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Rhoads less traveled: The non-traditional route of a student-athlete

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In addition to being a junior in public relations, Wyatt Rhoads is a decathlete, the vice president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and is involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. 

May 22, 2015 — Des Moines, Iowa

The sun beamed down on the “Blue Oval” in Drake Stadium at the Iowa Girls and Boys State Track Meet. Wyatt Rhoads, then a senior at Gilbert High School, had high hopes of winning the 400 meter hurdles for 3A. And he was seeded to do it.

Wyatt had already completed two races. The day before, he and his teammates won the 4x800 meter relay. Earlier that morning, he had raced in the 100 meter hurdles, missing out on making the finals by .3 seconds.

Vickie Rhoads, Wyatt’s mom, and Paul Rhoads, Wyatt’s dad and then-Iowa State head football coach, were in the stands. The stands were reaching their capacity, as is usual for the Drake Relays and championship meets.

About three months earlier, the Rhoads family was in Des Moines for a different championship event — that time it was the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament. Wyatt’s goal was to place. He did.

As the ceremony for the 145-pound 2A place winners was announced, Vickie Rhoads looked on at the eight finalists at the podium in Wells Fargo Arena. All eight of them stood with their chests puffed, hands clasped in front of them. Seven of them were stone-faced — except Wyatt, who was sporting a cheesy smile with a big ol’ mustache above his lip on the eighth place step. 

Now, as Wyatt prepared for his race at the Blue Oval, the mustache was gone, but the smile wasn’t. The number 53 was etched on his wrist in Sharpie, reminding him that he needed to finish the race in 53 seconds or faster to win the race. He knew he could do it.

Wyatt made his way to lane four, the fast lane. Each hurdle poised around the track — no barrier to him, as he’d been competing in hurdles since seventh grade track.

The race started — and it started well. Until the third hurdle.

Wyatt nicked the third hurdle, somersaulting. Yet, somehow, he didn’t go out of his lane, which doesn’t often happen. All he could think was that he wanted to win. And he couldn’t win if he didn’t keep going.


Wyatt, a junior in public relations, is a student-athlete — now a decathlete on the men’s track and field team. His journey to that role was non-traditional.

Sports have always been a part of his life. He tried every sport growing up, and he was a four-sport athlete in high school (football, wrestling, track and baseball). Not to mention athletic genes run through his blood. His dad is a Division I football coach who played in college and his mom played Division II basketball.

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Wyatt Rhoads laughs during a game before a student-athlete connection group meeting.

And “student-athlete” is just one of the ways he defines himself. That self-identifier comes after Christian, fun, energetic, goofy and competitive.

“He’s very well rounded,” Paul Rhoads said. “He does well in school — it doesn’t consume him. He does well in track and field — it doesn’t consume him. He’s got strong faith and he spreads that out. He’s really able to keep himself going in a lot of directions and not shut himself down.”


Nov. 26, 2017 — Ames, Iowa

Wyatt returned to Ames from Thanksgiving break after the seven-hour drive from Arkansas. His family had made the move when his dad took the job as defensive backs coach, later promoted to defensive coordinator, at the University of Arkansas after being fired from the Iowa State head coaching job.

Wyatt has been down to see his family during breaks, even making the commute during some of the weekends in the fall to catch his dad’s games.

As it goes for coaches, the Rhoads family had to pick up and move all at once when Paul Rhoads took the new job. The move to Fayetteville happened during the middle of track season during Wyatt’s freshman year, so he wasn’t able to go to Fayetteville right away. But Vickie Rhoads was sure to set up his room just like it’d been for years when they lived in Ames — signed Shawn Johnson poster on the wall and all.

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Wyatt Rhoads prays during a student-athlete connection group meeting on Sunday, Nov. 26. Rhoads has spent a lot of time exploring various denominations of Christianity and is also involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. 

He got back to Ames late in the afternoon. He and his two roommates were hosting their regular meeting with their student-athlete faith group that night at 7 p.m. Wyatt is involved in the group and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Since coming to college, he’s spent a lot of time learning about varying denominations of Christianity and wants to find ways to unify different denominations.

In each room of his house in Ames, where Wyatt has lived for the last two years, there are projects and objects that scream of Wyatt’s randomness. A sword in the living room he found at a garage sale this summer, movie posters in the basement, t-shirts with giant animal heads in his closet and perhaps most notably, a blow-up hot tub in the garage that he and his friends all chipped in for after Wyatt texted them all the idea on a whim.

As his dad puts it, he refuses to sit idly, or as his mom puts it, if he sets his mind to an idea, he’s going to make it happen. He and one of his roommates, Ryan Parslow, who is also on the track team, complete a lot of DIY projects — like a loft for Parslow’s bed or painting the yard’s fence to look like a beach theme (living on Beach Road, they call their house the beach house). Wyatt is the idea person and Parslow, the executor.

