IOWA CITY – You can see their silhouette in the windows of the children’s hospital from a distance. Sick kids and their parents watching a college football game from rooms that overlook Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
You’ve probably heard or read about the Wave, the new tradition that takes place at the end of the first quarter of Iowa home games. Fans turn toward the hospital and wave to those kids and their loved ones high above. The moment lasts about 30 seconds.
Saturday was my birthday. Those 30 seconds were by far the best part of my day.
To see that remarkable act of kindness on television stirs emotions. To experience it live, with those kids in plain view, brings an overwhelming sense of joy and sadness at the same time. I captured the scene on video, not perfectly, because my hands were trembling.
Football becomes unimportant during the Wave. You just want those kids to be OK and hope they feel uplifted, if only for that brief moment, a chance to forget about why they are there.
Traditions identify programs like birthmarks and help make college football the greatest sport invented. There are many cool, unique rituals but a quick checklist of my favorites: Army-Navy March On, Howard’s Rock, Ralphie’s entrance, Jump Around, Running through the T, Midnight Yell, Rolling Toomer’s Corner and Dotting the I in Script Ohio.
The Wave moves to the top of the list. Well done, Iowa.
I arrived at Kinnick Stadium three hours before kickoff and found myself repeatedly staring through my binoculars at the hospital adjacent to the stadium.
Kid’s names are written on signs taped to their windows, allowing fans a little more personal connection when they wave. Some signs share messages of hope and inspiration.
As a parent, I found myself wondering about the pain felt by those parents who sit on the other side of that glass, second by agonizing second. And how they must soar emotionally when 70,000 people turn and wave to their children.
College sports can make a person cynical these days. Scandals create the perception that the whole enterprise has become a cesspool of greed and corruption.
The FBI shook college basketball to its core by exposing dirty secrets involving financial arrangements between coaches, recruits and shoe companies.
The University of North Carolina admitted allowing athletes to take sham classes, but since regular students did too, it avoided crippling penalties from the NCAA.
The amount of money flowing through college athletics — TV revenue, coaches’ salaries, facility projects, etc. — has made the notion of amateurism seem outdated.
No question, college sports as an entity have made itself an easy target. Breathing fire as a blowtorch to their hypocrisy feels appropriate sometimes.
Iowa’s Wave reveals another side to college sports, a conduit to something far more impactful than a football game.
“Emotional,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Fleck and his players experienced the Wave for the first time and delivered a heartfelt gesture. Fleck wanted his team to participate in that moment. He let his player leadership council decide how to respond. Their idea should become a model for all visiting teams.
The Gophers knew they would only be able to see the top floor of the hospital from their sideline. So they decided to run onto the field — players, coaches, support staff, everyone — to the hash marks so that they could view all the floors.
They waved and smiled as a group.
“I’ll always remember the Wave,” Fleck said.
That’s precisely the point. Ten years from now, details from the game largely will be forgotten. Thankfully, because neither team played well.
What people in the stadium will remember is those 30 seconds when they turned and waved to kids watching the game from the hospital. They will remember how they felt at that moment, and more importantly, how they made those kids and their parents feel with a beautiful gesture.
Let’s hope that tradition never ends.