IOWA CITY — Every summer, the University of Iowa Foundation employs a University of Iowa athlete for an internship.
Most summers, this involves an Iowa football player. Coach Kirk Ferentz has input on who gets the gig.
“Coaches recommend individuals they feel have the characteristics that would allow them to be successful,” said Matt Henderson, executive director of develop for athletics at the Foundation. “Brett Van Sloten has the ability for genuine interaction. His family is from different parts of Iowa, so he knows things about different parts of Iowa and he can connect in whatever conversation.”
Van Sloten, a senior offensive tackle from Decorah, spent the last two summers as the UI Foundation intern. This took him to I-Club meetings all over Iowa. He prepared a presentation “Day in the Life” to show donors and fans what it’s like to play football and study business management, the degree that Van Sloten is finishing this year.
“It gave me an opportunity to see the other side of the table,” said Van Sloten, who’s in his second season as Iowa’s right tackle. “You get offered a scholarship as a high schooler and you kind of take it for granted where the money comes from.”
Iowa kid talking to Iowa donors about Iowa football. The theme here is Iowa and how Van Sloten fits in all of this.
Ferentz was asked this week about, basically, sticking with how he does his thing at Iowa. Iowa (2-1) has traditionally been a power offense during Ferentz’s 15 years. That’s incredibly pronounced this year, with running back Mark Weisman leading the nation in carries going into today’s game against Western Michigan (0-3).
Weisman, seventh in the nation with 141.67 rushing yards a game, does his thing behind an offensive line that is four-fifths Iowan. There’s Van Sloten, tackle Brandon Scherff (Denison), guard Conor Boffeli (West Des Moines) and center Austin Blythe (Williamsburg).
“It really comes down to what fits where you’re at and what you believe in and trying to be as good at that as possible,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz happens to be in Iowa, a state that’s more apt to produce an offensive or defensive lineman than a zone-read magician quarterback, a bullet-train of a running back or zephyr wide receiver. This is how it’s always going to be.
In this regard, Van Sloten’s story is quintessential Iowan in Iowa football.
He was a tight end/defensive end type at Decorah High School. Iowa was his only scholarship offer and that didn’t come until after David Barrent, a four-star tackle from West Des Moines de-committed and picked Michigan State.
“With him [Van Sloten], it was more about intangibles than anything else,” Ferentz said.
Barrent, whose career ended prematurely because of a back injury, picked Michigan State on July 28, 2008. Iowa offered Van Sloten three days later.
“They told me I was going to probably play offensive line and I was OK with that,” Van Sloten said. “I understand my strengths and my weaknesses.”
The notion of intangibles, it’s kind of hard to reach, but when you hear Ferentz describe it, it says so much about where he’s “at.”
“At Iowa, you need to keep an open mind,” Ferentz said during Big Ten media days this summer. “It’s more about mentality and personality and perseverance. You have to have requisite skill and ability, but the mental part is more important because it’s a hard race to run. It’s not for everybody.”
It’s not easy, as an Iowan, to jump into the race for a spot on Iowa’s offensive line. Van Sloten, whose dad, Doug, played football at Iowa State, was 6-7, 255 pounds when he signed with the Hawkeyes. The “build” part of this deal is not for everyone.
“You do your best to rise up to the challenge and give it your all,” Van Sloten said. “Yes, there’s a lot expected at offensive line, but there’s a lot expected out of every position. You try to do your best to keep the tradition going.”
Van Sloten didn’t see the field for three seasons. Then, during the 2011 Insight Bowl, right tackle Markus Zusevics was knocked out with stomach flu. Van Sloten has started every game since.
Go down the checklist: Van Sloten is from Iowa and has family all over the state. He was a lightly recruited kind-of offensive linemen who needed some time to develop. The Van Slotens aren’t farmers, but Brett’s parents work in agriculture. Doug is general manager at farmer’s coop. His mom, Kendra, is a district sales manager for Pioneer
Brett is taking advantage of the academic opportunities.
“He’s got wonderful people skills, great listener,” Henderson said. “He can hold a conversation with a 6-year-old or a 70-year-old. He has a wonderful personality that will suit him for whatever the future holds.”
After watching Van Sloten do homework during the drive to Chicago for Big Ten media days, Ferentz said, “I’ve told people in the private sector that I don’t know when his [football] career will be over, but I would hire him in a heartbeat.
“If he can’t outsmart you, he will figure out a way to win somehow, someway.”
So, is Van Sloten the quintessential Iowa player? Iowan, offensive lineman, earnest?
“Whether or not I fit the mold, you’d have to ask someone like coach Ferentz,” Van Sloten said. “The ultimate goal is to be one of those guys who fits that mold. Obviously, growing up in Iowa, you understand Iowa football and everything it means to this state. You’re looking to live up to those expectations, but at the same time, you’re looking to have a lot of fun with it, too.”
During this conversation, Ferentz references former Iowa offensive linemen Joel Hilgenberg (Iowa City), Mark Sindlinger (Charles City) and Mike Elgin (Epworth).
Iowa is where Ferentz is at, and so that’s what Iowa is.
“Something about them conveys to you that they will find a way to be successful,” Ferentz said. “They did it in the classroom at a really high rate. On the field, they weren’t the most gifted for athletic of guys, but, boy, they were determined, smart, physical and tough.
“Those guys have a chance . . . they find a way to rise to the top.”