The finest tradition in college football is no longer Ralphie the buffalo charging the field at Colorado or Osceola chucking a flaming spear into the midfield turf at Florida State games.
Today, the coolest tradition in a sport chock-full of them is the Iowa Wave – an emotionally uplifting tribute to brave souls fighting for their lives.
The University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital overlooks the east side of Kinnick Stadium. The top floor of the hospital, which was completed prior to the 2017 season, features the “Press Box,” a common space where pediatric patients and their families can come together on home-game Saturday’s to watch the Hawkeyes play. The windows of the Press Box provide a pristine view of Kinnick and the area provides a respite for patients to cheer on their beloved Hawkeyes.
The Iowa Wave is the most heartwarming tradition not only in college football but in all of sports.
Children often tape signs and posters to the windows in their rooms in support of the team. Fans support them back with the Iowa Wave, an awe-inspiring reminder that people see and care about them. It is a moving and powerful homage to children and families whose journey is nearly impossible for most to fathom. The sight of little smudges from fingers and noses on the window of the Press Box brings tears to the eyes of Gwen Senio, who was manager of child life at Stead Family Children’s Hospital for nearly four decades before retiring late last year.
To borrow from Jim Nantz and the Masters, the Iowa Wave is a tradition unlike any other. At the end of the first quarter of every home game, all 70,000 black-and-gold clad Hawkeyes turn away from the field and wave to the fans watching from the Press Box. The custom, now in its third season, is done at every home game. At night games, fans turn on the lights on their cell phones to illuminate Kinnick so no one misses the Iowa Wave.
It all started on social media. In May 2017, Krista Young was browsing Hawkeye Heaven, a Facebook page for fans of Iowa athletics, when she had an idea. The mother of three from the small town of Anita didn’t even attend the University of Iowa. But she got the ball rolling when she posted, “I think with the new U of I hospital addition open,” the post read, “Kinnick should hold a ‘wave to the kids’ minute during every game. Levi Thompson, who manages the Facebook fan page, decided to promote the idea to his nearly 100,000 followers in the months leading up to the Hawkeyes home opener.
The idea took hold, and a whim became the Wave.
On September 2, 2017, the Hawkeyes hosted the Wyoming Cowboys in their home opener. Young was in Kinnick Stadium where, at the end of the first quarter, the announcer asked Hawkeye fans to turn around and wave to the fans watching from the hospital windows. Not sure what was about to happen, Young pulled out her phone and hit record. Fans around her began to turn around and, before long, the entire crowd was standing and waving toward the hospital.
What started as a fan suggestion turned into a full-blown movement.
The popularity of the Wave spread like wildfire. Four weeks after it was introduced, Tom Rinaldi reported a six-minute ESPN story on College Gameday. When the feature ended, Rinaldi appeared in front of the Gameday crowd assembled in Blacksburg, Virginia, for the Clemson-Virginia Tech game. He encouraged the Hokie fans to fill in for the Kinnick faithful, asking everyone in the crowd to wave. “For all of those who are still in the hospital,” said Rinaldi, “there’s your wave.” That same day, Iowa was playing at Michigan State, where Spartan fans got into the act. At the end of the first quarter, the crowd waved in unison to the children back in Iowa City. Fox Sports broadcast a touching five-minute piece, while ABC World News, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports and the Washington Post all reported on Iowa’s new game-day tradition as the season unfolded.
The Hawkeyes took it one step further in October 2017. Before a home win over Illinois, the Iowa marching band spread out in the form of a huge hand on the field, pointed toward the hospital, and waved in unison to their on-looking fans. Soon, players and coaches from both teams – even the officials — began taking part in the Wave to the Brave. Opponents and teams across the country have joined in. Northern Illinois’ athletic department tweeted, “Hello to everyone @ UIchildrens Hospital, we are the NIU Huskies! You are all extremely inspiring to us & we want you to know that we support you in your difficult journeys!”
For young patients facing severe and chronic illness, simple acts like getting out of bed can be exhausting. But on fall Saturdays in Iowa City, no matter the pain it inflicts or energy it requires, kids will do whatever it takes to get to the Press Box windows to experience the Wave. “They’re not thinking about how they’re feeling – they’re thinking about what’s happening beyond that window,” said Gwen Senio. “Being a part of that is good medicine.”
Every home Saturday, 70,000 volunteers take a minute out of their day to put a smile on the face of a child enduring the unimaginable. They’re providing a glimmer of hope to so many worrying parents.
Kirk Ferentz is now in his 21st season as head football coach at Iowa. A man of impeccable character, Kirk and his wife Mary donated $1 million to Stead Family Children’s Hospital two years ago. The Ferentzes made the donation in honor of their granddaughter Savvy, who was born at UISFCH in 2014 at 22 weeks gestation and survived only 48 hours. In August 2017, the hospital announced the creation of the Savvy Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research, aimed at improving the survival rate for premature babies.
After seeing the Wave on television, Riley Lafrenz, a nine-year-old from Indianola, Iowa, decided to donate all his savings to the children’s hospital. A third-grader at Irving Elementary School, Lafrenz had been saving for a pack of NFL cards. Instead, donating to the hospital became more important to him. After emptying his piggy bank, he sent a note along with his donation. “Hi! My name is Riley. The reason I sent the money is that when I watched a Hawkeye football game I saw a kid that had cancer and I felt bad, so now I realized that you need the money more than I do. From your friend, Riley. Go Hawks!
The good people of Iowa took note and responded in kind. When the hospital shared that Riley’s donation was “$34, give or take a penny,” it triggered donations of just that: $34.01. Riley also received a donation – a pack of the football cards he’d been saving for.
On this date in 2017, the Iowa Wave made its third appearance. Between the first and second quarters of a game against Penn State at Kinnick, 70,585 turned in unison to the Press Box on the 12th floor of Stead Family Children’s Hospital and waved to the patients and their families.
Only in the Heartland, folks. Only in the Heartland.
For more on how you can help, visit https://theiowawaveshirt.org/about