Nathan Bazata heard the slights directed his way in just about every imaginable social setting. At wrestling meets. At summer football camps. Even from folks in neighboring cities.
Everywhere he went, people suggested Bazata wasn't a "real" football player. And why? Because he lived in the town of Howells, Nebraska (population 552), where the local high school played eight-man football instead of the 11-man version due to its small number of students.
Hey, you've been playing three guys short, they would mock at some camps. Isn't it too crowded out here for you?
"That kind of made you want to prove to them something different," Bazata said.
Perception and reality do not always align, and Bazata is among a trio of defensive linemen for the Iowa Hawkeyes who are confirming that truism in each game. Bazata, Drew Ott and Nate Meier each played eight-man football in high school. They also represent three of Iowa's four defensive line starters now, with Bazata at tackle and Ott and Meier playing defensive end for a team off to a 3-0 start with a chance for its first undefeated nonconference season since 2009.
"I think that's probably pretty rare, especially at one position," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You couldn't do that on purpose, quite frankly. I don't know how it happened, but we're certainly glad that it did. All three guys have done a really good job."
The misconceptions regarding eight-man football are numerous, said Bazata's high school coach, Mike Speirs, who has guided the consolidated Howells-Dodge team for the past 20 years. People incorrectly believe it's like arena football, where games are wide open, points pile up and similarities to 11-man football are minimal. It's part of the reason why, after Bazata was nominated for the 2012 Gatorade Football Player of the Year award in Nebraska one year after Ott won the honor at Giltner High, it created a tremendous uproar.
"People thought that was just a horrible thing for two small-school eight-man kids to get named to that honor," Speirs said. "You hear a lot of the things. ... [But] talent is talent. It doesn't matter the size of the school. You're going to have talented kids all over."
Ott's high school coach, Jeff Ashby, is in his 24th year leading eight-man teams. He noted the most significant hurdle for prospective recruits to overcome is the way in which college coaches evaluate talent at the eight-man level. When they watch game film, often they are unsure of what they're seeing. What does it mean to catch a touchdown pass with three fewer defensive players on the field? Would that sack have occurred if the opponent could play with offensive tackles?
Generally, an offense features three linemen, two receivers, a quarterback, a running back and a tight end. Defensively, there are three linemen on the field instead of five and one less defensive back. It is also not unusual to watch eight-man teams play on an 80-yard field instead of a 100-yard field. Eight-man football is played in states across the country, but it's more common in the Midwest because of the number of small, rural towns in that region. Ott's hometown of Trumbull, Nebraska, has a population of 201, while the population of Meier's hometown of Tabor, Iowa, is 986. Bazata and Meier each said the only other current Big Ten players they were aware of from the eight-man ranks were walk-ons at Nebraska.
"When I send film, it's really hard for coaches to evaluate those guys because we don't go up against the competition of a Class 5A in Texas and stuff like that," Ashby said. "For example, Drew Ott had offers from Kansas State and Iowa. That's where he went to camp. Then they could see what he could do.
"There are very few guys at our level that are going to be in Division I football. But they're out there."
Credit defensive line coach Reese Morgan for bringing the trio to Iowa. Bazata said Morgan discovered him after talking to coaches at Division II Chadron State in Nebraska, where Bazata had attended a team camp.
Morgan saw that all three worked hard, played multiple sports and featured a bonus trait from eight-man football -- versatility. Meier said he played every position but safety. Bazata played offensive guard, nose tackle, was a gunner on kickoffs, a backup punter and a long snapper. Ott played tight end, offensive line, quarterback, linebacker and defensive end.
"Some of my teammates here, they only played offense in high school," said Meier, who played running back and linebacker before moving to defensive end after his freshman season at Iowa. "I don't think I came off the field, even on special teams and stuff like that. I didn't have to learn how to tackle or run the ball."
The fact all three were exceptionally talented football players certainly did not hurt their cause when Morgan scouted them. Ott was a Parade Magazine All-American his senior year in 2011 after recording 122 tackles, 960 yards receiving with 18 touchdowns, two rushing scores and a passing touchdown. Bazata was a first-team all-state pick, and Meier, out of Iowa's Fremont-Mills High, set a state record with 61 touchdowns as a senior.
"What it comes down to is that they were really good high school football players," Ferentz said. "They were good high school athletes. The thing about small-school kids, they tend to play a lot of sports, not just one sport. ... They've all done a great job of working hard once they've been here and really maximizing their abilities and their potential."
Through three games this season, Bazata, Meier and Ott have combined for 31 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles, helping the Hawkeyes become one of the Big Ten's surprise teams. And because of their unusual background, they have also formed an unbreakable bond that Bazata describes as "pretty cool."
Perhaps, as Speirs suggests, their success can help change perceptions and open Division I doors to future eight-man players. At the very least, no one is questioning whether the trio plays "real" football anymore.
"Football is football," Meier said. "There's tackling, there's running, there's passing. If you're good, someone will find you."