IOWA CITY — The thing that brought the Iowa football program its greatest acclaim this season wasn’t its upset of Ohio State or its procurement of a berth in Wednesday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
It was "The Wave."
At the end of the first quarter of every home game, everyone in Kinnick Stadium — including fans, players and even officials — stops what they are doing and waves at the kids watching the game from the 11th floor of the university’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital across the street.
It’s a simple gesture, initiated by fans through social media avenues, and it has warmed hearts, earned praise and won awards from coast to coast.
But the relationship between the Hawkeyes and those suffering kids extends far beyond The Wave.
Just ask Devin Martz, a Muscatine 10-year-old who is battling a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma.
Or ask the family of Parker Hopkins, also of Muscatine. He wasn’t even 2 years old when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Or ask 15-year-old Parker Kress, of Bettendorf, who has fought an ongoing battle with Ewing’s sarcoma that has resulted in the amputation of his right leg.
All of them have formed personal relationships with Iowa football players that have brightened their lives and imbued them with hope.
When you see the Iowa players looking up at the 11th floor and waving, there are genuine emotions lurking beneath the surface.
"I think it’s really cool," senior fullback Drake Kulick said of The Wave. "It’s something that is really important to the kids, I think. That’s one of the most important things about it is the kids get a ton of enjoyment out of it, and it makes them feel a part of what we’re doing on the field.
"Because we’re down there playing a game, sometimes we take it for granted that we have things really, really good. And taking a moment to ground ourselves and get down to reality that there are people going through a lot of tough things and just how great we have it ... if we can do anything to help those kids out and make what they’re going through easier, then I think it’s really important."
Kulick, who also is from Muscatine, said a week seldom passes without some Iowa players, often bunches of them, making a trip over to the children’s hospital for a visit.
He is one of several Hawkeyes who have developed a lasting bond with some of the kids. He has visited Parker Kress several times. When Devin Martz underwent a major surgery on his right leg in September, Kulick showed up unannounced and gave him the gloves he wears in games.
All-American linebacker Josey Jewell and wide receiver Matt Vandeberg were part of a group of players who delivered Christmas presents to kids in the hospital about a year ago. That’s when they first got to know Parker Hopkins.
Both of them now wear green bracelets that say "Parker's Army" along with the phrase "No one fights alone."
Kulick wears a bracelet for Parker Kress on his left wrist. Many of the players wear similar symbols to show their devotion to kids they've adopted.
Jewell hasn’t taken off his Parker's Army bracelet since he first put it on a year ago.
"It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it," said Kiefer Hopkins, Parker's father, in a recent story about Jewell on nfl.com. "It means he's still thinking about Parker. The fact that he's still thinking about Parker means the world to us."
Jewell said every visit to the hospital makes him want to go back.
"It’s cool to go over there, meet some kids and hopefully see a smile on their face," he said. "You see what they’re going through, what their parents are going through, the whole family. It’s sometimes not the best. You look at that and you know how grateful you are, and you want to give back."
Kulick admitted that visiting kids in the hospital isn’t always a pleasant experience.
He said there’s a sort of somber guilt that comes with the realization that he is able to do things they’ll never be able to experience.
"When you’re walking in there, you just feel a little sad, and you wish there was something you could do to help these kids out," he said. "But in reality, all we are really able to do is what we’re doing. And it does help them out. It makes them happy and brings joy to their lives at a difficult time."
This is a two-way street, though. The ailing kids aren’t the only ones who get something from the experience.
"It’s just awesome to see them light up when we walk in and then to just be able to put everything in perspective," sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson said. "They’re going through a lot of tough stuff. … I think we get a lot out of it just seeing what they’re going through, and the courage and toughness that they fight with is pretty remarkable."
These sort of things are strongly encouraged in the Iowa program and have been ever since Kirk Ferentz became the head coach.
Incoming freshman football players generally have some sort of community service requirement to fulfill. With Ferentz’s strong connections to the children’s hospital — he and his wife Mary recently gave $1 million to the facility for neonatal research — many of the players just naturally gravitate toward hospital visits.
"We’re lucky," Jewell said, "and we have to think about that and give back to people who aren’t so lucky."
Of course, they’re not the only ones doing things for these children.
Parker Kress has had sports memorabilia sent to him by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his favorite soccer team, the Arsenal Football Club. Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo sent a letter and a $2,500 donation to Parker Hopkins.
But there’s nothing quite like meeting your heroes face to face, getting to sit down and talk to them, possibly playing a game with them.
It adds a little meaning when they wave at you from a distance in the middle of a game.
"With the wave, to do something that seems insignificant to us is pretty special to all of them," sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley said. "It really, I think, brightens their day and helps them take their mind off what they’re going through."
It’s a tradition that just began this season but figures to be a fixture at Kinnick for as long as games are played there.
"Obviously, it’s a great thing," Nelson said. "We love to see those kids watching the game and to be able to be an inspiration for kids that are a lot tougher than we are, going through a lot more than we are."