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“Hey a**hole!” A middle-aged man with a wraparound mustache, a 1994 Iowa Hawkeye sweatshirt, and an “I can kick your ass” expression stood a few rows above me. The subject of his “greeting” was a twenty-something next to me dressed in the cardinal and gold of Iowa State. I tensed, wondering if I should step in between the two. Suddenly, the mustached-man’s face broke into a huge grin. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed, shaking the bewildered Iowa State fan’s hand.

On the field below, sophomore Cole Netten had just connected on a 42-yard field goal to give the Cyclones a 20-17 victory over Iowa, their third in four years.

A loss on a last-second play to your in-state rivals can be tough to take. It can be even tougher when it’s your first loss of the year and to a team that you were heavily favored to beat.

Leaving the stadium, I feared that the evening in Iowa City would be a depressing one. The mustached-man’s smile after his “congratulations,” however, gave me pause. Maybe the famous Midwest kindness extends to football too.

 

I had no idea what to expect from the University of Iowa. I guess I had some vague vision of a “Field of Dreams” college: cornfields, tractors, wide-open sky. I imagined a place stuck in yesteryear – a relic of the agricultural boom days.

I set out from Chicago on Wednesday eager to get a real image of America’s breadbasket. After hopping off the interstate south of the city, the skyline quickly gave way to other sights. City blocks turned into suburban sprawl; strip malls, cul-de-sacs, cookie cutter housing units – all the signs of post-World War II growth. Driving on, the towns became more spread out. Farms began to pop up – rolling hills filled with golden, brown corn and yellow, green soybeans.

Water tower towns

Water tower towns

A few miles before I crossed the Mississippi, the road joined a rail line. Occasionally I’d pass a row of railcars waiting to distribute their load of grain to the cities I’d left behind. Water towers and grain storage facilities could be seen on the horizon, announcing the presence of upcoming towns: Clarence, Calamus, Wheatland. Each town with its collection of small shops, a diner, a high school, and a gas station. This was the Iowa I expected to find.

Five miles outside of Iowa City, the scenery began to change. Trees became forests. The road, which had been straight for over a hundred miles started to twist and turn. Isolated farmhouses turned into clusters of neighborhoods.

Far from the farming villages I passed, Iowa City is a bustling cultural center. After parking my car on a side street, I walked through downtown towards campus. I passed busy restaurants, lively bars, and a collection of street vendors. “I’ve never seen such a concentration of ice cream stores in my life,” I thought to myself.

Within a day, I was convinced that if I had been born anywhere near the Midwest, Iowa City would be high on my list of places to live. The walking-only streets of the downtown are lined with trees and park benches. In the middle of one rests a playground and an open space where street performers frequently play music to small crowds. Next to that is a state-of-the-art, three-story public library. The center of campus lies across the street from the most popular business establishments and students intermix freely with the townspeople.

The town feels more New England than Midwest. Or at least what New England was before the emergence of big box stores and four-lane highways.

The people, however, really distinguish Iowa City from the other college football towns I’ve visited. There is the same devotion. I was told over and over that Iowa football was “the only show in town,” in reference to the lack of a professional sports team in the state. There are the same pre-game antics – students drinking, alumni tailgating, kids tossing footballs.

But there is something else – a mild mannered humility that is missing from the other places I’ve visited. Ask someone at Notre Dame what makes the Fighting Irish unique, and you’ll get a ten-minute response. Ask the same question to someone from South Carolina and Georgia, and you’ll get a brief history of the dominance of SEC football. You’ll hear about how SEC fans are more devoted and more intense than fans elsewhere.

When I asked people what made Iowa unique, I heard silence. “I don’t know what’s different about us. I mean, it’s a great place, and I love it here,” one student told me. A few people mentioned Iowa’s status as the #2 party school in the nation. One mentioned the size of the campus as a distinguishing factor since it’s more walkable than other Big Ten schools. These were given as hopeful answers after great thinking. My question had stumped them.

Stan's barbershop for a pre-game cut

Stan’s barbershop for a pre-game cut

It’s not that there aren’t unique aspects of Iowa. But there was a realization among the people I spoke with that the differences between Iowa and Minnesota or Iowa and Notre Dame for that matter are really not that big. Iowa is a great school in a wonderful college town. So is Michigan. So is Indiana. So is Iowa State for that matter. Most people elsewhere try to define their school’s greatness through its differentness. Things as simple as mascots and fight songs become important symbols for how schools differentiate themselves from other schools who are otherwise largely identical. This “us versus them” mentality creates a pretense for exclusivity.

I found very little of that at Iowa. Sure, the rivalry between Iowa and Iowa State is intense. They are the most prominent schools in the state. For years they have battled in athletics and often compete for the same students. You hear the same “F**k State” cheers and see the same mildly offensive shirts about the other school. But it is more civil than other big-time rivalries.

For two days I couldn’t get anyone I talked with to tell me the real difference between Iowa and Iowa State. Anytime I asked, the University of Northern Iowa would get brought up as people embarked on long-winded explanations that the three big state universities were all good schools. “Iowa State is historically more of an agricultural school,” is about all I could get people to say. I would press. “Seriously, you can tell me what the differences are.” I was looking for someone to confirm my suspicions that Iowa State played the role of “jock” while Iowa was the “elitist nerd.” Eventually, people allowed that that was the historical reputation, but they quickly followed that up by insisting that both were now great schools as though they had erred in admitting any negative feelings toward their rival.

The night before the game, I met a retired engineer for John Deere who went to Iowa with the intention of leaving Iowa after two years to finish his degree at Iowa State. He ended up staying at Iowa and is now a vehement Hawkeye supporter, but he insisted that the rivalry was friendly: “We’re all brothers at the end of the day.” This stood in stark contrast to Georgia where I witnessed a first-quarter fight in my section merely because a fan was wearing a Clemson shirt.

On Gameday, I started my morning at the local farmer’s market. I met farmers and artisans from across the state. Like the rest of the town, they were dressed in Hawkeye and Cyclone apparel. They told me about the bragging rights on the line – how if their team lost, they would hear about it from neighboring farmers for months until the two teams met in basketball.

From there, I walked through the tailgates where I saw Iowa State fans mixed in with Iowa fans. There were the occasional altercations – the types of arguments that happen when people who have had too much to drink come together. But that was the exception. The majority of people seemed to celebrate the game as a showcase for the state of Iowa, a chance for two proud schools to compete.

While the intensity of that competition divided the state, an hour after the game’s conclusion, the streets of Iowa City were packed with Cyclone and Hawkeye fans coming together. By 9 PM, it was difficult to tell who had won the game. A similar result elsewhere, and fans would have stayed in or gone out looking to get in fights. In Iowa, a few hours removed from a painful loss, life in the town had returned to normal. The friendly battle for the corn state had come and gone.

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