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Leistikow: How Kaevon Merriweather became an impactful leader at an important time for Iowa football

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IOWA CITY — When Kaevon Merriweather thinks back to standing over an electric griddle as a sixth-grader, he can’t help but smile. With Merriweather, there’s almost always a smile.

Merriweather’s breakfast-cooking expertise at that age was limited, but he could handle a spatula and was eager to learn from his mother, who had taught him the basics. He would make eggs (breaking the yolk and flipping it over once), sausages and pancakes. The pancakes were his favorite.

“They weren’t always perfectly shaped. The griddle had a little bit of a slant,” he recalls, laughing. “So, sometimes they were a little oval-shaped. But the pancakes, that was definitely the go-to (breakfast) in sixth grade. Probably the only thing I could make. I didn’t want to turn on the oven. I was scared of the oven.”

LaTanya Franklin was cool with her oldest son’s healthy fear. She didn’t want him near the knobs of the gas stove, either. That’s why she acquired the griddle.

“I figured if he left the griddle on,” she recalls, “he wouldn’t burn my house down.”

Kaevon, in sixth grade, was put in charge of getting himself and younger brother Dion, who was then in kindergarten, dressed, fed, out the door on time and onto the school bus. Mom’s work shift started at 6 a.m., so she was long gone when the boys woke up on school days. As the head of a single-parent home who needed to provide for her family, she had no other choice but to teach Kaevon to handle significant responsibility at a young age.

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The counter-top griddle became representative of her trust in Kaevon’s uncommon maturity.

“He was the man of the house,” Franklin says. “He set the example, and little brother is following his lead.”

Franklin saw that Kaevon had a special quality about him. At age 6, while other boys wanted video-game consoles, he asked for a laptop computer because he wanted to be smart.

“He’s always been different from other kids. He’s always been mature,” Franklin says. “I used to always tell him, ‘You have to watch what you do. Kids look up to you.’

“That’s something I’ve always instilled in him: ‘You’re not going to be a follower. You’re going to be a leader.’”

Flash forward 11 years from those oblong-pancake mornings, and Mom’s words were on point. Kaevon Merriweather’s impact on the Iowa football program has been immeasurable. Not only has he become one of the star players on one of the nation’s most suffocating defenses (Iowa ranks No. 1 nationally with 5.8 points per game allowed), it was his leadership that helped galvanize Hawkeye players through the racial-disparities outcry in the summer of 2020. For the fifth straight Saturday, he’ll be one of the Hawkeyes’ four gameday captains when Iowa (3-1) hosts No. 4-ranked Michigan (4-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

“He's been one of our leaders and (is) respected by everybody,” longtime Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz says. “Not just the defensive guys, but everybody on our football team.”

‘My mom, she means the world to me’

That’s a direct quote from Kaevon Merriweather on Tuesday. And that's not just talk. He shows his love. On a random day last January, he sent his mother 50 roses. No birthday, no anniversary. Just because. He’s also been known to buy his mom expensive perfume because he knows she wouldn’t spend on herself.

Merriweather’s gratitude stems from the sacrifices he saw his mother make in their Belleville, Michigan, home. She would work 12 hours a day and still manage to instill good habits in her sons and get them to their athletic activities.

“She’d be tired, sleepy. Probably didn’t want to do it. But she did it anyway,” Kaevon says. “Even if there was no way, she found a way, just so me and my little brother had what we needed.”

More important, she provided a mix of nurturer and disciplinarian.

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Kaevon was a good-hearted child and became a role model for his younger brother − opening doors for others, speaking with love, and saying “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” − but he would sometimes challenge his mother about why she was still tough on him.

He would ask: “Mom, I’m a good kid. Why are you lecturing me like this?”

“And I would tell him, ‘Every bad kid was once a good kid,’” she says. “If I continue to stay on you, if you’re facing something, I’ll be like the little birdie sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear.”

That motherly influence helped him get through several waves of adversity during his early years in the Iowa football program. In 2019, his true sophomore year, Merriweather earned the starting free-safety job – a major accomplishment and testament to his talent level and coachability after arriving at Iowa with more experience in basketball than football – and recorded five tackles playing alongside strong safety Geno Stone in Iowa’s 38-14 win against Miami of Ohio. The following week, the day before Iowa opened Big Ten play against Rutgers, Merriweather suffered a significant foot injury. Jack Koerner went from stop-gap starter at free safety to three-year starter. Merriweather was not only injured, but he had also lost his starting position. A double whammy of bad news. He would only play one more game during that 10-3 season. While he was able to use that as a redshirt year, he was being shuffled back on the depth chart and even a true freshman (Dane Belton) had moved past him.

