IOWA CITY — Freshmen year, Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach were pulled out of a drill. They knew it wasn’t going to be good.
Then-defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski didn’t like something. The specifics are lost in the mist of time. It’s been five years since their old position coach unloaded on them on the practice field during their first August camp.
They did something and the two Cleveland-area natives knew they were going to hear about it.
“He told us he’d give us two bus tickets back to Cleveland,” Gaglione said with a big laugh and smile. “At the time, we were like, ‘It’s not a bad idea to go back.’ ”
Gaglione stayed. He stayed through a torn labrum that cost him the 2009 season. He stayed through a painful sports hernia that kept him out of spring practice in 2010. The 6-4, 264-pounder stayed even though the only playing time he saw in his first three years on campus came in a 35-7 victory over Iowa State in 2010.
He didn’t always feel like staying.
“Yeah, definitely did,” Gaglione said of the thought of quitting. “It was hard to deal with.
“The darkest moment would probably be missing all of the ’09 season and spring ball of 2010. I had the shoulder surgery and then I ended up finding out that I had a sports hernia. It was a hard, hard time period.
“That’s the hardest thing. I’d been playing football since I was 8-years-old, you get it taken away from you for more than a year, it’s definitely hard to deal with.”
Let’s call this the “Scarring of Joe Gaglione.” Shoulder surgery, hernia and the famously fiery Rick Kaczenski, who left Iowa for the D-line position at Nebraska last December, burned their lessons into the quietly intense, quick-to-smile Novelty, Ohio, resident.
At least surgery could take care of the shoulder and the hernia. Kidding, kidding. Gaglione and Bigach spoke well of their time under Kaczenski, who was replaced by former Iowa O-line coach Reese Morgan.
But that “bus ticket to Cleveland” comment is something they remember.
“One time he told us during our freshmen year when we were struggling in practice that he was going to give us bus tickets back to Cleveland,” Bigach said laughing. “It was all in good fun, all part of our improvement.”
There is the improvement. That is plain to see.
After three years of bupkus, Gaglione saw the field on a regular basis last season. He played defensive tackle in 10 games last season, picking up the first stats of his career (seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss).
Iowa’s coaching staff was obviously in transition, and Gaglione sort of got lost in the shuffle last spring. He was listed as a No. 2 defensive tackle behind redshirt freshman Darian Cooper.
Between that depth chart being typed and the spring scrimmage on April 14, Gaglione made a couple of moves. He ended up at defensive end and held down the starter spot. “Joe Gaglione, who’s barely played, he had a good spring, certainly a starting point,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said then.
Hey, that was something. Sure, it wasn’t glowing, but from where Gaglione was — looking for the exit — it was a start. He said his D-line mates kept him rooted in Iowa City.
“I would say Karl Klug and Mike Daniels,” Gaglione said when asked who helped keep him positive. “They would always tell me, you’re a good player, you’re a young player, you definitely have talent and a lot of time left. I stayed hard on my rehab and it paid off. Now, I’m in great position.”
Gaglione held the defensive end position through the end of spring and fall camp. Through two games, he’s been Iowa’s best defensive lineman. He has four tackles for loss (second in the Big Ten), a sack and two forced fumbles, including one against Iowa State last week.
If Gaglione is a late arrival for the Hawkeyes, that kind of fits the pattern for him. He was a late arrival on Iowa’s recruiting radar. Coming out of Lake Catholic (Mentor, Ohio) High School (former Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi’s school), Gaglione parlayed a 22-sack senior season into scholarship offers from Iowa, Indiana and Pittsburgh.
“What he’s doing now doesn’t surprise me too much, because it was very similar for him in high school,” Lake Catholic coach Eric Bell said. “He played well as a junior, but he was absolutely off the charts as a senior football player and it wasn’t until his senior year when he started to get the interest and the offers to play at that level.
‘It was almost like he came out of nowhere. He was virtually unblockable and that’s playing against legitimate guys like [former Ohio State OT] Mike Adams, who’s playing tackle for the Steelers right now. Against guys like that, he did well.”
The tradition at Lake Catholic is the school hangs the NFL jerseys of its alumni somewhere. Joe Jurevicius, former Cleveland Browns receiver, has his up in the gym. Eric Kettani, a fullback with the Patriots, has his jersey hanging in the coaches office.
Bell said the school is still waiting for the Kansas City Chiefs to send a Stanzi jersey.
Yes, Gaglione would love nothing more than to have this honor, but he immediately snaps into the hear and now. He knows he’s hardly a finished product and that his thing right now is being No. 99 at Iowa.
He finishes every thought with “improve.” It’s almost as though he still hears Kaczenski still barking at him.
Gaglione laughs again.
“Honestly, I think it really shaped who both Steve and I are,” he said. “When you come in here, you always think you’re all world. It’s an eye opener when you get here, especially with someone like coach K. He’s a hard coach, but he does get the best out of you. Him being hard on us shaped us to who we are, that’s why we take in the younger guys.
“If they’re having a hard time, we just say, ‘Hey, we’ve had it a lot harder than you. You can get through this. We’ll help you through it.’ ”