Amari Spievey’s tattoos sport parallel meanings that meet perpendicularly at his heart.
Spievey’s tattoo on his right arm reads “A Champion Gets Up Even When He Can’t.”
That references his fight through a high-ankle sprain in the Connecticut high school playoffs. The tattoo on his left arm features a cross with a bead wrapped around it, representing his Christian faith.
The tattoos were stitched without Iowa football in mind. But those tattoos reveal a deeper meaning after a life-changing event in the summer of 2007. Spievey, a 21-year-old junior cornerback, was booted from the Iowa football team after his freshman year for bad grades. Spievey chalked it up to immaturity and ignoring his campus support system.
He transferred to Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge and hoped for a return to Iowa City.
“I had a meeting with Coach (Kirk) Ferentz before I left, and he told me that if I do good on the field and off the field, like in the classroom and in the football arena, he said I might have a chance to come back,” Spievey said. “By him saying ‘I might,’ I wanted to leave no doubt in his mind. If he would have told me I would have come back, I probably would have slacked off a little bit because, ‘Yeah, he’s going to take me back no matter what.’ I really appreciate him saying I might come back. I might have a chance.”
Ferentz used those words intentionally. He and his assistant coaches wanted Spievey to return, but they wanted to make sure he developed a sense of urgency about his life and academics.
“I think it’s important that he understood that there’s going to be expectations, and it wasn’t a matter of going up there and stamping things and then moving on,” Ferentz said. “We wanted to make sure that he was really going to be serious about getting his education and doing the things you have to do to be a successful college athlete.”
Spievey went to Fort Dodge and thought about the opportunity he had squandered at Iowa. He felt he let everybody down, including his girlfriend, Lisa Marie Santos, who moved with him to Iowa from Connecticut.
“It was a very, very, very big wake-up call,” Spievey said. “Going from here where I’m pampered, getting all this Nike stuff and there I have to buy my own cleats, wear somebody else’s jersey. It just woke me up. It let me know that I had an unbelievable opportunity here to play Division I football for a great program and it made me that much hungrier to get back here to show Coach Ferentz what I could do.
“I felt like when I got kicked off, I was letting God down because I was wasting my talent. I could have easily gave up but I wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I did that. All this talent and I’m sitting on the couch or working. I had to come back and play.”
Spievey dominated the junior-college scene in 2007. He was All-America after posting seven interceptions with two returned for touchdowns. He scored two touchdowns on kick returns and blocked four punts. His performance coupled with academic success led him back to Iowa City and a chance to compete for playing time.
Spievey began last season behind Jordan Bernstine at cornerback. But when Bernstine went down with an injury, Spievey started making plays, both in practice and in games. Eventually, he claimed the spot as his own.
“The one thing about playing for me is you’ve got to earn your spot, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” said Iowa defensive backs coach Phil Parker. “After a while he kept making plays, and you’ve got to move him in there. It didn’t take long to knew he was going to have the chance to be the starter.”
Spievey started every game last year and was second-team all-Big Ten. He recorded four interceptions and returned one 57 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota. As an offensive player at heart, Spievey found satisfaction carrying the ball in for a touchdown.
“I dream about that every day,” he said. “If I wake up in the middle of the night, there’s a chance I’m not going to sleep because all I can think about it is making plays and running them back.”
Dreaming about football and returning picks for six are part of the daily grind for Spievey. He’s projected as a possible All-American and was named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list as the nation’s top defensive back. Spievey’s life is in championship form, and his faith leads the way. Life is much sweeter indeed.
Iowa’s defensive backfield at a glance
Starters: CB Amari Spievey, jr., 6-0, 190 (4 INTs, 127 yards, 1 TD; 68 tackles); CB Shaun Prater, so., 5-11, 175 (11 tackles, 2 pass breakups); SS Tyler Sash, so., 6-1, 210 (5 INTs, 147 yards; 53 tackles); FS Brett Greenwood, jr., 6-0, 200 (2 INTs, 43 yards; 68 tackles)
Cornerbacks in the mix: William Lowe, so., 5-10, 170 (2 tackles); Chris Rowell, sr., 6-0, 195 (3 tackles); Greg Castillo, red-shirt fr., 5-11, 180 (no statistics); Micah Hyde, fr., 6-1, 170 (no statistics)
Safeties in the mix: David Cato, so., 5-11, 205 (13 tackles, 1 forced fumble); Jack Swanson, red-shirt fr., 5-11, 195
In the know: Iowa had plenty of depth in the secondary after last January’s Outback Bowl. That has changed. Key reserve safeties Diaunte Morrow and Lance Tillison transferred. Jordan Bernstine, who was slated to start at cornerback, suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the first week of practice. Prater was suspended for the first two games after a drunken-driving arrest. That leaves Lowe, Castillo, Hyde and Rowell to battle opposite Spievey in the opener … Spievey was named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back … Sash was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a key interception against Penn State. He had two interceptions in the Outback Bowl … Cato is perhaps the hardest hitter in the secondary and backs up Sash at strong safety.
Bowling if … The cornerback position is stabilized. Spievey is one of the nation’s best and improving as he better understands his position. Until Prater returns, the other spot is in flux with little experience. Every available cornerback will get his chance against Northern Iowa and Iowa State to stake a claim opposite Spievey. If any other cornerbacks get injured, it could force a major reshuffling in the secondary.
— Scott Dochterman