Indecision struck Camron Harrell. Should he buy the retro Jordan 13s or not? So he took a picture and sent it to group text, asking if he should purchase them. The responses quickly flooded in.
They are great.
With the approval of his fellow Iowa Class of 2017 commits, Harrell bought the shoes.
“It was the right move,” Harrell said. “I love them.”
The new Hawkeyes start arriving on campus later this week, but they aren’t strangers. The 22 players spent the last year in a group text message getting to know each other so they show up on Day 1 ready to attack the same goal.
“It makes us a family,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “We are past the introduction stage and can get right into getting better and helping the team win games.”
The idea came about last spring. The commitment list already sat at about seven players. No one remembers for certain, but the general belief is Epenesa came up with the idea.
They all wanted to meet with future teammates. Modern technology allowed them to do something recruits 25 years ago couldn’t. The group text was the easiest way for players in Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Iowa to connect.
The players introduced Harrell to it a few days after he committed in June 2016. At first, it was intimidating. Players introduced themselves. He took down numbers and tried to put their digits with their names.
The messages came fast. The group didn’t really talk recruiting. Harrell discussed the same topics with his friends in lunch hour as with his future teammates. They ribbed each other, asked for advice and talked about the latest basketball game.
“It’s like they are all best friends,” Harrell said. “I knew I should try to get in on this. I started working my way in there and then we kind of just got close.”
Offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs met most of the class only a few times in person, but knows the personality of nearly everyone in the group.
He bonded with Epenesa over fishing. He knows fellow offensive lineman Coy Kirkpatrick and cornerback Matt Hankins are outgoing.
Everyone learned Josh Turner and Hankins are the biggest jokesters. Just like they figured out Wirfs is easy-going. The group text served as a sort of 21st century locker room for the players to be themselves. All they needed to take part in it was to pick up their phone.
“This is the best thing for us,” Wirfs said. “It’s like we’ve become a team before we are a team.”
Building a bond
The popularity of it led the players to create a group Snapchat too. Players will break from the group messages to hold a side conversation about a topic.
The never-ending discussions allowed players to pick roommates they were comfortable with. It also laid the foundation for quarterback Peyton Mansell to spend a week with tight end Jacob Coons in April.
“We are going to be roommates once we are there,” Coons said. “It was a little prelim of what it will be like for the next several years.”
De-commitments became common last fall, with four Texas players backing out of their pledges. Just like the future Hawkeyes didn’t talk recruiting, they didn’t bring up the de-commitments, or any potential de-commitments. The players didn’t hold grudges with those who chose to play elsewhere. They wished them luck. Some stayed in touch, but all de-commits left the group message.
“It sucks a little bit because you aren’t going to be able to play with them,” Mansell said, “but you can’t really blame them just because you know their situation isn’t the same as yours.”
Becoming friends and teammates
Those who stuck together visited in large groups for the Wisconsin and Michigan football games. Most took unofficial visits together on the same January weekend, and Coons hosted several at his house for a get-together the weekend of the spring game, where he and Wirfs introduced them to Casey’s pizza.
“Tristan was shooting video of it,” Kerri Coons, Jacob’s mom, said. “He told them they had to try it.”
The future Hawkeyes have yet to play a game together, but any time they get together it feels like a class reunion.
“It’s amazing because when I went up for the Wisconsin game I actually knew who guys were and I had built relationships with them,” Mansell said. “It was putting a name to a face and right into the joking. There was no getting-to-know-you phase.”
They believe they are better off for it.
“This was so helpful,” Harrell said. “It’s really easier to get to know somebody so you don’t walk into something blindfolded.”