IOWA CITY, Iowa – Despite the final score not being what he had hoped, Northern Illinois redshirt sophomore Jack Heflin fulfilled
a lifelong dream on Saturday afternoon.
The Prophetstown native spent his childhood rooting for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and made many a trip to Kinnick Stadium to watch them play.
And that’s where he found himself again this weekend – only this time, he was the main focus of his Hawkeye-fan family. The NIU defensive lineman made one tackle in the Huskies’ 33-7 loss to Iowa.
“Growing up a die-hard Iowa fan, just coming to games, and now to be able to be on the field at Kinnick and play a game at Kinnick … it’s a great feeling, just awesome that my family is up there watching me on this field,” Heflin said after the game, standing in the hallway outside Kinnick’s famous pink-colored visitors locker room after playing on the turf in front of 67,510 screaming fans. “My family’s excited, and it means a lot. It’s just a great experience to be on that field, able to be a part of an Iowa football game.”
The game in Iowa City has been the talk of his family all summer, and it’s been on Heflin’s mind since he first decided to play for NIU during his senior season with the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers in 2015.
“We went all summer thinking about it; when I committed, it was the first game I circled. It was a great game to be a part of,” Heflin said. “To have my family in Iowa – who still go to a lot of games and travel to Iowa bowl games – rooting for me today, it was pretty special.”
He said most of his family will trade in their red-and-black Huskie gear and go back to their traditional Iowa black-and-gold next week. His parents, however, “are all red and black now, until I’m done [playing],” he said.
Having grown up watching the Hawkeyes, Heflin wasn’t the least bit surprised with how the game went. He and the Huskies knew Iowa would use its strong offensive line to wear them down, and knew they were in for a grind for 60 minutes.
And NIU held its own – at least for the first half, holding the Hawkeyes to just 58 rushing yards.
“We felt like we were in a good spot [at halftime]. We felt like we had them guessing a lot,“ Heflin said. “All we knew was that we had to keep calm the storm, and we did that through the start of the third quarter. But then they picked it up.”
The second half saw three straight scoring drives by Iowa’s offense – while the defense forced the Huskies into four three-and-outs and a safety in their first six drives after halftime – as the Hawkeyes pulled away for the win.
“That’s what Iowa does. They keep you on the field, and play good defense,” Heflin said. “We knew that was a part of the game, and that’s what happened, and we just had to bite down and stop them, but we just couldn’t keep it up.”
Heflin’s tackle came with 9:27 left in the third quarter, as he tackled Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin after a 1-yard gain on first and goal during the Hawkeyes’ first scoring drive. Heflin fought past an offensive lineman, then took on the block from the fullback before shedding it and grabbing Kelly-Martin by the ankle and pulling him down.
“It’s great to make a nice play for the team,” Heflin said. “Everybody expects that out of you every play, but it’s hard to do.
“But it was fun, and I always want to make sure I can make a couple plays, one here and there for the team. Just trying to do what I can.”
The play was big at the time, as NIU still trailed just 3-0 and was looking to keep Iowa out of the end zone. But the Hawkeyes scored on a fourth-down touchdown pass, and never looked back.
Still, Heflin thoroughly enjoyed the experience lining up against Iowa’s big boys in the trenches, and knows it will help him and the rest of the Huskies’ D-linemen as the season wears on.
“It was fun to go against an Iowa O-line; I really loved the challenge,” Heflin said. “They’re big up front, they’re strong – they always have been – and they’re really athletic for their size. We don’t get challenged like that every week, and to play against a team that is notorious for their front five and go up against them, that’s only going to help us get better.”
Heflin will look back fondly on his chance to play at historic Kinnick Stadium, even if it did come in a loss. And after having circled Saturday’s game on the calendar for the last 3 years, he can turn the page and keep an eye on September 26, 2020 - the Huskies’ return trip to Iowa City.
“This will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Heflin said. “And I’m already looking forward to the one in 2 years, the next time we’re here. So I’m excited, I’ve got this one under my belt, and I’m looking forward to the future.”