IOWA CITY, Iowa — They came from Iowa City and Council Bluffs. Some flew from Pennsylvania and others drove from enemy territory.
On Saturday, the seventh Ladies Football Academy brought 291 women to the Iowa football complex for tours, training and togetherness for a cause. All of the money raised — around $232,000 — goes to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital for pediatric research.
Husbands were not allowed. Neither were the media, friends, children or other relatives. The daylong academy is designed for an insular experience for the participants alongside Iowa’s coaches, players and football staff. The women pay $50 to register and must raise at least $500 to participate.
“It’s just a very private event for the ladies who do all the work,” said Mary Ferentz, chair of the UI Children’s Hospital Council. “It’s a good vibe, and we didn’t want to mess with that vibe.”
What the women received from the experience was profound. Sure, they learned about football in the classroom and on the practice field. (Kinnick Stadium was off limits because of its resurfacing.) But the camaraderie they shared with those present was the experience they most appreciated.
Teresa Lassmann works with special-needs children in Davenport. She attended her sixth academy and has grown a pre-event tailgate from three people in her first year to now 14 other attendees.
“Honestly, it was neat to see some of the guys who have been here before,” Lassmann said. “They recognize your face and even when you see them, like walking through a parking lot, they say the same thing, like ‘You’re a Ladies Football Academy lady.’ That always shows that they care what’s going on here. They pay attention. They’re not going through the motions like it’s another workout.”
Lassmann’s high school classmate, Jillyn Roxberg, now lives in Pittsburgh. Roxberg saw Lassmann’s Facebook post about the event six years ago and decided it looked like fun. She’s now participated five straight years, even driving to Iowa City for the event once.
Roxberg said she picks up something new every time she attends.
“It’s great,” Roxberg said. “You get to see them [the players] at a different level. You remember these kids go to class and they’re trying to play and it’s fun to see them have fun.”
The academy has special meaning for Condra Allred of Council Bluffs. When she grew up in Burlington, her older brother, Scott Davis, died from cancer before he reached his teen years. She’s attended six years at the academy.
“I do it for personal reasons because my brother Scott died, so I do it for that reason,” Allred said. “My son also used it [the children’s hospital] for a kidney issue. I do it for the fundraising. But this is just fun. I came four years ago and didn’t know any of these ladies and now we tailgate together and we go on women’s trips together. It’s a lot of fun.”
The academy has become a mission for Mary Ferentz. In 2006, she and her husband donated $250,000 to permanently endow the Ferentz Family Pediatric Research and Education Fund. In 2012, the Iowa Ladies Football Academy pledged $1 million toward the hospital’s construction. It opened in late February, costing $360 million.
Now the money raised from the academy goes toward pediatric research.
“We say it’s a great way to marry two loves,” Mary Ferentz said. “They’re not all happy endings for sure, but they will tell you the experience was one of hope and so it’s a great way to marry your love of Iowa football and do something good at the same time. We think it’s a real synergistic relationship.”
“If you haven’t personally had experience with the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, somebody you know has,” said Taryn Kuntz, executive director of development for the hospital. “For seven years it’s been an outlet for so many women to share that story with us. People will come up to us at the event or in advance of the event and say, ‘I’m doing this in honor of someone or in memory of someone or my son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild’ — whoever it may be — utilized the children’s hospital in some way. Not just a year ago, it was 25 years ago. They talk about their experiences here.”
Then there’s the football aspect of the day. Marshal Yanda and James Ferentz were on hand displaying their Super Bowl rings. The women saw Kirk Ferentz’s personal notes from the 41-14 loss at Penn State in November and from the 14-13 upset win of Michigan the following week. They ran different drills with players and coaches. One woman told Mary Ferentz her goal was to catch a touchdown pass diving into the end zone, and the coaches made sure that happened.
One family brought 11 members. Two sisters from central Iowa — Sue Finestead and JoAnn Cornelis — attended the academy together. Finestead works at Iowa State University’a agricultural college, which compels her to tone down her public passion for Iowa football at least a tad.
“I have a couple of weeks when it can been really brutal,” said Finestead, an Iowa season-ticket holder.
Beanie Nielsen, who drove from Council Bluffs — located across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb. — said the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry gets her going.
The next academy date has been chosen — June 9, 2018 — and this week Mary Ferentz will solicit feedback from the participants to see how to make the event better.
“We change it up, keep it fresh,” she said.