“Only he can tell you what he went through mentally,” Franklin says. “I just know that he went through something and I was here for him.”

But in the summer of 2020, Merriweather found that he didn’t have to be an every-down star player to become an impact on the Hawkeye football team. He would lead with his voice.

The necessary leader at a troubling time

Merriweather has always been a researcher. If he wants to know something, he looks it up on his laptop and becomes an expert on the topic. That’s how he knew Iowa City would be the best place for him. He had fully researched Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who is known for turning two- and three-star recruits into NFL defensive backs. Another Detroit product, Desmond King, was a great example of that. Kaevon told his mother, “I need to play for Coach Parker.”

So, when George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer (who knelt on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes) in May of 2020, Merriweather was moved into action. He was well-versed on the topic of racial injustice, which had reached a national flashpoint. After attending one Coralville protest with one Iowa football teammate, he was bothered by the lack of attendance among Hawkeye players. He spoke up and encouraged them to stand together; that if they united in this way off the field, they would be better on it.

The next protest, Black and white players (and coaches) were by Merriweather’s side. His mother always taught him to speak out of love and not out of anger – “anger is what people don’t hear,” she would say. That inclusive tone and the respect Merriweather developed was crucial the next month when dozens of Black former Iowa football players shared stories of disparaging treatment over a span of 12 years, which resulted in the removal of longtime Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. While the outside world saw the Iowa football program falling apart, Merriweather’s voice resonated with players and coaches alike and helped keep them together through the storm.

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Merriweather is reluctant to take too much credit but explains his thinking during that tumultuous time and how that turned the 2020 Hawkeyes into a dominant team by the end of that shortened season. They won their final six games and finished as a top-15 team despite COVID-19 issues wiping out their final two contests.

“Just bringing guys together, even with all our differences, and guys not being from the same area … for a common cause,” Merriweather says. “Especially with everything that happened with our program. People don’t really know what happened in the building. But I think that 2020 team, that was probably one of the most close-knit teams I’ve been on since I’ve been here. With everything that happened, I think everybody was willing to come together for a common cause. I wouldn’t say it was just me; everybody wanted to be there.”

On June 8, 2020, Merriweather sent a strongly worded tweet that challenged Iowa fans to support the team as discussions swirled about some players wanting the choice to take a knee during national anthems as a protest of police brutality against people of color. Merriweather wrote, “I would rather play for 1,000 fans who care about us as people outside of football and what we are standing for than 70,000 fans who only care about us when we are in uniform.”

While there were some negative responses on social media (such as telling him to keep quiet or give up his scholarship), Franklin was warmed by the large number of Hawkeye fans who supported her son and his teammates.

“I actually got teary-eyed that these guys are defending my baby, I don’t have to say a word,” she says. “It touched my heart that he had so much support.”

In his final year, everything is coming together

Merriweather told his mom that she shouldn’t use the time and expense to travel to this past weekend’s game at Rutgers. Just come to the Michigan game, he told her. Luckily, Franklin didn’t listen. Otherwise, she would have missed her son’s signature performance in 37 collegiate games to date. Merriweather not only scooped up a second-quarter fumble and returned it for a 30-yard touchdown to key Iowa’s 27-10 win, he also had a 33-yard interception return. After his first career touchdown, he morphed into a “Blade Dance” celebration, something Detroit-area football players in the NFL have done for years (including ex-Hawkeye Chauncey Golston after a touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys last season).

“I was jumping around and high-fiving everybody. My phone was blowing up,” Franklin says. “The smile would not leave my face. I was happy as his mom, but I was happy for him.”

On Monday, he was named co-Big Ten defensive player of the week, his first such honor from the conference.

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And now comes a game that Merriweather has pointed to for the last 10 months. And perhaps for much longer. Michigan embarrassed Iowa, 42-3, in last December’s Big Ten Championship Game. It was the second-largest margin of defeat for Ferentz in his 24 years as Iowa’s head coach. It left a mark. Beyond that, Merriweather has a lot of family members who are Michigan fans − and still will be Michigan fans on Saturday (at least according to him) despite his playing for the Hawkeyes.

Merriweather is prepared for this moment. Before the game even begins, his importance to this Hawkeye team will be on display at midfield for the pregame coin toss. He will join teammates and fellow captains Jack Campbell, Sam LaPorta and Riley Moss. Gameday captains are voted on by teammates, not coaches.

“From where I started at as a freshman to what happened in 2020 to what’s happening right now, it means a lot to have the respect of my coaches and my teammates,” Merriweather says. “… Being someone that my younger teammates look up to like I was able to look up to older guys, that’s definitely special.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.