Hours after he announced his commitment to Southern Illinois University on social media Sunday, Rusty VanWetzinga and his family were wearing Saluki shirts and watching the NFL playoffs.
Then, VanWetzinga’s phone rang. It was the University of Iowa offering the Pleasant Valley High School senior a preferred walk-on opportunity as a fullback.
“I come back downstairs and tell them Iowa just gave me a PWO,” VanWetzinga recalled. “The look on everyone’s faces, they knew what was probably going to happen.”
For the past couple of days, VanWetzinga struggled with the decision. He admitted there were mixed emotions and restless nights of sleep.
“Do I chase what my brain wants and a full scholarship at Southern or do I chase what my heart wants and fulfill a dream to play at Iowa?” VanWetzinga said. “I chose my heart. If I didn’t, I would be living with regret.”
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VanWetzinga, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound all-state linebacker the past three seasons, will join the Hawkeyes this fall. He is believed to be PV’s first walk-on to the Iowa football program since Brett Greenwood in 2006.
Iowa had recruited VanWetzinga as a linebacker during his junior season. After VanWetzinga gave a verbal commitment to Division II powerhouse Northwest Missouri State last year, the talks with Iowa subsided.
VanWetzinga, though, saw recruiting interest intensify in recent months. Army and Navy extended offers to play fullback while Southern Illinois recruited him as a linebacker.
“Once I got those offers from Army and Navy, Iowa asked me if I would be interested in playing fullback,” VanWetzinga said.
While defense is where VanWetzinga received most of his high school accolades, he did play a considerable amount of snaps as the fullback in PV’s veer option offense. He carried the ball 45 times for 262 yards and eight touchdowns last fall for a 9-1 squad.
"The fullback in the triple option is a little different than Iowa," VanWetzinga said, "but at the same time I love being on the field and playing at Kinnick would be a dream at any position.”
VanWetzinga, the Iowa Quad Cities All-Metro football player of the year, said his first Hawkeye game came as a sixth-grader with his dad, a longtime PV supporter and several of the other varsity football coaches.
“It was a snow game against Purdue and the stadium was freaking rocking,” he said. “I asked a couple other PWOs, ‘What made you choose Iowa?’ They talked about running out on Kinnick for a night game and it gave them chills. They’re right. There is no other place like it you can get that experience.”
The next step for VanWetzinga will be trying to carve out a role on the field with the Hawkeyes, who have had numerous walk-ons turn into starters and even All-Big Ten performers like Greenwood.
“I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone,” he said. “I have to show up with that mentality I’m coming here to play, not coming here to just be part of it. I’m here to make a legacy of my own.”
As for his Northwest Missouri State and Southern Illinois gear he has added to his wardrobe in the last year, VanWetzinga doesn’t plan throwing it away.
“I won’t be seen wearing it in public,” he said, “but maybe I’ll use it as my pajamas.”