Game Ball Run enters 28th year


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A group of Iowa ROTC cadets will take pictures in front of the Nile Kinnick statue this morning. It’ll be around 6:15 a.m. By 6:30, that group of cadets will head toward Tama, Iowa, with a football in hand.

But it’s not just any football. It’s the game ball for the Iowa-Iowa State football game in Ames on Saturday. And this isn’t just any run, either. It’s the traditional Game Ball Run.

“We run the Iowa State-Iowa game ball from Kinnick Stadium to Tama,” said Amelia Herink, the cadet battalion commander for the Mighty Hawkeye Battalion. “And then we pass it off to the Iowa State cadets, and they’ll run [and at points drive] it from Tama to Ames.”

The friendly competition between the two programs is in its 28th year. They share the ultimate goal of raising donations for the Iowa Troop Pantry, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to military personnel while they’re deployed.

“It shows unity within the programs,” said Tim Jenkins, an Iowa cadet command sergeant-major. “Even though we are Iowa versus Iowa State, in the end, we’re all going to be commissioned into the Army. It starts to create unity between the schools.”

Jenkins believes the tradition started in 1987, though others have said it began a year earlier. As the story goes, a cadet in the Iowa ROTC program, Kristy Samms, was a month from being commissioned when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Because of that, the Army told the cadet that she couldn’t commission, saying it was a pre-existing condition — even though she had done everything else required of her up to that point. Samms’ fellow cadets then began the Game Ball Run to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“When it first started, they actually used to run all the way to Tama, through the night,” Jenkins said. “Then they’d pick up the ball and take it to Ames.”

These days, the cadets run through other small towns so others can see them. It shows they’re part of the community. That camouflage uniform isn’t a barrier between them and the population, Jenkins said.

The actual running of the ball isn’t all the cadets get to experience during the week. On Tuesday, the group of ROTC members physically received the ball from Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz. They sat through Ferentz’s usual Tuesday press conference. They got a tour of Iowa’s football facilities.

It’s another way to combine the Iowa ROTC and football programs, Jenkins said. And it doesn’t stop there: On Saturday, both Jenkins and Herink will present the game ball, along with their Iowa State counterparts, to the game officials.

Even more, Iowa Director of Football Operations Paul Federici will make sure they get that ball back as a keepsake.

“I’ll get that ball back and get coach to sign it for their commander when everything is over,” he said.

The tradition coincides with whichever team hosts the Cy-Hawk game, which means last year, the Iowa State ROTC began the trek and Iowa’s finished it. Jenkins remembers handing the ball off to former Iowa coach Hayden Fry. Dan Gable was there, too.

“Mary Ferentz gave up her press box and I sat in her press box last Veterans Day,” Jenkins said. “And then after the game, she took us to the facilities and introduced us to her husband.

“Having them take time out of their day to come — even if it’s just five minutes — to come and thank us for what we do, absolutely … It’s a great show of support.”

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