By Marc Morehouse
Jonathan D. Woods/The GazetteIowa’s Mitch King takes a break between the first and second quarters of a game in Bloomington, Ind., on Oct. 11. King didn’t take too many breaks during an outstanding career with the Hawkeyes.
IOWA CITY — Yes, of course, one side of the coin is Shonn Greene and his 1,729 rushing yards and Doak Walker Award.
This is a talk with the other side of the 2008 Hawkeyes’ coin, defensive tackle Mitch King.
He’s a four-year starter at defensive tackle. Iowa’s records for tackles for loss and sacks don’t go beyond the leaders, but King is on those all-times list with 55 career tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. The 55 TFLs are second among active players.
King was named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year. He also earned second-team Associated Press All-American.
This might’ve been better for the fifth-year senior than any plaque or postseason trophy.
“A guy that’s as good a football player as we’ve had here is King,” Iowa’s venerable defensive coordinator Norm Parker said. “In terms of the National Football League coming in and looking at him and saying, ‘Wow, look at this guy,’ that’s not the case because he’s not 6-foot-5, 290 pounds and (doesn’t) run a 4.6. But he’s as good a football player as we’ve had, I think.
“He’s as good a college football player as we’ve had since we’ve been here on defense.”
Parker brushes more football out of his teeth than most people on the planet know. So yeah, that’s a big deal.
In a recent interview with The Gazette, King ran through topics ranging from family to his pregame end zone shout-fest he began with the entire team this season.
And no, he doesn’t know what he’s saying half the time during those things.
Iowa’s defense will say goodbye to a grand total of three seniors — King, tackle Matt Kroul and corner Bradley Fletcher. King found himself in a defensive huddle, meeting rooms and locker rooms with a young group that probably took a lot of their cues from the vocal senior.
“On the field, the guys would probably tell you I yell quite a bit and things like that,” he said. “But it was always trying to get everybody on the right page. But I feel playing with the younger guys, that helped me out a lot. They showed me it was still a game and that you’ve got to still love it and everything like that.
“That’s what helped me out the most this year, just seeing how much everybody still loved playing the game and how enthusiastic they were about going out there everyday. That really helped me out all year long.”
Yes, you might’ve noticed. King plays the game with fire in his soul. If you followed Iowa football on the radio, you’d feel it.
“I always try to play with enough passion not just for myself but for it to carry over to some other guys,” he said. “I do love the game. I love making plays. I love doing all the things that go along with big plays, but also just love the team camaraderie and just being a part of that all my life, it’s a good feeling that we ended so well.”
On the Kirk Ferentz show last season, the highlights rolled from Iowa’s loss at Wisconsin. A crowd shot focused on King’s dad, Lindsay, The intensity pouring out of the look on his face and body language could’ve melted steel.
Even though Lindsay and Tammy King divorced, Mitch says the entire family, including brother Vince and sisters Rachel, Emily and Reagan remains close. Mitch is the baby of the bunch.
“That (the intensity) just doesn’t come from one side,” he said. “My mom is really an intense person. Loves coming to watch me play. I don’t think she’s ever missed a game. She’s there for me all the time. My dad, he’s always the first one to talk me down from a bad game and he always pumps me up after a good game. They’ve both been really supportive and that goes for my brother and sisters as well.”
The ownership King took in his senior year was apparent from week 1. Before the Hawkeyes broke into their pregame stretch and workout against Maine on Aug. 30, King gathered the entire team in the south end zone and spit fire. Or spoke in tongues. Something like that. This went on the entire season and, barring laryngitis, will continue through the Outback Bowl.
“I wanted to be the guy to get everybody pumped up,” he said. “At that point and time, I’m usually pumped up and things. I just wanted to express how important each and every game was.
“A lot of it wasn’t chanting and me hurrah-ing. It was more just me talking and trying to get the guys focused and into understanding what the importance of the game was and what it meant to us as players and us as a program.”
It all looks pretty much 100 mph. What’s going through your mind?
“A lot of things I don’t ever really think about before they come out of my mouth,” he said. “That goes good and bad. Sometimes I don’t really express what I really want to, but the guys on the team understand that I’m pumped up. They understand the gist of it. I don’t really think about it much before it comes out.”
Probably something you can’t rehearse.
“Even if you do, it’s going to change on the whim,” he said. “It’s going to change when you do it. You’ve got to be in the moment.”
Can you remember anything specific?
“I don’t remember the game, but I was pretty much just stuttering,” he said. “Well, not really stuttering, but I’d say things backwards and I’d miss words. I don’t remember the game, but it didn’t come out exactly the way I thought it would.”
Did anyone ask what you were trying to say?
“They all laughed and got excited and got amp’d up because I was so amp’d up.”
