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Leistikow: The stories of 9 ex-Iowa Hawkeyes playing Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl

Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

The stupendous stat began circulating early this week in our state, that nine players who finished their college careers as Iowa Hawkeyes are on the active rosters for Sunday’s NFL conference championship games.


That’s No. 1 in football.

That's two more than the seven for Michigan (you may have heard of one of its alums, Tom Brady) and LSU.

That's four more than Penn State.

Five more than Alabama and Clemson.

Eight more than THE Ohio State University.

It’s a stat that Kirk Ferentz proudly spent 20 minutes discussing on KXnO’s “Murph and Andy Show” this week in central Iowa.

There’s some luck involved, the Hawkeyes’ head coach of 22 years correctly noted. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had lost to the favored New Orleans Saints, Iowa’s count would’ve been seven. And sometimes, bad franchises take really good Iowa players (see: Robert Gallery and Oakland Raiders), and those men never got a whiff of playing for the Lombardi Trophy.

It doesn't hurt that these nine guys collectively play on the same team as four of the game’s elite quarterbacks — Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

But smart franchises typically find good players that others don’t. And over the years, Ferentz’s former Iowa players often prove to their employers that they’re not only good players, but good teammates and reliable workers. Those attributes help the Hawkeyes deliver a lot of NFL-ready players in a performance business where careers can have a cruelly short shelf life.

Iowa ended the regular season with 35 alums on 19 different NFL rosters, dating as far back as the 2010 draft (Bryan Bulaga).

Of those 35 Hawkeyes, 11 went undrafted but still found a way to “make it.” That's impressive.

“There are certain things you can’t measure,” Ferentz explained on KXnO. “That’s what really allows guys to be successful in the NFL and have long careers, not just be in and be out."

Four Hawkeyes played in last year's Super Bowl. Another four are guaranteed to play in this year's (Feb. 7 in Tampa); that number will be five if the Buffalo Bills make it.

Below are the nine guys who are playing in Sunday’s AFC and NFC championship games — Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (2:05 p.m., Fox) and Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (5:40 p.m., CBS). Each player has had a unique path to this moment, which they know could be the last time they'll ever play for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Anthony Nelson, outside linebacker, Buccaneers (jersey No. 98)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2015, three stars, Waukee

Hawkeye story: A true student-athlete. Off the field, Nelson graduated from Iowa in 3½ years with a 3.86 GPA and a degree in business and accounting. On it, he developed from 210 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame into a relentless 272-pound pass rusher with length and closing speed off the edge. He piled up 23 sacks in three years, and his decision to leave school with a year of eligibility on the table paid off.

NFL story: Nelson plays roughly 25% of the defensive snaps (and also plays special teams) and will be tasked to track down Rodgers on Sunday at Lambeau Field, as one of the many rotational rushers in Todd Bowles' blitzing 3-4 scheme. He had a sack in the Bucs’ first-round playoff win against Washington. At 23, Nelson (in the second year of a four-year rookie deal worth $3.2 million) looks like he’s got many NFL days ahead.

Tristan Wirfs, right tackle, Buccaneers (jersey No. 78)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2017, four stars, Mount Vernon

Hawkeye story: The always-smiling Wirfs was known as a giant, athletic Teddy bear who needed to develop a mean streak. By Year 3, he was a dominant first-team all-American. He remains the only true freshman to start at offensive tackle in the 22-year Ferentz era, a sign of his natural ability that would be on display at the NFL Scouting Combine just 2½ years later.  

NFL story: No pressure, kid. Just go ahead and protect a six-time Super Bowl winning quarterback. And Wirfs, 21, has done that from Day 1. Although he was the fourth offensive tackle drafted (No. 13 overall), he’s been the best blocker in the rookie class. According to Pro Football Focus, Wirfs (6-5, 320) has allowed one sack (including two playoff wins) in 779 pass-blocking snaps as a Buccaneer. Wirfs is making $16.2 million guaranteed on his four-year rookie deal, but he’ll really cash in after that.

Josh Jackson, cornerback, Packers (jersey No. 37)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2014, two stars, Corinth, Texas

Hawkeye story: Of Iowa’s 27 consensus all-Americans, Jackson took perhaps the most unusual and unlikely path. A lightly recruited prospect, he struggled with bad personal habits and couldn’t find a home — offense or defense — early in his career. But he constantly flashed in practice. Then, he went from third-year backup to fourth-year superstar. Jackson hauled in eight interceptions in 2017 (his only year as a full-time starter), including three in a historic 55-24 rout of J.T. Barrett-led Ohio State, and left school a year early.

NFL story: Jackson was thought to be a first-round pick but fell to the second round (No. 45 overall) and was chosen in the same class as Jaire Alexander, who has become one of the NFL’s elite corners. Jackson started 10 games as a rookie but has seen his role diminish. He started five games this season but has struggled to get back on the field after a late-season concussion and may not play in Sunday’s game.

Christian Kirskey, linebacker, Packers (jersey No. 58)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2010, three stars, St. Louis.

Hawkeye story: Endured a challenging stretch in the program — the 2010 disappointment, the 2011 rhabdomyolysis episode and a dismal 2012 season — with a positive attitude and was at the heart of the program’s defensive revival under Phil Parker. Kirksey (315 career tackles at Iowa), Anthony Hitchens (who you’ll read about later) and James Morris were the trio of terrific linebackers on a 2013 team that ranked sixth nationally in total defense.

