TAMPA, Fla. — The Iowa Hawkeyes listened to the nice animal expert lady explain to them the proper way to throw a fist-sized meatball to a tiger.
They had to really chuck it, she said. They would have to wear a plastic glove. The tigers at Busch Gardens eat eight or nine pounds of raw meat a day.
The Iowa players listened to this Friday at Busch Gardens, as players enjoyed a day off from their Outback Bowl practices and toured the park. But then, the Hawkeyes declined to feed the tiger, while LSU players happily tossed chunks of meat to two tigers who caught every one of them.
Perhaps, someone saw the headline “Hawkeyes feed the tiger” and decided Iowa players should pass. Makes sense, with LSU’s nickname being the tigers and all.
There was plenty of other stuff to do.
Iowa and LSU players had the roller coasters and other animal exhibits. Does this feel incongruent with college football and the reason for being here? There’s more to life than football.
The look on a nervous B.J. Lowery’s face as he entered a small room to feed a pair of orangutans was worth the price of admission.
“When will I see another orangutan?” he said with a laugh. “Probably never. Maybe back home [Cincinnati], I’ll take my nieces and nephews to the zoo.”
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens is from Lorain, Ohio, not too far from Sandusky, the home of Cedar Point, which bills itself as “the Roller Coaster Capital.”
Busch Gardens didn’t topple Cedar Point, according to Hitchens.
“This is roller coasters and a zoo, very different place,” Hitchens said. “I’m not really into wild animals. I don’t know much about them, but I really do like roller coasters. These are tame compared to Cedar Point. They have some of the biggest and fastest.”
We’ll probably do this a few times during the week, so to put Friday in terms of a regular Iowa game week it was “Monday.” That was Iowa players’ day off during the season. Keeping in mind that Iowa practiced on Christmas, Friday’s “Monday” was considered a nice mental vacation.
Linebacker James Morris spent the extra $40 for the “fast pass.” He was itching to use it after going through some of the staged events, including learning how to throw meatballs to tigers.
“It’s pretty much work the rest of the way out,” Morris said about the rest of the week.
So, the fun’s over?
“I hope the fun’s not over,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why you can’t work and have fun at the same time. When we’re on the field, when we’re meeting, it’s time to work. When we’re at Busch Gardens, it’s time to have fun, obviously in a reasonable way.”
Iowa players had a late curfew Friday night. The football part of the week begins Saturday, which, following along, is Iowa’s “Tuesday.”
Another benefit of a trip to an amusement park for a football team is a chance to spend time together that isn’t in shoulder pads. The cliques are fascinating. Freshman wide receivers Andre Harris and Derrick Mitchell hung with senior wide receiver Don Shumpert. All three are from St. Louis. Quarterback Jake Rudock and running back Mark Weisman spent all their money together.
“It’s an opportunity for us to take a step back from the football and bond together,” said offensive lineman Brett Van Sloten, who graduated with a management degree in December, so he probably knows a little something about group dynamics. “You’ve seen it all day. There are a lot of guys out here and it’s a great way to build camaraderie.”
The Iowa players hung out with the Iowa players. The LSU players, who stood out in their purple sweatsuits, hung out with the LSU players.
Event organizers were very careful not to ask the teams to get too close to each other. During the shared events, there was a definite line of demarcation. At the tiger exhibit, LSU players took several pictures in front of a closely cropped giant shrub that was shaped into a tiger.
The Iowa players stayed in the corner and learned how to throw meatballs to tigers. They listened, anyway.