Defensive tackle Matt Kroul, King’s running mate these four seasons, owns Iowa’s record for consecutive starts at 46. If it weren’t for a hamstring injury that cost him a couple starts his sophomore year, King would be right there, too. With 29 straight starts going into the Outback, King remembered the injury as a wake-up call.
“Before games, I stretched out, but during the week, during practice, I just stretched enough to get through it,” he said. “I really needed to take care of my flexibility and hamstrings and all that stuff. I bought some Culligan jugs and just drink water whenever I have the chance. I try to stay hydrated. We go through a lot and put our bodies through a lot. That’s something I didn’t do when I was younger. I took it for granted. I thought I was invincible and things like that. I didn’t take care of my body enough. That goes for eating and sleeping as well.”
Eating, is there anything you need to avoid?
“Not really. Eating is one thing I love to do. I probably shouldn’t eat as many Laffy Taffys as I do, but I love them.”
That’s the one striking thing about Iowa defensive linemen. The fitness they show any given Saturday is right there with Lance Armstrong.
“I’ve only missed one or two lifting sessions, but I’ve been able to make them up with coach (Chris) Doyle, sometimes doubling up in one day or coming back on a Saturday or doing something,” he said. “Aside from having a great strength coach, it’s got to come from your attitude. You’re only going to get as good as you want to.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys come through here and just go through the motions. They got stronger just doing the workouts, but they didn’t reach their potential. Some of those guys aren’t here anymore. It’s an attitude more than anything, especially when you’re going up against a bigger guy like offensive linemen are.”
So, is it a game-time intensity?
“It’s a different intensity,” he said. “You’re not screaming and hollering and running around. You’re focused on it. You try to get every ounce of productivity that you can.”
Back to leadership, is that a role you wanted? It’s not something you apply for or do you have to earn it?
“I wanted it. I’ve started for four years,” he said. “I learned from really great players, (Chad) Greenway and (Abdul) Hodge, (Sean) Considine and all of those guys were great leaders. I always wanted to be in those shoes when I was their age or as soon as possible. People were looking for leaders. I just kind of fell into the role rather than me trying to do it.”
That’s a lot of eyes on you, both on and off the field.
“I’m not the perfect person. If you want to talk to someone like that, talk to Kroul. I’m not saying I’m a saint, but I keep my backyard clean for the most part. I have fun. I joke around about things. I know when to have fun, but that’s a small portion of our lives and we’ve learned to sacrifice it. I’ve been able to take that as it comes.”
There is an element of sacrifice to this. No one walks out there and does it. This is a yearlong deal.
“Sometimes when it’s hard with those December workouts, I wish I could go out and party and hangout and stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning and do what I want and eat what I want.” King said. “Being so close to home, all of my buddies who came up to school up here have lived that lifestyle.
“It’s tough seeing them have fun and live a normal college life, but at the same time, you’ve got to realize they’d die to be in your shoes. They’d die to run out in Kinnick in front of 70,000 on Saturdays. They’d trade with you in a heartbeat. It goes back and forth. I’m just lucky to be in the position I am with a family that’s helped me and supported me the whole time. I’ve changed from my first year to now. It’s been a huge jump from the kind of person I was back then. You’ve just got to learn and if you don’t, you wash out. I’ve seen it multiple, multiple times.”
Something clicked this year. Last season, the 6-6 and no bowl, that was a low. Something went right this year. Can you compare and contrast?
“At that time, there was a lot of frustration,” King said. “I was one of them. We were a better team than the way we finished. We had a great defense last year, very comparable to this year. Last year, defensively we were on the field a lot. You get frustrated and things, but you just have to really buy into the system.
“You really have to trust your coaches. You have to trust that the guys around you are, sooner or later, going to buy into the system and be on the same page. That’s really what happened this year. A lot of guys sold out for one another and got on the same page.”
Is this a pinnacle or a starting point?
“Since I’ve been recruited, I’ve seen pinnacles in this program. You talk about the Robert Gallerys, the ’02s, the Orange Bowl. There was a lot of success before I got here, so I wouldn’t call it a pinnacle by any means. But, I’ll tell you, I’ve talked to some of the seniors, we’re all really excited about coming back or watching on TV and watching the Hawkeyes. I’m really excited to see where it goes. We’re losing three guys on defense. It’s going to be a great defense next year. Our offense is going to be humming.
“It’s exciting. Everybody’s buying in. It’s been jump-started. I’m really excited for the next few years for Iowa.”
Last end zone pep talk, any thoughts?
“I haven’t even put thought to it. All my mind is on is winning a bowl game. I’ve never been personally a part of one. I was dressed for the Capital One Bowl, but I didn’t actually play. I lost the Outback Bowl. I lost the Alamo Bowl. They were all nail-biters and they sucked.
“I want to come out on top and win a bowl game. That’s all I’ve thought about so far. It’s so close yet so far away from a football guy’s standpoint. That’s the only thing on my mind right now.”