MOUNT AYR – Jacob Sobotka chased his dream for the past three-plus years.
And, despite setback after setback and obstacle after obstacle popping up in his way, he remained committed to living out that dream in front of 70,585 screaming fans at Kinnick Stadium on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.
While his dream was to make it onto the field as an Iowa Hawkeye, he has also worked hard in the classroom to help set up his future after college and after football when he graduates from University of Iowa in December 2018.
Sobotka, the son of Michele and Darwin Sobotka of Mount Ayr, sees a future in insurance risk management or financial advising, or perhaps even as a lawyer.
Chasing that dream of playing football for Iowa was anything but easy for Sobotka.
The 2014 graduate of Mount Ayr Community High School was a walk-on to the program, having to pay his own way through school.
As a walk-on, Sobotka would have to fight his way into playing time with hard work, effort and hustle.
It looked as if he might finally get an opportunity to achieve that dream this past season, but Sobotka suffered his third major knee injury in less than two years.
Sobotka, 6-3 and 235 pounds, was participating in a special teams drill during spring practice and was blocking against the coverage team.
“I was kind of blocking and twisting at the same time, and my left leg came down funny,” Sobotka recalled. “It didn’t really pop, but it hurt. I could run and everything afterward, but that was the end of practice. I could tell something was wrong.”
It turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It was a massive blow for Sobotka, who had torn the ACL and medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee in December 2015 during preparations for Iowa’s trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Then, during the 2016 football season, Sobotka, now 22, re-injured his right knee. When faced with the decision to have surgery immediately and miss the rest of the season or play through the injury and continue in his role on the practice squad, Sobotka made the selfless decision to play through the pain.
At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Sobotka was awarded with Iowa’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honor.
“It was really rewarding to receive that award and be recognized for my role in what I did that season to help prepare the offense for that coming week,” Sobotka said. “Being recognized for what I had put in to play my role to the best of my abilities – it was really cool and rewarding to get that honor.”
But while Sobotka could have been bettering himself as an athlete and perhaps playing on the field for the Iowa Hawkeyes, he spent the better part of 14 months going to physical therapy to work his way back from his three knee injuries.
After the first knee injury in December 2015, Sobotka had surgery in January 2016. Doctors performed a patellar tendon graft, replacing his torn ACL with a section of his patellar tendon. At that time, he also had his torn meniscus stitched up.
After he re-injured the torn meniscus during the 2016 season, Sobotka had his right knee scoped in January 2017, when doctors shaved down the injured part of his meniscus.
He returned in time to play full-go during spring ball before suffering the torn left ACL. Doctors performed another patellar tendon graft to repair the injury in late April 2017.
“I’m all out of natural ACLs,” Sobotka said with a laugh. “I have matching scars on my knees.”
Sobotka had to stay mentally focused to make it through the grueling rehab exercises.
“A lot of it is just mentally staying into it, putting in all the time in the training room with the trainers, just staying into it mentally with the playbook and staying on top of things and making sure you’re doing everything you can to get back,” he said.
While a second torn ACL would spell the end for a lot of players, Sobotka decided to try making another comeback to finally achieve his goal of seeing the field as an Iowa Hawkeye.
Having the support of his doctors, coaches and teammates was important for Sobotka as he tried to make his way back to 100 percent for the third time.
“I reached out to my coaches and they supported me and said, ‘You’ve obviously worked hard to get back from the other two,’” Sobotka said. “They said, ‘If you want to call it quits, we understand. But, if you want to work back, we’ll support you.’ I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
“It was always my dream and it still is my dream to be on the team and be an Iowa Hawkeye. I’m not going to let that stop me.”
Unfortunately for Sobotka, that dream came to an end in early March, when Sobotka and Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz came to a mutual decision the risk of re-injuring his knees was too great for Sobotka to continue as a football player.
“I think I had just been avoiding that reality,” Sobotka told the CNA Wednesday. “He offered me to come back as a student assistant, which that’s what I’m doing right now. Just, with the chance of re-injury and kind of where I was at on the depth chart, it was best if I come back in a different role.”
Sobotka said no longer being a football player was a weird feeling that didn’t totally sink in until he returned to school following spring break.
“I said this to coach, I know I did everything I could to try to accomplish my goals and it just didn’t work out,” Sobotka said. “I couldn’t control what happened. I have closure in that sense. I’m not going to have any regrets about the way things turned out. That’s just what happened.”
Sobotka’s attitude toward trying to come back from those injuries didn’t surprise Delwyn Showalter, Mount Ayr’s activities director and one of Sobotka’s high school football co-coaches.
“That’s the kind of person he is. When he makes a commitment, he’s going to follow through on it,” Showalter said. “The other thing is he’s living his dream. He’s made the statement it’s been worth it to him just to be a part of that program and do the things he’s got to do. That’s without ever playing a down. You can’t put a price on something like that. It does say a lot about him to persevere and fight through the injuries.”
In a Wednesday interview with the CNA, Sobotka said the day before his conversation with coach Ferentz, he had actually re-injured his right knee, but had not told any of the team’s trainers yet.
Sobotka re-tore the meniscus in his right knee and doctors also discovered cartilage damage.
