Schwartz: Noah Fant Cheered Hawkeyes From a Distance

January 3, 2019

Written by David Schwartz

At just past noon on Tuesday, as A.J. Epenesa was in the midst of one of his 15-minute stretches of domination, self-exiled Hawkeye tight end Noah Fant tweeted:

It was a reminder of how great it was that Fant skipped Iowa’s 27-22 Outback Bowl win over Mississippi State to prepare for this spring’s NFL Draft. He made the right choice. And while there were some well-meaning doubters, it seemed that many Hawkeye fans supported Fant, a refreshing shift in fandom from just a decade ago, when college fans—mostly basketball—moaned and groaned every time one of their better players left college early for professional opportunities.

There’s no need to relitigate Fant’s decision, so let’s keep this to just a paragraph: When you’re the No. 1 tight end in numerous NFL Draft rankings during the most prolific era for pass-catching in NFL history, you do everything you can to secure your status while making sure you get to the draft without a scratch on you. The 2016 Mackey Award winner for best tight end in the country, Michigan’s Jake Butt, tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl and it cost him millions of dollars based on how far he fell in the draft. The only smart financial move for top college players, as much as it bums us out, is to treat bowl games for what they are—exhibitions with no long-term upside.

Fant, like any player who win or lose gives their all, is a Hawkeye for life. We’ll be proud when he catches his first NFL touchdown, and we’ll be proud at Kinnick Stadium in coming seasons when he appears on the big screen during the “Hawks In the NFL Segment” run to distract us from 3 hours of commercials they show each game. Although his income will have no affect on my life, I’ll also be happy for him when whatever team drafts him direct deposits his first paycheck.

Money matters.

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Fant’s tweet spoke volumes about his character and decision. Because as he cheered on Epenesa—who might be in Fant’s position a year from now—it occurred to me that he wasn’t missing anything unique.

He didn’t miss out on a bowl-game experience with his teammates; he missed out on another bowl-game experience. He didn’t miss the chance to win a bowl game with his teammates; they won last year—Fant even caught a touchdown.

Also, It’s not like Fant played for the 1981 Hawkeyes, who had the program’s first winning season in 20 years. It’s not like the 2001 Hawkeyes, the first winning team under Kirk Ferentz, or the 2015 team that went to the Rose Bowl. The 2018 Hawkeyes were a fairly typical Ferentz team: good record, some great players, a dash of frustration, and an outkick-the-coverage bowl game that should be credited to fans willing to travel.

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And I’m not minimizing the experience of what it means to be part of a team. Being part of a team is special, something everyone should get to experience.

But as an adult you have to make choices, and sometimes you only get one chance.

Could Fant get hurt training on his own for the NFL? Yes, but it’s far less likely than getting hurt during a live football game. Is there a better-than-average chance he could have played in the Outback without getting hurt? Absolutely. But the fact that some players don’t get hurt is not proof that Fant would not have gotten hurt.

Fant could have been Jeffery Simmons, the Mississippi State defensive lineman projected to be a Top 10 pick who chose to play against the Hawkeyes. Simmons showed us how great he was and stayed healthy.

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Or Fant could have been Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame linebacker who shredded two ligaments in his knee during the Fiesta Bowl a few years back.

So Fant had to make a call, and it was the smart call. The right call.

He skipped the Outback, but from a million miles away he watched his team. He cheered them on, and probably missed playing along side them, which is what any good teammate would feel at that moment.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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