When Brennen Normand boarded a flight for Des Moines in New Orleans late in the fall of 2019, he really had no idea what was in store for him as a new sports reporter for the Creston News Advertiser.
The trip was designed to secure an apartment and lay the groundwork for making the 17-hour drive less than two weeks later. He had never been farther north than Monroe, Louisiana, so this would become a cultural (and climate) adjustment in addition to gaining work experience as a recent graduate of Louisiana State University.
“Where I grew up, I’m 10 minutes from swamps, Cypress trees and 12-foot alligators,” said Normand, who will return to his Louisiana roots after his final day at the News Advertiser on March 12. He will become a sports and crime reporter for the Hammond (Louisiana) Daily Star.
In those 16 months, Normand learned a lot about the landscape of Iowa and its passion for high school (and junior college) sports. He loved almost all of it, except the extremes of a Midwestern winter. It’s what first came to mind when asked by a reporter, “If someone from back home asked you what living in Iowa is like, what would you say?”
“For me, it’s two things,” Normand said. “Obviously, it’s as cold as could be. I mean, minus-24 is ridiculous! The coldest temperature I’d probably ever been in before was 25. I think the worst part was getting in my truck and everything was just so cold. Being able to see my breath in the truck, that wasn’t something I was expecting, because at home you just turn on the heater for a few minutes and you’re good. Here, it’s not that fast. Let me put it this way, I wore long johns a lot!”
Normand said the other lasting impression of the state relates to his passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hunter and fisherman.
“The hunting is unbelievable,” he said. “At home we have a lease to hunt some land in Mississippi. On those 400 acres, you’ll probably have three to five ‘shooter deer’ on the property — those bucks that you’re really looking for. Here, I would see the same number of shooter deer just in one hunt!”
In November last year, Normand got his trophy buck on Union County public land. He had received a bow tag from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and got his kill on Nov. 2. It was a long night, dragging the 300-pound animal to his kayak at the shoreline so he could get to a boat ramp area to load it into his truck, where he was assisted by CNA sports editor Tyler Hetu.
Besides having his expected work in writing about sports disrupted several months by the coronavirus one year ago, the shutdown in public interactions for such a long period diminished his chances to share many of his Cajun recipes with large gatherings. Both of his parents, Toby and Jennifer (Juneau) Normand, are descendants of the French who settled in the Acadian provinces of Canada, with their distinct history and culture.
Normand had a few opportunities to prepare those southern Louisiana favorites of jambalaya and gumbo. He misses regular consumption of some of his favorites, such as Boudin links and pork cracklin, as well as many native alligator recipes from his home swamp area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
“The big thing back home about food is, it’s a way to bring people together,” Normand said. “I would make a phone call on a Tuesday at home and have 20 people over in less than an hour. I make gumbo that could feed 30 people. The isolation here was tough during (Covid shutdown). One of the hardest things for me was adjusting to not being able to have people over to do those things. At home, everything revolves around that. I don’t know how to cook for one!”
When high school sports returned in June, Normand was able to return to his love. For a few weeks, he and Hetu helped in news coverage of the pandemic and its effect on local businesses and policies.
He and Hetu covered Creston and Mount Ayr in the State Softball Tournament.
“State softball was so much fun,” Normand said. “That Mount Ayr regional final win, when they were behind and down to their last strike twice, was the craziest softball game I’ve ever seen live.”
New sport to cover
Although he had never seen a wrestling mat before arriving in Iowa — only a few private schools in Louisiana offer the sport — he grew to enjoy covering it here in one of southwest Iowa’s wrestling hotbeds.
“I really enjoyed covering the buildup to state in those (sectional and district) tournaments where you win or go home,” Normand said. “I remember going into Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday night last year and just being amazed at the crowd.”
After covering events like state cross country and state wrestling, Normand said he grew to appreciate the work ethic of Iowa prep athletes.
“High school kids work their tail off here,” Normand said. “You talk to Braelyn Baker about all of those mornings running at 5:30 a.m., or what Jackson Kinsella went through to be as good as he was in wrestling. The kids here work hard.”
This week, he’s covering the Nodaway Valley girls basketball team in their first trip to the state tournament. It’s a perfect ending to his time here.
“That team is just so much fun to watch,” Normand said. “I was praying that they’d make it to state and I could end there.”
As he prepares to move back home, Normand has learned a lot about Midwestern culture. But, it wasn’t immediate.
“My first trip to Creston, we stopped at Casey’s and the lady checking me out asked me if I wanted something and I didn’t understand her,” Normand said. “Finally, I realized she asked if I wanted a sack. I said, ‘a sack of what?’ All I knew was a sack of potatoes. So, I said “Oh, you mean a bag?’
“She said yes and looked at me like I was dumb as a post,” Normand said. “I remember we were hanging out at Hulett’s after Hawkeye 10 wrestling and they thought it was funny that when I go shopping at Walmart I use a ‘buggy.’ I found out y’all call it a (shopping) cart.”
If he longs for any discussion of Iowa nostalgia, Normand won’t have to go far. Creston native Kory Borcherding is an instructor for the Louisiana State Police in Hammond. Jeff Hundley of Creston is executive director of the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Normand interviewed him after Hundley coordinated activities associated with the 2020 National Championship Game that concluded the 2019 season.
“It was fun to learn about the inner workings of the buildup for that event and talk about everything that New Orleans has to offer,” Normand said. “I have so much pride in where I’m from.”
He’s glad he went on this 16-month adventure.
“Absolutely!” he said. “I was able to move away from something I was familiar with and get started working in something I love. There’s no doubt that the experience helped me.”