“Looks like I’m going to be getting surgery No. 4,” Sobotka said. “I think that was kind of my body saying it was definitely the right thing to happen.”
He will wait until the summer to have his surgery, as he will be required to use crutches for several weeks afterward.
Sobotka could have applied for a medical redshirt after his 2017 season was lost to the third knee injury. But, by the time he graduates in December 2018, he’ll have two degrees and a minor already, so adding another year of school didn’t make sense for Sobotka.
Sobotka had his sights set on getting back to 100 percent health so he could work toward making the field on special teams during the 2018 season.
“The goal is to try to find my way on the field on special teams,” Sobotka said in January. “A lot of it obviously depends on how close to 100 percent I am once I get recovered from my injury, which I think I should be close. That’s my goal, is to see the field on special teams this year, which I think the coaches will give me a real opportunity to do that.”
He said he lost out on the opportunity to get bigger, faster and stronger during the 14 months he spent rehabbing from his injuries, but overall Sobotka doesn’t feel like he’s any less of an athlete because of his injuries.
Sobotka had a number of people in his corner rooting for him to make it back from his knee injuries to see the field.
“I can’t imagine what I’m going to feel when he gets that opportunity, and I think about his parents and him, what that’s going to feel like for him,” Showalter, an avid Hawkeye fan, said in January. “A lot of people not just here in Mount Ayr, but a lot of people in the conference and the area ask about him and are very interested in him. I think there’s sometimes a bit of surprise from people that he has stayed with it. It’s not surprising for those of us who have had the opportunity to work close with him throughout high school.”
If Sobotka could go back in time, he wouldn’t change any of his decisions.
“If I could not get hurt, that’d be great. But, I wouldn’t change anything in terms of the decisions I made,” he said Wednesday. “It was always my dream to be a Hawkeye and I took my shot. This is how it turned out, but I don’t regret taking that shot at all.”
Even without playing a down for the Hawkeyes in his career, Sobotka has made a lifetime’s worth of memories with the team.
From Iowa’s big home wins over Michigan in 2016 and the 55-26 drubbing of Ohio State in 2017 to Marshall Koehn’s 58-yard game-winning field goal against Pittsburgh in 2015, Sobotka has seen some of Iowa’s biggest wins in recent memory up close and personal from the sidelines.
He has made bowl game trips to Jacksonville, Florida, and Tampa, Florida, Los Angeles and New York City.
This past December’s trip to New York City for the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium is at the top of the list for Sobotka.
“That was a highlight of my career, just being able to be a part of the teams that have done some of the things we’ve done over the past four years,” Sobotka said.
During that trip, the Hawkeyes visited the 9/11 Memorial and went up into the One World Observatory tower. The team saw the Rockettes and also put on a kids’ camp with some of the less-advantaged youth in the area at Yankee Stadium.
Sobotka’s time at Iowa hasn’t been all about football, however.
He estimated he might spend anywhere from 25 to 30 hours per week dedicated solely to football, whether that’s the maximum 20 hours a week of work with the team in practices and meetings, watching film outside of practice and visiting the training room.
And yet, even with all that time dedicated to being a collegiate football player, Sobotka has maintained a 3.80 grade point average while double majoring in economics and finance, and picking up a minor in sport and recreation management. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2017.
“It’s kind of tough, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that bad,” Sobotka said. “You just have to be focused on what you’re doing at the time. Like at football, you can’t be thinking about homework or class, and while you’re in class you can’t be too preoccupied with football. You have to be good at managing your time and spending your time wisely when you are studying or working toward a task.”
One of the biggest keys to being successful in the academic realm while also being a student-athlete has been staying on top of his classwork.
In a deadline-oriented environment, avoiding having to cram for a final at the last minute is an easy way to avoid unnecessary stress.
“That’s something coach (Kirk) Ferentz talks about a lot, especially when we have some off time or time away, like bye weeks, is to get ahead on our classes so we’re not jamming things in last minute,” Sobotka said.
“He’s very attentive to detail, that’s just the way he was in high school,” Showalter said. “He knows what he has to do. He’s very disciplined, whether it’s his approach to training or rehab or academics. He’s able to prioritize and manage his time well, which is a much bigger task at the level he’s at right now, with the amount of time he has to spend in football.”
Sobotka has been on the University of Iowa dean’s list 10 times, and has also been in the honors program, although he will not graduate with honors unless he finds time to do do an honors thesis.
Sobotka has just one class left to finish his economics degree and has upper-level finance classes left to take, as well.
“He’s an outstanding young man, very mature, great ability to see the big picture, which benefited him in athletics when he was in high school, but I think in this situation it really benefits him, as well,” Showalter said.
One of the biggest decisions left for Sobotka is deciding what career path he wants to pursue and if he wants to attend law school or not.
He is looking at a potential career in insurance risk management, and has also been in contact with some financial advisers to see if that’s a path he wants to take.
“Law school seems kind of interesting, because I’ve always been kind of interested in that and I think I would be decently good at it,” Sobotka said. “If I decide it’s something I want to do, then I’ll prepare for the LSAT this semester and take it probably this summer. It’s a little scary not knowing exactly what I’m going to be doing, but I’m sure it will work itself out if I just stay on top of things and stay proactive with it.”