Football can prepare you for a lot in life. Adam Gregg ’06 shares his journey from Schipper Stadium to the Iowa Capitol and how he uses the skills he learned every day.
Sure, advising the governor of Iowa as you anxiously try steering the state through a global pandemic is arguably a bigger deal than a football game — even a Central College football game.
But, then again, this was Wartburg. As Adam Gregg ’06 anxiously pressed his fingers into the turf while lining up near the outside of Central’s punt return formation, serving as Iowa’s lieutenant governor more than a decade later was far from his mind. The temperature only reached 53 degrees on that cloudy November afternoon in Waverly, Iowa, in 2005, and Gregg’s adrenaline was surging off the charts.
The Play Of A Lifetime
The Dutch were trailing 14-10 at the half and coach Jeff McMartin ’90 knew if they were going to knock off the heavily favored Knights and make a run at a conference title, they needed a momentum-changing play. So, after the defense got an early third-quarter stop, the bold call was made to take a shot at blocking the punt. That meant either Nate Rasmussen ’06 bursting through one side of the line or Gregg from the other and this time it was set up for Gregg.
Thoughts frantically bounced through Gregg’s mind, with one was flashing in bold red letters: “Don’t screw up!”
“It’s hard to keep it all in because you want to go, you’ve got to be going right on the snap,” Gregg explains. “But also, not to jump too early and maybe give up a first down and also to exercise judgment in the moment of whether you can get there or not. Because if you’re wrong and you’re a little bit late, that’s a game-changing play. And you’re going to come off the field and get an earful from (former special teams) Coach Kevin Sanger ’93, I’m going to get an even worse earful from Don DeWaard ’82 (former defensive coordinator) and Coach Mac is going to let me know about it, too.”
But just as the 4.0 student did for every class, Gregg did his homework. During Monday night film sessions, Gregg focused intently on the special teams plays. He’d talk with the coaches about the opponent’s punt formations. He’d get on the field early for pregame warmups to watch the opposing team’s long snapper warming up.
“I was not the quickest guy, so I needed to find every advantage that I could,” Gregg says. “I would watch that long snapper to see if he had any tells before he would snap. Does he have a butt-bob, right before he snaps? The good ones don’t. Does he maybe reset his feet or regrip the ball in a way that gives you a sense of when he’s about to go, just to give me that extra fraction of a second. That was really the difference for me in being able to get in there or not.”
Gregg slipped past the Wartburg lineman and immediately knew he could get there.
“I remember getting in there so fast that he almost didn’t even kick it,” he says. “I almost caught it in my chest. I can see it in slow motion. I could almost see the laces on the ball.”
A muffled thud. The ball squirted free along the turf and Colby Myers ’09 scooped it up at the 7-yard line and raced into the end zone. The touchdown triggered a 27-point second-half explosion and a 37-20 victory that led to a share of a conference title and an NCAA Division III playoff berth.
This was the undersized reserve safety’s moment.
“I remember almost blacking out,” he says. “I remember even after celebrating with Colby Myers in the end zone, looking at the crowd and they’re going crazy, but I can’t hear anything. I get to the sideline and guys are congratulating me. They knew that (punt blocking) was my thing and that’s the role I wanted to play.”
Iowa’s lieutenant governor is sitting in his expansive office in the nation’s only state capitol building that features a Central football helmet perched on a glass display case shelf. Gregg sees football parallels with his current job.
“Preparation is a huge part of it,” he shares. “That’s one of the things that’s really carried over into the rest of my education and career. It seems that the more you prepare, the more likely you are to be successful, especially when things don’t go quite exactly as planned.”
But it was what Central offered, beyond a red jersey and sore muscles that helped rocket him to a state leadership post.
“What I found through my experience at Central was it opened up some amazing opportunities,” Gregg says.
Opportunities like summer internships in Washington, D.C., with the Department of Defense and Congress; a semester in London and an internship with a member of Parliament; and political science conferences at the Air Force and Naval academies. He’s grateful to former Central President David Roe, a cherished mentor whose portrait now hangs on Gregg’s office wall, as well as to Jim Zaffiro, professor of political science, among others, who opened doors for such opportunities.
