His college football career ended on Saturday afternoon in a meaningless game between bad teams playing indoors on plastic grass. In other stadiums, on other fields, conference championships and bowl berths were furiously decided, while Iowa and Minnesota played for a year's possession of a 15-inch-high bronze pig named Floyd of Rosedale. It was Iowa senior defensive tackle Jared DeVries's 47th consecutive start, and he was the best player on the field. That was one small consolation to drag from a miserable autumn. He knows how Ernie Banks felt for all those years, skillfully playing two and often losing both.
It would be comforting to report that every skilled college player who puts off his entry into the NFL to play his senior season is rewarded with huge victories, sweet memories and a higher draft position, but that isn't always the case. DeVries, who will graduate in December with a degree in communications and a 2.7 GPA, has again been a very good player. He is a finalist for the Outland Trophy, a candidate to repeat as the Big Ten's Defensive Lineman of the Year and a contender for various first-team All-America honors. He will be drafted. The season has not been a failure.
Yet so much more was expected. Last January the 6'4", 284-pound DeVries decided to return to Iowa despite assurances that he would have been picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. The Hawk-eyes lost loads of offense to the NFL from last year's 7-5 team, but six starters returned on defense, and DeVries felt a synergy that he had seen elsewhere. "I thought our season this year could have been a lot like Michigan's was last year, with that great defense helping the offense," DeVries says. "That hasn't exactly happened."
Not even close. Iowa finished 3-8, the worst record in coach Hay-den Fry's 20 seasons. It has been a season of embarrassing lows, including Iowa's first loss in 16 years to in-state rival Iowa State and a 31-0 loss at home to Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes' first shutout loss on their home field in five years and just the second under Fry, who drawls in summary, "Hasn't been enjoyable for any of us."
Least of all for DeVries. He faced a succession of double teams and gimmicky blocking schemes as opponents tried to stifle his lethal pass rush, which brought him 33 sacks in his first three seasons. "We didn't ever want to single up on him, because his burst off the line of scrimmage is deadly," says Illinois offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, whose blockers held DeVries to six tackles in a 37-14 victory in September. Moreover, Iowa's secondary played so badly that the Hawkeyes frequently used soft zone coverages, which made it easy for a quarterback to drop and throw on rhythm and almost impossible for pass rushers to pressure him.
As a result, DeVries had to work harder than at any other point in his career to accumulate good numbers—nine sacks and 18 tackles for losses—reducing each game to a series of small, moral victories.
There is a heroic quality to DeVries's play this season that affected—and shamed—his teammates. Late in the loss to the Badgers, Hawkeyes junior quarterback Randy Reiners headed to the sideline after a three-and-out and averted his gaze as the defense took the field. "I couldn't even look Jared in the eye, I was so ashamed of the way we played on offense," says Reiners. "The guy is the epitome of what a team player is supposed to be. He came back for us this year, and we've let him down, every week, while he's out there playing his brains out."
Not only his brains, but also his body. In the second week of the season DeVries tore the plantar fascia in the arch of his right foot. It was a painful injury that made pushing off with any force almost impossible, and it will heal only with extensive rest. DeVries got through the season by taking painkillers (either Toradol or Vicodan, Brett Favre's old favorite) before Tuesday's and Wednesday's full-contact practices and before all games. "He couldn't even run with us after practice," Fry said. "That kid was in big-time pain every day."
It's true, though DeVries recoils at the notion that his injury should have kept him from playing. "Unless my leg is broken, I'm going to be on the field," he says. "I've never had a coach worried about whether I was going to show up for a practice or a game, and I wasn't about to start this year."
If this martyrdom in the name of football loyalty sounds as if it were taken from the script of Pleasantville, well, in a sense, it was. DeVries's ethics are those of an old-fashioned Iowa farm boy. On a cold, blustery afternoon in early November, DeVries pilots a '98 Chevy Tahoe, which he and his fianc�e, Jamie Gruenberg, are paying for. He is on the last leg of the two-hour trip north from Iowa City to his hometown of Aplington. It is a village of 1,034 residents and consists of a tiny downtown and thousands of acres of surrounding farms. Gruenberg, whom he will marry on Jan. 16, sits in the backseat with her four-month-old Husky pup, Dakota, while DeVries narrates.