Around 6:40 p.m., he and his roommates began scurrying around, picking up the house for the group coming over. Wyatt — in his jeans, t-shirt with a giant dog and Christmas colored fuzzy socks — cleared the living room and kitchen table. Group members arrived, one at a time, coming through the back door, making themselves at home.

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Wyatt Rhoads has a collection of animal t-shirts that he has acquired since a bet in high school. The animals include wolves, lions, dogs, eagles, elk and a dinosaur. 

Connecting student athletes and helping them use the extra attention they get in a positive way is important to Wyatt. That’s why he’s involved with the connection group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and is the vice president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council.

The connection group was meeting in Parslow’s room that night. Each time they meet, they play a game and pray before starting their discussion. The game of choice for the night was called Contact, where you guess a secret word by finding out each letter by asking questions. When it was Wyatt’s turn to have the secret word, he chose onomatopoeia — a real stumper.

Dec. 6, 2014 — Fort Worth, Texas

Paul Rhoads had to stick around in Fort Worth after a bad loss to the TCU Horned Frogs, who had defeated the Cyclones (2-10) in the final game of the 2014 season. The coaching staff stayed over after the game to recruit.

Wyatt would turn his mood around with a phone call.

“He called me that night, and had made a decision that he wanted to walk on and play football at Iowa State for his old man,” Paul Rhoads said. “And that was a nice pick-me-up on that night because we’d been pounded good. To know that he wanted to come play football for his dad was a lot of fun.” 

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Wyatt Rhoads, right, and his family. 

Wyatt had been on several college visits to smaller schools wanting to play football. And he went on an official visit to Iowa State, though he was already pretty familiar with the program given who is dad is. Paul Rhoads went on the visits to the other schools — you can imagine the dad jokes that must’ve been told — but never pressured him into deciding where to go.

The two even toured his mom’s and dad’s alma mater, Missouri Western State University.

“I was probably more excited to be there than he was, to be completely honest,” Paul Rhoads said, laughing about it.

In high school, Wyatt was on the field every snap for Gilbert — playing wide receiver on offense, cornerback on defense and long snapper on special teams. Jared Gescheidler, Gilbert’s quarterback and now-linebacker at Iowa State, said Wyatt would yell at him if he didn’t throw him the ball. Despite having the schedule of a Division I head coach, Paul Rhoads would be in the stands, along with his wife, and would often fly separately from the rest of the Iowa State team to make both his roles as dad and coach work.

Paul Rhoads said he tried to be a dad rather than a coach in watching all of Wyatt’s sports, but he admits he was probably most critical in football.

Circa 2005 — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

For Wyatt, growing up the son of a Division I football coach was normal. Division I football players were just regular guys who happened to play for his dad when he ran around Division I practice facilities and stadiums as a little kid — even when those players happened to be NFL star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who played at Pittsburgh when Paul Rhoads coached there. 

And moving to where your dad was coaching — Iowa State to Pittsburgh to Auburn, back to Iowa State — was normal.

That’s not to say that the family name didn’t come without some fame. In a town as small as Ames, and a state as small as Iowa, the name of the head football coach at Iowa State means something. And to be his son means something.

But in middle school and high school, when your neighbors are the Hoibergs (the family of then-men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg) and the Pollards (the family of Athletics Director Jamie Pollard), it doesn’t seem too unusual to be a coach’s son.

If the video of Wyatt asking Hoiberg’s daughter to prom going viral was a sign for anything (Vickie Rhoads noted it was hilarious because he’s not the best singer), it was that his name, and who his dad was, meant something to fans around the state.

For Wyatt, having his mom be the primary parent to take him to school, practice and other activities was normal — a role Vickie Rhoads said she enjoyed because of her passion for sports. Having his dad being gone for recruiting trips, practices or games was normal.

One of the first times he remembers realizing that his normal was different than other kids’ normal was when he went to Boy Scouts when the family lived in Pittsburgh and Vickie Rhoads came as his “scout dad.”

Summer 2015 — Ames, Iowa

Wyatt couldn’t shake the memory of the 400 hurdles at the championship in May. What if he hadn’t nicked the third hurdle? Would he have finished in first — like he was seeded to do — instead of eighth? After all, despite falling, he’d managed to race one of his best times that season. What would his time have been if it weren’t for that third hurdle?

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Wyatt Rhoads stumbles over a hurdle during the state track and field meet in 2015. 

The race left a sour taste in his mouth. And it was part of the reason he decided to email Iowa State’s track coach on a whim to ask if he could walk onto the track team. The answer, yes.