NFL story: This is one of those good-luck deals for a good guy. Kirksey was highly productive for most of his six years with the Cleveland Browns, but didn’t have much around him. Kirksey signed on with the Packers in a two-year, $12.1 million deal. A pectoral injury forced him to miss six weeks. He still had 77 tackles this season, but only played 26% of the defensive snaps for the top-seeded Packers last week against the Los Angeles Rams.

Of note: Another former Hawkeye, Dominique Dafney (a Valley High School alum), is a reserve tight end for the Packers. But he finished his career at Indiana State, so he isn’t counted on this list. You can read his impressive story here. He wears No. 49.

Ike Boettger, left guard, Bills (jersey No. 65)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2013, three stars, Cedar Falls

Hawkeye story: One of the all-time developmental stories at Iowa, Boettger (a high school quarterback) added nearly 90 pounds to his 6-6 frame to become a starting tackle for the 2015 team that went 12-0. An Achilles tendon injury in Week 2 foiled his final year as a Hawkeye.

NFL story: Talk about perseverance. An undrafted free agent, Boettger saw extremely limited action in his first two pro years but made an impression and the Bills kept him around. As Buffalo struggled on the interior offensive line, it turned to Boettger midseason. And he has become an unlikely blocking savior for Josh Allen. He’s played 100% of the snaps at left guard in each of Buffalo’s last seven games (all wins) and could be positioning himself for a long-term NFL future. He’s a restricted free agent after this season.

A.J. Epenesa, defensive end, Bills (jersey No. 57)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2017, five stars, Glen Carbon, Ill.

Hawkeye story: A true legacy Hawkeye. His father, Eppy, traveled an unlikely journey from American Samoa to Iowa Wesleyan College to Iowa walk-on under Hayden Fry in the late 1990s. Epenesa was born in Kansas City in 1998, and the doctor who delivered him happened to be a die-hard Iowa fan. He was destined to be a Hawkeye, it seemed, and he became the first five-star recruit to choose Iowa in more than a decade. Epenesa didn’t disappoint, racking up 26½ sacks in three dominant seasons before turning pro.

NFL story: A second-round pick of the Bills, Epenesa had to spend time reducing his body weight (Buffalo wanted him to shed about 20 pounds to become the edge rusher it envisioned, and he’s now playing around 255) and learn Leslie Frazier’s defense. Now, he sees action on roughly 40% of defensive snaps. The stats haven’t piled up like they did at Iowa (14 tackles, one sack) but his Iowa career was filled with game-changing plays. Don’t be surprised to see him chasing down Mahomes at some point Sunday night.

Micah Hyde, defensive back, Bills (jersey No. 23)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2009, two stars, Fostoria, Ohio

Hawkeye story: Ferentz often said that if Hyde had played offense for the Hawkeyes, he might’ve been the school’s all-time leading receiver. But he found a home on defense and delivered dynamic plays over the course of his career, including an interception-return touchdown that won Iowa the 2010 Insight Bowl against Missouri.

NFL story: Four years in Green Bay and now four years in Buffalo, and Hyde is still going strong. He’s accumulated a Pro Bowl nod (in 2017) and is a reliable safety for the Bills, batting away Philip Rivers’ final pass as a pro to clinch a wild-card win two weeks ago. Hyde’s career numbers: 125 games, 17 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries, 509 tackles, 49 passes defended, three touchdowns. He is signed with Buffalo for another $5.1 million in 2021. Not bad for a two-star recruit.

Anthony Hitchens, linebacker, Chiefs (jersey No. 53)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2010, two stars, Lorain, Ohio

Hawkeye story: Hitchens transitioned from defensive back to linebacker and racked up a ton of tackles (124) during that 4-8 season of 2012 before a dynamic senior season that included 13½ tackles for loss on his way to becoming a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL story: Another consistent producer who has bucked the odds and forged a seven-year NFL career. Hitchens won a Super Bowl last season in his second year as an inside-linebacker staple for the Chiefs. He endured a trip to the COVID-19 list this season but is second on the team in tackles, directs the defense and is a trusted cog for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. Hitchens is signed through 2022 and is scheduled to earn $6.5 million next season.

Ben Niemann, linebacker, Chiefs (jersey No. 56)

Iowa recruiting class, hometown: 2014, two stars, Sycamore, Ill.

Hawkeye story: Ferentz has told the story dozens of times, how he felt terrible to swipe Niemann from Northern Illinois — where Ben's defensive-coordinator father, Jay, coached — late in the recruiting process. (No hard feelings, as Jay Niemann now is an assistant at Iowa.) But Niemann wanted to play in the Big Ten, and he turned his lone Power Five offer into a three-year starting linebacker job alongside Josey Jewell from 2015 to 2017.

NFL story: Niemann emerged in his second season as a situational and special-teams contributor for the eventual world champions, and that role has continued for the top-seeded Chiefs. Niemann had five starts this season and played 49 snaps (34 on defense) in a division-round win vs. the Browns. It seems fitting that Niemann is the last of the nine former Hawkeyes listed here. He's gone from two-star recruit to undrafted free agent to, at age 24, Super Bowl champ.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.