ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — University of Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde had a memorable journey to the East-West Shrine Game, set for Saturday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
“I left Iowa in a blizzard,” Hyde said. “We got to Ohio — another blizzard. Then we get down here and it’s absolutely perfect.”
Temperatures have been in the low 80s. Players are staying in a beachfront resort along the Gulf of Mexico. It would be easy to kick back and relax.
But for three Hawkeyes on the West team — Hyde, center James Ferentz and wide receiver Keenan Davis, along with Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein — there’s no time to rest.
All week during workouts, the fields have been lined with NFL scouts and general managers, chatting and pointing, scribbling notes, nodding with recognition after the occasional spectacular effort.
“This is no vacation,” Ferentz said. “This is a job interview.”
It’s the 88th annual East-West Shrine Game, the longest-running all-star event for college football. The week is built on charitable intentions — players visited the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa on Sunday — but it culminates with a game that could serve as a career springboard.
Last season, 37 players from the East-West Shrine Game were drafted by NFL teams, including Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, taken in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers, and little-known Florida Atlantic running back Alfred Morris, who parlayed his sixth-round selection by the Washington Redskins into a Pro Bowl rookie season.
“You get to see top-notch players against top-notch players,” said Mike Martin, Southeast scout for the Houston Texans. “You see how they pick things up, their competitiveness, how they respond after a bad play. It’s more of a narrow focus.”
What can the Iowa players show?
“I spent the past three years playing center at Iowa, but now my biggest goal is to let people know I can also play guard,” Ferentz said. “I’m trying to learn how to be a long-snapper. And special teams are huge.”
“This is the chance to make an impression in football,” Davis said. “It’s kind of a new beginning.”
A new beginning might be a welcome change for these Hawkeyes, who didn’t come close to meeting their expectations in 2012. Iowa’s 4-8 season, included six games decided by three points or less.
“The way we ended was pretty unfortunate,” Ferentz said. “It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong. Unfortunately, the 18 seniors who graduated this year had to deal with this bitter taste. I was part of some great teams and have memories I’ll always cherish, but of course I expected to go out a little better.”
“Any time you’re a senior leader and you don’t perform like you think you could, it’s a huge letdown,” said Hyde, a first-team All-Big Ten selection. “I hope it makes the young guys that much more hungry. Iowa should have great seasons and go to bowl games. What happened, that wasn’t the type of program we have. I’m expecting bigger and better things right away.”
Davis, a Cedar Rapids native who finished with 112 career receptions, said the 2012 Hawkeyes were “one of the best practice teams I’ve ever been around,” but the work ethic failed to translate into games, where little details were the downfall.
Six weeks of reflection have softened the blow.
Now Davis is looking ahead, hoping his football career is not finished.
This week, saying he’s blessed with an opportunity that the East-West Shrine Game provides, he’s trying hard not to feel guilty.
“Back in Iowa, the weather is terrible,” Davis said, smiling. “I feel bad for my family and friends. I’m wearing short sleeves. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve worn short sleeves?
“We’re all fortunate to be here. It’s fun. But we’re mostly here for another purpose. We’re here to work and hopefully get our names known.”