So Wyatt set out to be a dual sport athlete at Iowa State. Though, he was technically a dual sport athlete before asking to join the track team because he and Gescheidler were finishing up high school baseball as they started summer football at Iowa State.

February 2016 — Ames, Iowa

Going to track practices, football practices, class and his activities wore Wyatt out. Gescheidler said it didn’t seem like he was enjoying football anymore. Not to mention, his dad was no longer Iowa State’s football coach.

When Wyatt made the decision to walk on at Iowa State, a big part of the reason was to be close to home. After his dad was fired from Iowa State at the end of the 2015 season, his home moved from just a few miles from campus to seven hours from campus. That toll on a family seemingly escapes fans’ minds when they post cruel comments on social media or say things in passing about coaches being fired.

“It was a really hard decision if he wanted to stay and keep playing when they fired Paul,” Vickie Rhoads said. “And ultimately, he decided that he’d stay because he wanted to keep playing with his teammates.”

So Wyatt gave football a try with the new coaching staff. But once he got into the thick of track, he was wearing himself thin spending six or more hours a day on practices for the two sports.

“He was trying to be fully committed to the off-season program with football and then he was trying to go over and run and get the technical work needed for his individual events,” Paul Rhoads said. “And it was just very grueling and he was finding himself heavy-legged and not being able to compete and do his best. And that’s all every athlete wants to do.”

He decided he wanted to focus on track, making the transition into a multi-event athlete.

“That was Wyatt,” Vickie Rhoads said. “He was like ‘all right, let’s go, let’s do this,’ and he was ready for the new challenge.”

Vickie Rhoads remembers Wyatt being excited after the first pole vaulting practice. He told her it was hard, but he loved it. 

“The first meet that he did the pole vault was there at Iowa State,” Vickie Rhoads said. “It was so funny because he still didn’t know how to do pole vault. But he was trying his best. And he finally cleared a bar. 

“Instead of going feet first and coming over the bar, he rolled over the bar,” she said. “It was so funny the smile on his face and to see that excitement. And everyone in the crowd was clapping because it was entertaining to watch.”

That fueled him to go higher and get better.

In addition to some of the other meets, Vickie and Paul Rhoads have been in the stands for all of Wyatt’s competitions in the Big 12 Indoor Championships, where he placed 12th and 11th in the heptathlon, respectively, and Big 12 Outdoor Championships, where he placed seventh both years.

Nov. 27, 2017 — Ames, Iowa

An unusual late-November day in Iowa, the temperature around 50 degrees made for ideal conditions for outdoor track practice.

Wyatt practiced with Jackson Foutch, a freshman decathlete, from Kansas City, Missouri, though Wyatt would tell you he’s from Kansas City, Kansas, to mess with him. Their coach wasn’t at practice, so the two were on their own to get through the workout.

“He’s in the same boat I was,” Wyatt said about Foutch learning to be a multi-event athlete. 

Toward the end of getting through discus repetitions, they transitioned from windmill to full spin technique. Foutch had never done full spin, so Wyatt encouraged him to give it a go.

 

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Wyatt Rhoads' hat was given to him by his father, former head football coach Paul Rhoads several years ago. 

For as long as he can remember, Wyatt wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a coach. Originally a football coach, like his grandpa and dad, but having not played all the way through college, he now thinks he wants to be a track coach.

“I’ve watched the impact my dad has on people,” Wyatt said. “Athletes spend more time with their coaches than their family. And you’re able to help kids grow up and mature.” 

And he’s got the support from one coach who knows how much work goes into it.

“If you’re not passionate about it, it can consume you and wear you out,” Paul Rhoads said. “He’s got enough common sense and intelligence to be able to see that and manage that. Because when it comes to relationships, and a family, and giving your job the best, if you can’t do that, it’ll be a struggle.

“Growing up around it, I think he’s got a clear vision of that, and if that’s what he wants to do, we support him 100 percent.”

May 22, 2015 — Des Moines, Iowa

Right after the 400 hurdles at the Blue Oval, Wyatt couldn’t feel anything.

As soon as he crossed the finish line, he fell to his knees and punched the ground. He sat there for a minute.

Wyatt walked into the infield and laid on his back on the ground for a couple of minutes before he did an interview with a reporter. After the interview was over, the ankle started to swell. Pain didn’t set in until about a half hour later.

His ankle began to look like someone had taken blue and black fingerpaints to it. It hurt. But the hurt didn’t matter. Racing with his teammates that afternoon and the next day mattered.

After icing it all night long, he taped up the ankle. They reckoned the ankle was sprained, but he never did go find out because the doctors would most likely tell him he had to rest, and with another track meet and baseball season starting the next week, rest was the last thing he wanted to do.

So Wyatt put on his socks and shoes — one that barely fit around the hurt ankle.

And he raced.

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