-conference safety and team captain en route to becoming a fifth round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.

Now, he’s sharing the story of Iowa’s (and his own) improbable rise to glory.

Pagel, 35, wrote “Growing up Hawkeye” — a 140-page book about his football experiences and the ascension of the Iowa football program in the early 2000s. Readers are taken on a journey from his recruitment at Iowa, pursuit of a scholarship, and ultimately becoming a starter and major contributor in the Hawkeye secondary.

Along the way, coaches and former players, including Matt Roth, Sean Considine, D.J. Johnson, Scott Boleyn, and Edgar Cervantes also share their insight.

“It gives people who followed those seasons a trip down memory lane,” Pagel said. “It’s a Hawkeye-themed book, but it’s about more than just Iowa football. This is about overcoming odds — about coming together collectively as a team to accomplish a goal.”

Writing a book was a goal the former Hawkeye had thought about since his playing days. He had a vision and plenty of stories to share, but needed some assistance crafting the message.

Pagel collaborated with Keith Wendl, a former coworker, and former Des Moines Register writer Nancy Stockdale to compose the book. The project took about four years to complete.

The biggest challenge, Wendl said, was juggling the project with their full-time jobs. Pagel works as a sales representative in Des Moines for Zimmer Dental, selling dental implants and other products to Iowa dentists.

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The group left no stone unturned while researching the project, conducting about 40 interviews and delving through 27 boxes of articles saved by Pagel’s parents. They even convinced perhaps the most famous walk-on of all-time — Notre Dame’s Daniel “Rudy” Ruetigger — to write the book’s foreword.

“This book shows what drive and work ethic can get you in this life,” Wendl said. “Derek has a great perspective on football and is a passionate storyteller.”

Nearly 3,000 copies have been sold since its release in Nov. 2014, and the reception has been positive. A woman who had been married to her husband for more than 40 years told Pagel at a book signing this was the first book her husband ever asked for as a gift.

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Another person told them 2002 was the best year of his life because of what the Hawkeyes accomplished on the gridiron.

“If you’re a fan of the program, 2002 was such a triumph for the team, the fan base and the entire state of Iowa,” Wendl said. “The odds were stacked against Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, but they pulled together and turned that team around.”

Don’t expect any dark, “tell-all” secrets about the Iowa football program. Pagel’s message isn’t to talk trash or dig up dirt. It’s about celebrating one of the greatest teams in school history, and how a small town kid with Black and Gold aspirations played a major role in the squad’s success.

He transports readers to places fans rarely see — the practice field, the film room, and coaches meetings. Readers go into the mind of a player on game day, and even get the details of a fight in practice between two Hawkeye teammates that resulted in a facemask being completely ripped off a helmet.

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Pagel still thinks about how life could have been dramatically different — about how this story almost didn’t happen.

He intended to transfer to Division III Wartburg College during his sophomore season. Ferentz asked him to reconsider, telling the defensive back how the coaching staff had plans for utilizing his talents.

“This could be a chapter in your book someday — how you almost leave the team but stick it out,” Iowa offensive lineman Bruce Nelson told Pagel at the time.

The decision to stay paid off.

“Being a Hawkeye is about tradition, values, and loyalty,” Pagel said. “I wanted to give anybody that grew up a Hawk a good feel for what that experience was like.”

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