Thirteen miles north of Pocahontas, 11 miles south of Emmetsburg and a million miles from the moral minefield of big-time football, a wooden duck the size of a potbellied stove sits perched upon a sign on Highway 4 in Mallard, Iowa. The sign reads: WELCOME TO MALLARD, WE'RE FRIENDLY DUCKS. Mallard (pop. 360) had been the home of Mark Kacmarynski and his eight brothers and sisters until four years ago when their mother, Anna Mae, sold the family farm and moved to Emmetsburg, thereby reducing the population of Ducktown, U.S.A., by almost 3%.
Only Mark, the youngest, now lives with his mother in the white house with green trim in Emmetsburg, which boasts both of the traffic lights in Palo Alto County. Baseball caps in the local Pizza Hut are worn with the bills facing front, and only the women have earrings. The farmers and townsfolk of northwest Iowa are friendly ducks, indeed. When he was in high school, Kacmarynski (pronounced KAC-muh-RIN-ski) routinely left the keys in the ignition of his truck. Mark cuts the grass with a hand mower, a job that should take a half hour but invariably lasts 45 minutes because he stops to return the waves of everyone who drives by.
"I'm just a boring guy," Kacmarynski says, "living in a boring state, Iowa."
Kacmarynski also is the best Division III running back in the nation, playing on one of the best teams, Central College of Pella, Iowa. He is bigger (6'1", 220 pounds), faster (4.6 in the 40), shiftier and stronger than most of the sociology students and applied science majors who struggle to haul him down. Kacmarynski has rushed for 3,854 yards and scored 41 touchdowns in three seasons. He has gained at least 100 yards in 12 straight games and more than 200 in four of his last six. A KAC FOR HEISMAN banner turns up at many Central home games, which of course is a waste of a good bedsheet. The rewards are different in Division III, even if the values are supposed to be the same. "The thing about Mark is he knows how to work," Central coach Ron Schipper says. "He comes from a wonderful family. Knowing how to work and respecting those who do work makes him successful."
If you farm, you work. "No one likes work that much." Kacmarynski says. "You wouldn't call it work if it were fun." But years of feeding cattle, baling hay, sorting hogs for market and weeding soybeans by hand has infused Kacmarynski with an acute sense of responsibility. He has never skipped out on anything, whether it is a practice, a weightlifting session or Sunday morning Mass.
In high school during harvest season Kacmarynski would be working in the fields until midnight on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but Fridays belonged to football. The wind dies at dusk in autumn, and a haze of grain dust settles over the Friday night lights of rural Iowa. You could smell football in Mallard. The high school field was bounded by fields of corn, oats, soybeans—depending on that year's crop rotation—as if Ray Kinsella had swapped his baseball mitt for the I formation. The whole town would come out to watch its Ducks, and as Kacmarynski broke tackles and the team marched down the field, fans on the sidelines would follow the ball in lockstep until they ringed the end zone. There were 11 in Kacmarynski's class (he not only knew their names, he knew their birthdays) and only 22 players on the team, but the Ducks reached the state's Class A semifinal for small schools his junior year. The following fall Mallard merged with West Bend High, and one of the great school cheers was forever lost:
Black and Gold,
Gold and Black,
Go quack, quack, quack.
Kacmarynski attracted some recruiters, including one from South Dakota. He had a visit planned for Northern Iowa, a Division I-AA program, but he also had to take an examination at Central that weekend if he wanted to qualify for an academic scholarship. Kacmarynski chose to take the test. By the time he could reschedule a visit, Northern Iowa had used all of its scholarship slots, so Kacmarynski went to Central, where his brothers Rich and Phil had played.
"I thought about maybe going to a Division I school and walking on," Mark says, "but I heard how they don't care about you as a walk-on. I wanted to go to a place where I'd be respected. And to be honest, I wanted to play where they win."
Central College wins. The Flying Dutchmen have had 34 straight winning seasons, the most in the nation—and one more than Nebraska. Schipper's 270 victories ranks him sixth all-time, one spot ahead of somebody named Joe Paterno. Among the big names who have played for Schipper are Vern Den Herder (class of 71), a standout defensive end for the Miami Dolphins for 12 seasons, and Harry Smith (class of 73), who now takes early-morning handoffs on CBS from Paula Zahn. But the raw quantity of the Central program is more staggering than the quality: Of the 550 males at the school, more than 130 will play for the Dutch this season.