URBANDALE, Iowa — Mike Jones is perhaps proudest of the seven bumps, miniature cleats cast barely a millimeter high with the love and precision of an ancient woodcarver.
“You can see the hair, the helmets,” Jones says, large hands tracing the delicate creases in the tiny football uniforms before settling on a pair of tiny shoes, the tiny left sole exposed by the tiny figure’s kneeling pose.
“And I remember one of them broke. They’re all kind of cracked. So we were really afraid that with this many (limbs), the arms, the legs, everything. At the end of the game, you think about it, this thing is going to get (bumped). It could break.”
Before there was a bull of brass, there were men of iron. Although technically, they’re men of wax. Wax that continues to crumble mercilessly away, flake by flake, with each passing year.
You first come upon it sitting at the edge of a long workbench, still and lifeless. Like Pinocchio in the moments before the Blue Fairy’s blessing. Which is only appropriate, really, given that Frank Strub, the man who sculpted the original Heartland Trophy, had more than a little inner Geppetto himself.
“If you look at the spikes, the hands, it’s kind of a really cool piece,” Jones says of his old friend, who passed away at the age of 83 on Sept. 15. Cancer. The voice trails off. “It didn’t matter where it was. It was his baby.”
With that, Jones smiles. And recounts the tale of how the Heartland Trophy, Geppetto’s pride and joy, became a real boy.
‘They took no prisoners’
First, there’s this: The trophy on the line Saturday at Kinnick Stadium was actually Strub’s third proper attempt at a prize to award the winner of the Iowa-Wisconsin game. Or the second, if you don’t count the emergency castration job the sculptor was ordered to perform on the original clay model of Bruiser the Bull at the order of Hawkeyes athletic director Bob Bowlsby.
“It had some balls on it at first,” chuckles Jones, Strub’s co-collaborator on the Big Ten traveling trophy and president of Russell’s Trophies & Engraving in Urbandale, Iowa, a western suburb of Des Moines.
“And then when he took it over and he showed Bowlsby, I think it was Bowlsby who said, ‘Yeah, we can’t have these balls hanging down there.’”
No problem, Strub said. I got this.
“I’ll never forget when (Frank) took that little X-Acto knife and just — SHOOP!” Jones says, swinging a flat hand like a pretend blade. “And they dropped off.
“We laughed about that more than not. It was pretty funny, man.”
The second version was emasculated. The first was killed outright. The original Heartland Trophy, presented to the Badgers and Hawkeyes since 2004, has rarely been seen outside the Strub or Jones inner circles. Version 1.0 lies in state — in a box — inside a back room at Russell’s, a small, busy trophy shop nestled along a small, busy intersection.
“He’d bring it in and kind of show us a little bit, and then he’d take it home,” says Jones, nodding to the fading wax model on the workbench. “And then he’d show us more, and then (take it back). It was like a little kid. It was awesome.”
It was a labor of love, a passion piece decades in the making. Strub grew up in Iowa City and played for the Hawkeyes — special teams, mostly — in the early 1950s before the Army drafted him in August 1953. A renaissance man, Strub once authored and illustrated a set of textbooks. He taught rotary and fixed wing aircraft maintenance. He spent decades in the insurance industry, developing an HIV policy for the American Medical Association to financially protect doctors who had become exposed to the virus. He got married, settled in Des Moines and raised three kids.
Through it all, Strub never stopped loving Iowa football, nor his love of painting and sculpture. His wife Patty soldiered through game after game, project after project, mess after mess.
“He worked on it for quite a while on our kitchen table,” she says. “I told him he could work on it in the kitchen if he got me a new table when it was done. Because I knew the table would be wrecked.”
She laughs. Softly.
“So I did get a new table.”
In all, Jones figures the trophy cost at least $8,000 to fully realize, not counting another $4,000 to $5,000 Strub had put in out of his own pockets in order to get the project off the ground. He was an alum second and a fan first — a fan who didn’t understand why the Hawkeyes-Badgers series, a rivalry dating to 1894 that has seen 44 Wisconsin wins, 43 lowa wins and two ties, wasn’t played for tangible stakes.
“They fought so hard,” Patty says. “They took no prisoners. They were just a longtime enemy, and I think that’s what did it. Rather than Minnesota, Wisconsin was more of an enemy.”
“There was so much closeness between the two teams that he felt that there should be something that had to travel back and forth,” Jones says. “I think he recognized it and saw there was a need and that’s the way he kind of worked. He recognized a need and then tried to fix it for people.”
‘He was quite the thinker’
Frank and Jones — also an Iowa alum — jumped onto this fix as a tandem back in 2002. Strub would design and cast the sculpture; Jones was in charge of the walnut base beneath it.
“I remember, he would bring in this whole thing, I remember him bringing it in and it was like a meatloaf,” Jones recalls. “It was just a brick of stuff.”
Over a matter of months, the brick took on form and shape. Strub’s initial take on the Heartland Trophy wasn’t even called the Heartland Trophy — its working title was the “Ironman.” It was a tribute to the 1939 Iowa “Ironmen” who played for Dr. Eddie Anderson and were led by Nile Kinnick, the Hawkeyes’ lone Heisman Trophy winner.
The showcase art element was a pack of nine little football players, like the top of a gridiron-themed birthday cake; eight with helmets, one without.
Strub crafted a wax version, then sent mock-ups to the powers that be in Iowa City and Madison. Given that the “Ironmen” term had nothing to do with Badgers history whatsoever — Wisconsin went 1-6-1 in 1939 — officials in Madison put a quick kibosh on Strub’s original idea.
They made a counterproposal. What about a plow?
Strub bristled and went back to the drawing board, literally, sketching out ideas before settling on Bruiser the Bull.
Then-new Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez gave a thumbs-up. Bowlsby did, too, once the testicles were lopped out of the equation.
Bruiser was unveiled to both fan bases during a pregame ceremony at the Iowa-Wisconsin game on Nov. 20, 2004, in Iowa City; Strub’s beloved Hawkeyes won the first Battle for The Heartland Trophy, 30-7.
“He couldn’t sleep the Thursday before that game,” Jones says. “He had that thing in his trunk two weeks before. That’s all he could do, was polish it and polish it.
“I remember going down there (to Kinnick). We went down and spent the night and he said, ‘I’ve been up all night.’ It was just one of those things that he was really proud of. And he should’ve been.”
The two rivals have met 10 times since the unveiling, with each side winning five. The Strubs continued to attend Iowa home games until they moved to Washington state in 2011.
“(Frank) loved it. He loved it,” Patty says. “We cried when it left. He said, ‘Our baby was gone.’”
The family donated two babies, a pair of Bruisers, to the University of Iowa, so the Hawkeyes would always retain a backup, just in case. Geppetto lives on in Big Ten lore. Now and forever.
“Frank always wanted to make sure you (had one) in case one went down in a plane,” Jones says. “He was quite the thinker.”
Quite the sculptor, too. Jones still has the original cast mold of Bruiser buried amidst a pile of boxes at Russell’s, tucked in a different corner than the final resting place of Strub’s first draft. The nine players who never saw the light of day.
The Heartland Trophy that wasn’t.
“It was a fun project,” Jones says. “I can’t say enough good things about Frank. I think if it’s the one thing that he left on Earth, it’s one of the best things that he could have ever done.”