Austin Blythe was 17 years old in the spring of 2010 and clearly more prepared than most adults to make a mature decision when he found himself in the crosshairs of temptation -- eating alongside future NFL stars Andrew Luck and David DeCastro at In-N-Out Burger.
For Blythe, at the time a star high school lineman and champion heavyweight wrestler from Williamsburg, Iowa, this meal marked the most memorable moment of his unofficial recruiting visit to Stanford.
It was not his walk across the sprawling campus with its in-training diplomats and world-class athletes that so wowed Blythe’s high school coach and future father-in-law, Curt Ritchie. It was not the sit-down meetings with Jim Harbaugh, who, less than one year later, coached the Cardinal to a 12-1 mark and left for the 49ers.
It was not the personal attention from Luck, a rising sophomore quarterback months away from his first of two straight runner-up finishes in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Nope. Blythe recalls best the trip to California’s famous burger joint. And even that couldn’t contend with the appeal of playing in his home state. When he accepted a scholarship offer from the Hawkeyes not long after that Stanford visit, Blythe personally called Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to turn down the Cyclones.
Ritchie, upon instruction from Blythe, notified the rest of his suitors -- including Tim Drevno, then the offensive line coach at Stanford.
So when Iowa’s senior center and co-captain lines up on New Year’s Day against the No. 6 Cardinal in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Blythe won’t think for a second about what could have been.
The 23-year-old newlywed, among three finalists this fall for the Rimington Trophy, remains as satisfied in his college choice as any student-athlete you’ll find who turned down Stanford. Blythe is the picture of Iowa consistency for the fifth-ranked, 12-1 Hawkeyes.
“It was hard to turn down,” Blythe said this month of Stanford. “But at the end of the day, everything about Iowa pulled me here -- the proximity, the tradition that Iowa’s got, the coaches, the stability, coming to games since I was a little kid. It was too much to pass up.”
Ritchie, the veteran Williamsburg coach, never sent a player to the FBS ranks before Blythe. When Blythe received the offer from Iowa as a high school sophomore, Ritchie and Blythe’s father, also named Curt, questioned Austin’s ability.
After all, Blythe’s extended family sent numerous members to Division III Central College in Pella, Iowa. Shouldn’t Austin follow?
“I remember his dad and I for weeks trying to convince him that he wasn’t good enough,” Ritchie said, “and him trying to convince us that he was.”
Blythe has been plenty good enough. He redshirted in 2011 and has started 48 games over the past four years, including 44 straight, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors to Jack Allen of Michigan State each of the past two seasons.
“The guy is a really good football player,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and he’s a really good leader. We’re getting that from a lot of guys [who] are seniors, but Austin is a tremendous young man.”
Back in May 2010, when Ritchie called Drevno -- now with Harbaugh as Michigan’s offensive coordinator -- to deliver the news about Blythe, the Stanford coaches weren’t surprised.
Still, Harbaugh had tried hard during the visit, according to Ritchie, to get a commitment from Blythe. And as they boarded a flight to leave California, the high school coach took a call from old friend and Iowa assistant Reese Morgan, asking about the visit.
It had been a whirlwind for Ritchie, who admitted he was “in awe of the place.” Ritchie got a haircut on campus and talked extensively in the football facility with Luck -- totally unaware of his quarterback credentials until the next day as the Cardinal worked in spring practice.
“I told [Morgan] I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to Austin,” Ritchie said. “But if it was my choice, I’d be coming back here. It was amazing.”
Ritchie remembers well what Morgan said next. "Well, then, you be quiet.”
What Blythe learned about Stanford, he liked.
“It’s kinda like us here at Iowa,” Blythe said. “Similar program, similar mentality. The physical fight, that’s what we love.”
As for Luck, Blythe said, he roots for him with the Colts.
“It’s fun to say I know that guy,” Blythe said.
But his heart has never left eastern Iowa. When Blythe pondered the college decision as a 17-year-old, he assessed the value of staying close to the Williamsburg community. He married Ritchie’s daughter, Kiley, seven months ago and regularly visits their old school to share his experiences at Iowa.
This Rose Bowl, in fact, in his last collegiate game, presents the best of both worlds for Blythe -- especially if he gets back to In-N-Out Burger.