As Kirk Ferentz broke the news publicly that Alex Kanellis would no longer be playing football, a picture flashed into my head.
I wrote a story about Alex after he committed to the Hawkeyes. The Kanellis family sent me a photo to run with the piece. In it, a pint-sized Alex wore a full Hawkeye uniform, I mean, helmet to jersey to pants, the works.
Alex was so proud of that picture. He really wanted me to use it. He wanted people to understand what it meant for him to become a Hawkeye. I thought it was pretty cool.
The image hit home today. Just like that, this guy’s dream of helping the Hawkeyes reach great heights was squashed by severe headaches created by football contact. Life showed its cruel side.
Kanellis put the team first. He played as a true freshman even though his snaps were limited. He switched to offensive line from defense last season when it appeared he was needed there. Then, it’s over.
Teammates Bryan Mattison, Mitch King, Matt Kroul and Jake Christensen all changed their tones when the conversation turned to Alex on Tuesday. Suddenly the football talk seemed less important. The toughness in them attempted to override the emotion in their heart, but their eyes and body motion showed the pain.
“We miss him,” defensive end Bryan Mattison said. “I’m sorry that he can’t be playing with us. He’s a great kid and he has a good family to help him through this. We still talk to him all the time. I called him yesterday.”
Kanellis arrived at Iowa as a highly decorated recruit. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound, mountain of a man earned all-American honors at Iowa City West. He chose the Hawkeyes in the fall of 2003, two years before his first season with them.
Alex grew up in the shadows of Kinnick Stadium. His grandmother, Dottie Ray, has become a legend on local radio. His parents, Amy and Mike, raised their son to love Iowa City and the Hawkeyes.
I reached Mike Kanellis by phone on Tuesday night. He declined comment, saying his family would like more time to pass and the hurt to decrease before speaking about it publicly. Alex did not respond to an email. I completely understood.
“It’s really tough,” quarterback Jake Christensen said. “Me and Alex have been really close since I’ve been here. His family has been unbelievable. They’ve really kind of been like the parents away from home for our class (2005). We were always over their house that first summer.”
Although his playing career is over, Coach Ferentz hopes Kanellis will contribute to the program. He’ll remain on scholarship and work with the team.
Alex Willcox and Vernon Jackson had their careers cut short by injury but have helped around the football complex. Willcox has aided the strength and conditioning program, and Ferentz felt that’s where Kanellis would end up.
“It’s certainly not mandatory, but I think he’s enthused about that,” Ferentz said. “Alex Willcox has done a great job both in strength and conditioning and coaching, so we're looking forward to having Alex (Kanellis) join us and make some real positive contributions on that front.”
Kanellis suffered his first concussion during spring camp. It happened again during August camp. He then underwent a battery of tests with specialists at the university. Based on the information from physicians, the Kanellis family decided it wasn’t worth the risk to play again.
“We all have a picture of when it's going to end and how it should end,” Ferentz said. “When it doesn't end that way, it's tough. No player ever wants to give that up. You have to be smart, too. I think Alex is certainly aware of that. It's just not worth taking any unnecessary chances.”
The finality of Kanellis’ injury and his decision to walk away sure wasn’t lost on his teammates. They all were aware that it could all end with the next collision. And that’s why I’ve always laughed when people say a scholarship is enough compensation for what these guys do.
“I’d like to think that I appreciate it anyway,” Mattison said. “But when you see it happen to one of your buddies, you sit back and realize you’re glad you can still play.”
Said King: “You never know when the next hit can take you out forever. You have to play every play like it’s your last. It’s a shame. Alex is a good friend of mine. I wouldn’t want to risk anybody’s safety for a game. As long as he can cope with it, we’ll be there for him.”
We can be thankful that doctors, coaches and players are taking concussions more seriously today than they did in the past. Trainers are refraining from waving smelling salts under a guy whose bell has been rung and pushing him back on the field.
I once ran into Joe Frazier at a Philadelphia racetrack and struck up a conversation. It was very sad. As hard as it must be for Alex, his family and friends, and others of us that knew and admired him, he did the right thing.
That said, it’s going to hurt deeply when he watches his teammates line up against Iowa State next week. Reality sets in a little more that he won’t ever face his in-state rival again. It’s just not fair it happened to a good guy who just wanted to be a Hawk.