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Cool Decisions

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Times Staff Writer

Iowa fullback Edgar Cervantes grew up in Southern California, so it’s understandable that he wasn’t familiar with bitterly cold Midwest winters when he took his recruiting trip in December 1998.

When his plane landed in Cedar Rapids on that frosty day, Cervantes was dressed in T-shirt and shorts.

“It was pretty cold,” he recalled. “I came off the airplane and coaches were waiting for me with a jacket, so they knew what to expect.”

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Cervantes, of course, had no clue what to expect. But he soon warmed to the idea of attending college in a strange place. He felt welcome, even though he would become one of the few minority students on campus.

A month after Cervantes had committed to Iowa, his Bell High teammate, Ramon Ochoa, did the same. Together, they have weathered culture shock and bouts of homesickness in contributing to the resurrection of the Hawkeye football program.

Cervantes, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound junior, will start at fullback today, for the 13th consecutive time, when No. 3-ranked Iowa (11-1) plays No. 5 USC (10-2) in the Orange Bowl. Ochoa, a 5-10, 190-pound junior, plays mostly on passing downs as a reserve wide receiver.

“They’re both positive, great team guys,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They bring a lot of energy to the field for us.”

So how did two Latino kids from Maywood end up playing for Iowa? It was largely by accident.

Iowa coaches were reviewing game film of a Jefferson High running back when they noticed a linebacker on the opposing team making all the tackles. That was Cervantes, an All-City Section player for Bell.

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“The coaches forgot about the running back and started calling me,” Cervantes said.

David Shemwell, who was Bell’s coach during that 1998 season, mentioned to Iowa coaches that he had another good athlete. He provided Iowa with a highlight video of Ochoa, who played quarterback, receiver, running back, defensive back, punter and return specialist in high school.

After taking a recruiting trip to Oklahoma, Ochoa visited Iowa and decided to join his buddy Cervantes.

The reception they got from Iowa’s fans sealed the deal.

“The people here are so nice compared to L.A.,” Cervantes said.

Although he was initially concerned about fitting in as one of the few Latinos in Iowa City, Cervantes soon felt comfortable in his new surroundings.

“I was a little intimidated at first,” he said. “I felt people might be judgmental. But Iowa has amazing people. They accepted me as a person and they liked me.”

Said Ochoa: “I’ve never seen any racist judgment here.”

Anti-Los Angeles sentiment is another matter. When Ochoa dons his Laker jersey and walks into an Iowa City bar to watch the hometown team on TV, he knows some catcalls will be directed his way.

“Everybody boos us,” Ochoa said. “It comes with the territory.”

Ochoa doesn’t hide his allegiance to Southland sports teams from teammates. He showed up for a recent weightlifting session wearing a Laker cap and King hockey jersey. He also had stitches under his right eye and a shiner that looked suspiciously like the result of a punch.

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Ochoa sheepishly explained that he landed on his face after slipping on ice. No one believes his story, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Iowa weather had stopped him cold in his tracks.

During his first year at school, Ochoa said if he went outside and his nose hairs froze, he wouldn’t go to class that day.

Other times, Ochoa and Cervantes stared out the window of their apartment on snowy days and wondered what they were doing so far from home.

Ochoa would play Spanish music to soothe his homesickness. Cervantes would talk on the phone with his parents and look forward to visits home, packing his bags a week in advance.

“I was a mama’s boy,” Cervantes said.

A little over a year ago, he started to feel at home in Iowa. It coincided with his emerging status on the football team.

Cervantes became Iowa’s backup fullback last season, after switching from linebacker in spring practice. As a starter this season, he has rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown in 25 carries. His main responsibility is blocking for tailback Fred Russell and quarterback Brad Banks.

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“In a lot of ways, Edgar is like a lineman,” Ferentz said. “What being a fullback is all about is bringing toughness to a football team, and Edgar does that.”

Cervantes credits Chris Doyle, Iowa’s strength and conditioning coach, for helping him develop into a physical player. He has gained 30 pounds in college and nearly doubled his strength -- his bench press went from 275 pounds to 480 -- thanks to a strict regimen of weightlifting.

“The first year here, with a new staff, everybody was raw,” Cervantes said of the 1999 season, which Iowa finished 1-10. “We were very soft. We weren’t as strong, physically and mentally, as we are now. The coaches have established that.”

Cervantes and Ochoa are two of three Californians on the Iowa roster. Sophomore punter David Bradley is from Torrey Pines High in San Diego.

Ochoa has five receptions for 64 yards this season and also plays on special teams. Frustrated with his limited role, he said he briefly considered transferring.

“It does cross your mind when you’re not seeing the field and you think you should be playing,” Ochoa said. “But I’m getting a great education. I’m happy.”

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Ochoa is looking forward to the Orange Bowl as much as any Iowa player.

Growing up, he was a USC football fan.

“That was my squad,” he said. “I loved Keyshawn [Johnson] and Rob Johnson and Johnnie Morton.”

Ochoa said he stopped cheering for the Trojans the day he signed his letter of intent.

“I’m looking forward to playing them,” he said. “I’m a local kid and they didn’t think I could play for them. If I can do a few things against them, I wouldn’t mind that.”

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