In his fourth season, Iowa football’s Jay Higgins has a chance to break out on defense

INDIANAPOLIS − Jay Higgins was actually trying this. There he was, wearing a football helmet, jersey and pads, crouched with his hands and feet dug into the ground. Higgins was connected to an RV, using his strength to try to pull it.
His father, Roy Higgins III, was there watching. Roy knew there was no way his son could actually pull it.
But Higgins?
“Something told me I could move it,” said Higgins, who had a homecoming of sorts on Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium. He was one of Iowa football’s representatives at Big Ten Media Days, returning to his hometown and the stadium where he played in a high school state championship game for Brebeuf Jesuit.
Higgins kept pulling and pulling but the RV didn’t budge. He continued until Roy told him to stop.
That ambition is fitting. The 6-foot-2, 233-pound linebacker has waited his turn at Iowa and now enters his fourth season with the program expected to be a crucial part of the defense. That Higgins had the persistence to try to pull an RV makes sense. An RV, absent of luggage, weighs about 10,000 pounds. Even for elite athletes, moving one is quite the challenge.
Except … when Higgins tried to pull the RV, he wasn’t an elite athlete. Far from it.
The uniform he was wearing? It was for a youth football team — ages five to seven.
Higgins was around that age. Trying to pull an RV.
Horseback rider, reptile whisperer
Higgins was less than 1 year old when he was a registered contestant at a rodeo. Roy was participating in bulldogging — steer wrestling — and wanted Higgins to be part of the rodeo, as well. Sitting on a saddle that was far too big for him, with legs far too short to be properly secured, he rode on a horse in front of a large crowd. Higgins got a standing ovation for his performance.
Connecting with animals was passed down in the family. A member of Roy’s family was a veterinarian in New Albany, Indiana. Roy’s father owned property. Roy took after his father’s passion for animals. Higgins took after Roy.
When Higgins was elementary school-aged, he walked right up to a dangerous reptile — either a crocodile or alligator — at a petting zoo and started touching it (the animal's mouth was wrapped for safety). He also held a smaller one. But in Indiana, being around animals also meant chores. Assisting with exercise meant Higgins got so muddy he had to be hosed off. He cut grass. He washed horses. He cleaned up poop with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow.
“Sometimes, I would get mad at him,” Roy says, “because he would be cleaning the stall and he would pick up the manure and it would be heavy and he would try to throw it in the wheelbarrow and it would fall right back on the ground. I had to go behind him and do it again.”
Fortunately, Higgins was better at sports than cleaning up animal droppings. He excelled as a two-sport athlete at Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis. Higgins has an “infectious” personality, as described by Brebeuf defensive coordinator Jake Weinstein. On Wednesday, he reasoned his basketball skills were similar to LeBron James: "Just the ability to see the court, you know what I mean?” Higgins said.
During a game at Brebeuf, Weinstein thought Higgins blew a coverage and screamed at him. Later in the game, Higgins went up to Weinstein.
“Hey, coach,” Higgins said, “when we get in on Saturday, I think you’re going to be apologizing to me for that one.”
“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Weinstein recalled.
“I’m just telling you, I didn’t screw that one up,” Higgins told Weinstein.
Later, they sat in a room and watched film. Sure enough, Higgins didn’t screw up the coverage.
“Hey Jay, you were right, buddy,” Weinstein said. “That was on me.”
“He’s just able to like handle those type of situations so maturely and come back and have those conversations,” Weinstein said.
Higgins’ personality was evident to many of those around him. One time, after an exhausting Brebeuf off-season workout in scorching heat, Higgins took time to help others work on technique. Another time, during a miserable, rainy practice, Higgins opened a door leading to the field and yelled for his teammates to hear, “Let’s get it.” Then, along with a few teammates, he started singing Christmas music, which eventually spurred others to join.
At Lucas Oil Stadium on Wednesday, it wasn’t difficult to see Higgins’ energy. Toward the end of a media session, Iowa tight end Luke Lachey walked up to Higgins and asked about the players in that position group.
“They struggle, let’s be real,” Higgins said with a smile.
With 6-foot-6, 253-pound Lachey standing right in front of him, Higgins continued.
“These tight ends, they think they’re these big guys, you know? But they’re big cupcakes, you know? Lachey, he doesn’t want to get near a block. And don’t let me guard him. Don’t let me guard Luke. I mean, the guy won’t catch a pass all practice.”
Learning the ropes as an Iowa linebacker
When Roy met former Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, he asked something of him.
“Promise me that you will pour everything that you learned from Iowa into my son,” Roy told Campbell.
“He said, ‘I’ll do just that,’” Roy recalled.
Campbell was the nation's top linebacker last year and is now gone from the Iowa program. So is Seth Benson, who combined with Campbell to make a brick wall in the middle of the Hawkeye defense. Part of the reason that Higgins had to wait so long for his opportunity was because he was behind that duo. After playing on special teams in his first season, he had a slightly larger role in his second, then he made a more significant jump last season, tallying 39 total tackles.
In the transfer portal era, it’s uncommon to see role players stick around a program as long as Higgins has. But Iowa believed in Higgins, and he has not forgotten that. Higgins was overlooked as a high school prospect. Iowa was the only Power 5 program to offer him a scholarship. Even after that, when other programs showed more interest, Higgins was set with his decision.
“I knew the value of trusting the process,” Higgins said. “I knew Iowa was the place for me. I wanted to go somewhere I was coached extremely hard and expectations were high, so I felt like Iowa was always my home. I knew it was a place where I could thrive. I felt comfortable to stay. Just the relationships I’ve made up there. Some of my best friends are at the University of Iowa. The relationship I have with (linebackers) coach (Seth) Wallace. I mean, I would want nothing more than to make coach (Seth) Wallace and coach (defensive coordinator Phil) Parker proud.”
For Iowa’s defense to return to dominant form this season — and for the team to have a chance at getting to the Big Ten Championship Game — the departed production of Campbell and Benson needs to be replaced. Higgins can help do that, along with returning veteran Kyler Fisher and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson.
“He doesn’t have the experience of Campbell and Benson,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but he’s just been so strong in our program since he’s shown up. He was on the scout team, all that stuff, which a lot of guys were. But he’s just a guy that people kinda want to follow and he backs it up through his actions.”
And trying to pull that RV? It was actually Roy’s idea — a mental exercise meant to build Higgins’ confidence.
“If you want to focus, if you want to do whatever you want to do, you have the power, you have the will within yourself to do whatever you want to do in life,” Roy said.
More than a decade later, Higgins is well on his way.

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