It's fun to cheer for the underdog. Especially when he has such a convenient last name.
Six months ago, football fans at the University of Iowa barely knew of Mark Weisman, a sophomore out of Stevenson who was happy simply to have a spot with the scout team.
Now, Weisman is a big name and a favorite at Kinnick Stadium on Saturdays, drawing cheers he could have never imagined.
"Since my name rhymes with Heisman, the fans will chant 'Weisman for Heisman,'" Weisman said with a laugh. "They're pretty crazy with that kind of stuff."
Crazy might be the idea of Weisman coming out of nowhere to win college football's top award. But crazy also describes the current chapter of Weisman's story, an improbable rise up the depth chart that is as uncommon as it is amazing.
Weisman is a walk-on. Has been since he stepped on campus last year.
But the 6-foot, 225-pound Weisman isn't your typical walk-on. He worked his tail off last spring and summer to leapfrog teammates on scholarship and earn a starting spot for this season in Iowa's backfield. On top of that, he's also rolled up enough yards through the first five games to stand fifth among all Big Ten rushers in the current conference statistical rankings. He's running for 103 yards per game.
For good measure, Weisman is also leading the league in yards per carry at 7 per game. His 177 yards on 22 carries (8 yards per carry) in Iowa's 31-13 victory over Minnesota last weekend is one of the best individual performances in the Big Ten this season.
And to think that most walk-ons for major Division I teams barely see the light of day during games, let alone a spot among the leaders in their conference.
"It's definitely been a rush, and a little surreal," said Weisman, who has scored 6 touchdowns over the last two weeks. "The odds certainly aren't in a walk-on's favor. When I came in here, I definitely came in at the bottom of the totem pole."
Weisman was at the top of the heap as a senior at Stevenson, ranking as one of the top rushers in the area and one of the most prolific in school history. Known for his bruising, relentless running, Weisman finished his senior season in 2009 with 1,657 yards and 22 touchdowns. And he capped off his career by being named first team all-state.
Interested in continuing to play to his strength, Weisman zeroed in on college programs that featured the fullback. He signed with Air Force, which runs the triple option.
Weisman was also excited about military life.
Or so he thought.
Keeping up with school and football and all of his military obligations was difficult for Weisman. By the end of his freshman year, he was ready to transfer.
"It was tough because I felt like I was letting a lot of people down," Weisman said. "A lot of people were excited about me going to Air Force, and I was, too. But I think, deep down, you know when something's not right for you and you have to do what's best for you."
Weisman targeted Iowa, a school that he was interested in from an academic standpoint, and a football program he admired. Ironically, though, the Hawkeyes had passed on him in high school.
"Iowa was always a place where I dreamed of playing," Weisman said. "(Former Stevenson coach) Bill Mitz helped me a lot as I tried to contact them about transferring, and I got in.
"This has worked out better than I could have ever thought it would."
Weisman, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, has benefitted not only from his own hard work in the off-season, but from some unforeseen circumstances as well.
Iowa's top two running backs have gone down with injuries this season. So Weisman, who started the first three games at fullback and was used only in certain situations, is now the primary tailback in the offense and is getting double-digit carries every game.
"Mark just needed an opportunity," said Stevenson coach Bill McNamara, who was the Patriots' offensive coordinator when Weisman was there. "Unfortunately, it came because of some injuries. But the thing is, he seized the moment. He's showing everyone what we always knew about him. Mark is a big, powerful runner that adds something unique to that tailback position."
For one thing, Weisman adds durability. In a game against Lake Forest during his senior year, Weisman rolled up a whopping 46 rushing attempts en route to well over 200 yards.
"He doesn't have that NFL speed that coaches are always looking for, and maybe he doesn't have that NFL look when he runs. But he just runs hard," McNamara said. "I pulled out some old Stevenson tapes on him and every time he touched the ball, he would get at least five yards, no matter how many guys got a hand on him.
"He started out low in the pecking order at Iowa. But he worked hard at getting even stronger and tougher that he already was. Going against the first string defense at Iowa last year, I think he earned a lot of respect and now it's all paying off for him."
The payoff has come not only in playing time and fan adulation, but in financial assistance as well. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced recently that Weisman will be on full scholarship as of next semester.
"I committed to Air Force pretty early so the recruiting thing really never got too involved and I didn't have a lot going on my senior year," Weisman said. "But one school that I did look at besides Air Force was Iowa. But they told me back then that they couldn't offer me a scholarship, that it would only be a walk-on thing.
"Then I transfer here, and walk on, and now, I'm playing a lot and it ends up that I'm going to get the scholarship. It's just crazy. But I think it shows you that if you work hard and have goals, you can do anything."
Could that include living up to a rhyming chant? Stay tuned.
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