A history and political science major at Central where he graduated first in his class, Gregg graduated with high honors from Drake University Law School. He joined BrownWinick Law in Des Moines, Iowa, ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2014 and then was named the state public defender. When Terry Branstad resigned as governor to become U.S. Ambassador to China in 2017, incoming Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed Gregg as acting
lieutenant governor at age 33, surprising many — except those who knew him.
“He was incredibly smart and driven and had a lot of ambition,” recalls former Dutch teammate Drew Sikkink ’06. “Knowing some of the internships he’d had while we were in college and some of the contacts he’d made at the Capitol here in Iowa, you kind of knew he was destined to do big things.”
But the swift transition occasionally causes even Gregg’s head to twirl.
“Back then we would get sort of a daily printout of our schedule for the day,” Gregg shares. “And I got mine one day and, in the afternoon, it said I’d be greeting the President of the United States getting off of Air Force One. And I remember thinking, ‘Boy, that never would have been on my agenda three weeks ago.’”
But as a Central football reserve, Gregg said he’s well-suited to quietly handle his second-team role behind Reynolds.
“Having been on a team and having, frankly, been a backup on the team, is certainly something that I think prepared me to be successful in a backup role,” he says. “You don’t know if you’re ever going to get a snap, or if you’re ever going to get a chance. But you still have to prepare as if you’re going to, and you still have to root for your teammate who is the number one and help them be successful. But then if your moment comes, you’ve got to be ready.”
Leading Those Who Led Him
There is, however, more to serving as lieutenant governor than smiling and nodding approvingly during the governor’s photo ops and public events. Gregg chairs the Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform and co-chairs the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa initiative. He chaired the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association in 2020 and is chair-elect of the National Lieutenant Governors Association. Most significantly, he’s a member of the governor’s leadership team. In a bit of role reversal, Gregg coached De Waard, now the Pella mayor, through the pandemic.
“We had this whole brouhaha about the tulips and people wanting to come to Pella, so I’m calling him because I knew the challenges they were having trying to manage the whole state,” DeWaard recalls. “But there are other projects that involve city and state things and I feel very comfortable contacting him. One thing I know is that when I text him, he responds very quickly. I love that we have that relationship.”
What politics can’t match is the shared emotional release following wins like that pivotal game at Wartburg in 2005.
“I’ve said many times that the biggest thing I miss about coaching is the locker room after a game because there’s no feeling like it,” De Waard shares. “Watching kids that you know have worked so hard and witness their excitement is a feeling you just can’t replicate anywhere.”
Competitive Nature, Positive Impact
And that’s no longer the goal for Gregg.
“Certainly, politics and campaigns can be an outlet for my competitive nature but it’s not necessarily seeking that moment,” he says. “It’s more about the ability to give back and lead a meaningful life that impacts others in a positive way.”
Yet Gregg says he felt a brief surge of that familiar emotion on election night in 2018.
“We, at one point that evening, were down by 30,000 votes,” he recounts. “We didn’t know at that time if we were going to win. Eventually, more of the rural Iowa vote totals came in and we ended up winning by about 30,000 votes. Someone happened to capture a picture of the moment that we found out. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve had to that euphoric feeling of victory on the football field after a game.”
Political fortunes can change with the wind, and Gregg is simply trying to savor the opportunity he has to serve, while explaining to his children that they won’t always have a highway patrol officer dropping them off at school in the morning.
“We have a number of meetings where we’ve had the opportunity to be in the West Wing of the White House and those are definitely moments where you do think to yourself, ‘Boy, I’ve sure come a long way from that Political Science 101 class with Jim Zaffiro,’” Gregg chuckles. “You try to appreciate those experiences as much as you can because this is temporary, right? I’m not going to be in this role for the rest of my life.”
And Gregg is convinced he wouldn’t be in it at all, if his four years at Central hadn’t launched him on that path.
“Sometimes it’s a fun exercise to think, well, what if there was a missing link in that chain,” he wonders. “Would I still be here as lieutenant governor if Jim Zaffiro hadn’t said, ‘Yes, Adam should have this opportunity the summer after his freshman year,’ which just strengthened my resume for the next opportunity and the opportunity after that. Ultimately, that led to a great law school experience, which led to a great professional experience, which eventually led to this role. But it all goes back to that decision as an 18-year-old kid from Hawarden (Iowa) to find a place where we were going to win on the football field, and I could accomplish academically what I wanted to accomplish.”