Former Hawkeye football player brings gridiron philosophy to politics

BY ERIK PAPKE | JUNE 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Most GOP operatives will list Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe Barry Goldwater on their list of inspiring characters.

Tim Pawlenty-backer Matt Whitaker lists Hayden Fry.

The 41-year-old said playing for Fry taught him some of the most valuable lessons he took away from Iowa City.

“[Fry taught me about] hard work, determination, having a goal in mind — and achieving that goal — and doing the best you can possibly do,” he said.

The former Hawkeye reserve tight end is leading Pawlenty’s Iowa steering committee in the 2012 caucus race, campaign officials announced last month.

“Matt Whitaker is a man who knows what’s important, and he gets things done,” Pawlenty said in a release. “That’s been true from his days as a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes team that played in the [1990-91] Rose Bowl to his determination as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted dangerous criminals and put them behind bars.

“We’re very happy and blessed to have him on our team.”

A position on a top-tier presidential campaign is the last in a list of accomplishments for Whitaker. He’s caught touchdowns and prosecuted criminals as a U.S. attorney, and he now serves as the managing partner of a Des Moines law firm.

A first team all-state football standout at Ankeny High, he went on to be a backup tight end from 1988-92 for the Hawkeyes and legendary coach Fry. He played on the 1990 Big Ten champion Iowa team — the most recent Iowa squad to make the Rose Bowl — and his best season came as a junior in 1991, when he pulled down nine passes for 112 yards and burned Iowa State for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Whitaker did more than just play football while at Iowa. He was named to two Big Ten All-Academic squads and received a bachelor’s degree in 1991 with a grade point average of 3.54. In 1992, his aptitude in the classroom earned him the Big Ten Medal of Honor — the award is the oldest handed out by the conference, and it is annually given to a student-athlete in the graduating class of each university who demonstrates proficiency in scholarship and athletics.

He earned both a master’s degree and a law degree from Iowa in 1995 and began practicing law in the state in 2002 after spending seven years in Minnesota. In 2004, George W. Bush appointed Whitaker the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.

“Matt is a very confident and capable attorney,” William Gustoff, one of Whitaker’s partners in the Des Moines-based law firm Whitaker Hagenow GBMG. “He has an upstanding character.”

While it has been several years since Whitaker strapped on shoulder pads, he still refers to his time on the gridiron quite often — such as when The Daily Iowan asked him what he thought his position would be on Pawlenty’s steering committee.

“Offensive coordinator,” he said and laughed.

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