[Photo courtesy of University of Iowa Athletic Communications]
While it may not have been on the order of “Rudy,” the 1993 film about Rudy Ruettiger, the Midwestern kid who followed his dreams and was willing to do anything to play for Notre Dame despite being repeatedly told he was too small, Riley McCarron’s recently-completed collegiate career was a feel-good story in its own right.
McCarron grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, about 80 miles from Iowa City where his beloved Hawkeyes performed on autumn Saturdays. He wanted to be one of them. He would put together an exceptional career as a high school quarterback, earning all-conference and all-state honors.
Yet his size kept him from receiving even a single offer from an FBS program. Still, he never let go of his childhood dream of playing in Kinnick Stadium no matter what anybody thought of his 5-9, 185-pound stature.
McCarron walked on at Iowa and spent his freshman year of 2012 as a redshirt. He busted his tail in the weight room, on scout teams and realized his dreams when he took the field for the first time against Northern Illinois in the 2013 opener. He played all 12 games that season before injuries and illness limited him to six the following season as a redshirt sophomore and still a walk-on.
The receiver caught three passes and had 11 punt returns in those two seasons. Though they were numbers that did not stand out on the stat sheet, he found his time as a walk-on very rewarding.
“It was always fun for me,” he said following his final game, an Outback Bowl loss to Florida. “It was always cool to be around all these guys, who work hard for one another and with one another every week, every month and every year. I just kept working my way up.”
That he did and the payoff came prior to his redshirt junior season of 2015 when he was awarded a scholarship.
“As a walk-on, when you come to an (FBS program) the goal is to first play and then earn a scholarship,” he said. “It meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to my family. It was a really rewarding time.”
The rewards on the field would still be another year away. That first scholarship season he caught only five passes, including his first career touchdown, and totaled four returns on special teams.
As often happens, somebody’s misfortune turns out to be a break for somebody else. That was the case this past season when starting receiver Matt VandeBerg was lost for the duration due to an injury suffered in practice following a win at Rutgers in the Big Ten opener. That opened the door for McCarron, who to that point, had only 14 career receptions. That was about to change.
“He did great a job jumping in there when Matt VandeBerg went down,” said quarterback C.J. Beathard, who also completed his career as a fifth-year senior. “He’s a trustworthy guy who was where he needed to be at all times. He made some big plays for us down the stretch.”
Did he ever. McCarron would end up leading the Hawkeyes in receptions (42) and yards (517) and tie for the lead in TD catches (4). Among them was a 77-yarder versus Nebraska that marked Iowa’s longest play from scrimmage of the season. He also added a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown at Illinois.
They were highlights he will always cherish, but not as much as the camaraderie that goes with being a part of a college football team.
“All the times you get to spend with your teammates day in and day out,” he said as he reflected on the season and his career. “Especially those times in the locker room after a win, to celebrate something like that. All those moments that money can’t buy. That’s what I will miss most.”
What will carry on are the many values the game instilled. Football was a huge part of McCarron’s life as he grew up chasing his dream. He not only realized that dream, but ultimately became a better player and key contributor. That work he put in and what he got back will forever resonate no matter what he does.
“People on the outside may not realize it, but (football) teaches so many life lessons, especially the way coach (Kirk) Ferentz runs this program,” he said. “Coach puts so much emphasis on your character, not only football. I feel it has made me a better overall person, a better person to be around. That’s the same for everybody that played their last game (in the Outback Bowl). We all became better people these past few years.”
McCarron’s character glistened in the classroom as well. In early December it was announced that he was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree for the fourth time. Last spring he completed his undergrad in accounting.
“That is how my parents raised me,” he said. “School is more important than sports and to keep your head down and keep working.”
While Michelle and Steve McCarron played a role in their son’s success at Iowa, Riley is somebody that players coming out of high school or early in their collegiate careers and in a similar circumstance of having to battle for every inch can look up to.
“Just keep fighting,” he said, when asked what his message would be. “Never give up on yourself and never give up on your dreams no matter what anyone may say. You have to believe in your dreams before anyone else will. You never know if that dream will come true if you don’t give it a shot.”