Tonight marks a bittersweet end for Ankeny as the Hawks football team heads to the UNI-Dome in search of an Iowa Class 4A state championship and play its last game as one school and one team.
No one knows what next year holds, but Ankeny Hawks Head Coach Jerry Pezzetti isn’t thinking about that.
He has his eyes focused on the prize, his players, and this possible defining moment for the Ankeny community. He’s making sure his players will be as good as they can be, just like he always has.
“We’re just trying to concentrate,” Pezzetti said. “If we win, we’re state champs, and that’s a dream come true. Only one team per years gets that, so our goal is just to be as good as we can be and play as well as we can.”
The Ankeny/Cedar Rapids Xavier matchup will be held tonght at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. Kickoff is at 7:06 p.m., and the state title is on the line.
And if the Hawks win it all, the victory will be especially sweet for players, coaches and Ankeny residents alike, because next year things are changing. Ankeny is opening a second high school, and the team will be split in two. Some Hawks will become Jaguars, and many players will hang up their maroon and gold for silver and black.
The last time the Hawks won a state football title was in 1997. The team was a runner-up for the title in 2007 and made it to the semifinals last season. Under Pezzetti’s leadership, the team has qualified for the football playoffs 22 times and earned 14 conference championships.
But numbers are one thing. Pezzetti’s legacy is something completely different.
Pezzetti isn’t speaking publicly about his plans following next year’s split to two high schools. But after 43 years spent as head coach of the Hawks, no matter where Pezzetti goes next year or what he decides to do, the mark he’s left on hundreds of former and current football players is unquestionable.
Turning Individuals Into a Team
Ron Sampson of Ankeny was on the first team Pezzetti ever coached in 1969. He said Pezzetti was like a “breath of fresh air” to the program.
“We never had a coach like that who really seemed to have a deep interest in the kids,” Sampson said. “He was interested in you as a person, and that stood out in my mind more than anything else.”
Sampson said the Hawks weren’t very good back then. The team was the smallest in the conference and played schools including Saydel, Urbandale, Tama, Grinnell and Boone. Sampson said Pezzetti was able to do some innovative things for the team out of the gate, but more importantly, he made the boys feel good about themselves as players.
“Other than Jerry, we didn’t have a lot of raw talent, but he would get the best of out of you regardless of your skill level,” Sampson said. “And that’s really what he does today. He can take a bunch of kids, puts them together as a team and gets the most out of them.”
It’s More Than Football – It’s Mentoring Boys on How to Become Great Men
Jamie Burright of Ankeny graduated in 1994, 25 years after Pezzetti first came to Ankeny schools. Burright played football all four years he attended Ankeny High School.
He said Pezzetti was such a positive influence in his life during those years.
“He coached my father, my brothers, on everything from discipline to how to be a good man,” Burright said.
Burright said at one point he was going through some difficult times and it was Pezzetti who sat him down, who reminded him his education should come before anything else.
“I was in the mindset that athletics were going to take me to college,” Burright said. “As a coach, he was very education-centered and he made me realize there was more than just this.”
Greg Buttz, whose senior season with the Hawks football team was in 1982, said Pezzetti taught players how to put aside individual wants for the betterment of the entire team. Buttz recently wrote Pezzetti a letter and shared it with Ankeny Patch.
“Coaching football...is about teaching kids to trust each other. It’s showing what respect truly is. It is getting kids to understand that effort, enthusiasm, dedication, discipline, character, integrity, accountability and responsibility are not a sometimes thing, it is an all-the-time thing. And one thing, more than anything, I took from playing football is the ability to overcome adversity. I have never been happier than I am right now and I do owe part of this to the lessons I learned from the examples people installed in me by the lives they live.”
Pezzetti’s Impact Extends Well Beyond Ankeny Football Field
The Ankeny football program has produced many quality athletes. Some go on to play college ball at the University of Iowa and other universities, and some have even moved on to the National Football League.
Others end up coaching, including Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads. Rhoads’ senior season with the Hawks was in 1984.
Rhoads said Pezzetti is the kind of coach who has his personality and fingerprints all over the team. Rhoads also credits Pezzetti’s 43 years leading the Hawks with making football something the community of Ankeny rallies around.
“As many years as he has been in Ankeny, his record is absolutely remarkable,” Rhoads said. “The number of people he has touched and impacted their lives is far beyond the people he’s coached – the band, stat keepers, all the people in the stands. They’ve all been impacted by Ankeny Hawks football.”
Will Pezzetti’s Legacy Keep the Football Spirit Alive Next Year?
Mike Higgins, who played football for the Hawks from 1982-84, said Pezzetti’s passion for the game today is just as prevalent as it was in the 1980s.
Higgins said football is a game that teaches a person life lessons, and Pezzetti has always been a phenomenal teacher.
“You are going to face adversity throughout your life, but it’s how you respond to it that determines if you’re successful or not,” Higgins said. “It will be very difficult. It’s going to be hard for these kids, but rising to challenges is definitely a life lesson most of these kids have been taught because of Coach Pezzetti.”
Pezzetti, however, said he’s coached this year’s team the same way he’s coached all other teams. He said he has faith in the community to see Ankeny through next year’s transition.
“There are so many people, programs in this town that help instill a sense of pride in your community,” Pezzetti said. “Ankeny has a lot of pride and it has young people who want to be successful no matter what they do.”