The year is 1981. And the Iowa Hawkeyes are struggling mightily to gain respectability on the football field after decades as a Big Ten Conference doormat.
Hayden Fry, a larger-than-life character and river boat gambler with Texas roots, had arrived in Iowa City in 1979. Now, in his all-important third year as head coach, it’s make-or-break time for a man doggedly determined to transform a beleaguered program into a national powerhouse. While the team has many needs, one of the most important is a strong leader at quarterback. Unexpectedly, Hayden and his staff sign a blonde-haired, six-foot-four quarterback named Chuck Long. Safe to say, the son of Charlie and Joan Long was as much a mystery to Iowa fans as winning.
Only two other universities offered Chuck a scholarship – Northwestern and Northern Illinois. The lack of suiters wasn’t surprising. Chuck averaged just a handful of throws per start as a high school signal caller for a Falcons team coached by Jim Rexilius. Even in Wheaton North’s 14-6 victory over LaSalle-Peru in the 1979 4A Illinois state football championship game, Chuck completed just one of four passes for minus-three yards. Now, Chuck Long is an Iowa Hawkeye. And as he waits to make first team as quarterback, Coach Hayden Fry takes to the microphones as the 1982 campaign approaches and, in front of a gaggle of reporters, proclaims the sophomore-to-be as “destined for greatness”.
Reporters are nearly speechless. Hawkeye fans are bewildered. Chuck Long? Destined for greatness? Chuck Long – the same kid who hasn’t taken a snap as a starter? Yep, that Chuck Long. The QB responds to the high praise from his head coach by taking the field just weeks later in his first start against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln only to get bruised, battered, and benched in a 42-7 drubbing. One week later, the Hawkeyes host in-state rival Iowa State and lose again as Chuck watches from the sidelines. So much for the “destined for greatness” talk. Then again, Chuck Long isn’t your ordinary quarterback, and Hayden Fry isn’t your ordinary coach.
In a twist of fate not even Hollywood could script, Chuck and the Iowa Hawkeyes quickly right the ship and set sail on a voyage that would ultimately take them (and the state of Iowa) into the national spotlight. At the heart of it all was a once-obscure quarterback who played for a high school football program that featured the run – a quarterback that would become Iowa’s most celebrated signal callers, play in an unprecedented five college bowl games, throw for more yards than any other quarterback in Big Ten history, finish runner-up for the Heisman Trophy to a kid named Bo from Auburn University and hear his name called in the first round of the 1986 NFL Draft.