From early parts of fall until late winter, the Iowa River that dissects Iowa Falls, Iowa freezes to a halt. With it departs any remaining sense of mobility in the tiny Midwestern town, strangely nicknamed “The Scenic City,” that spans just six square miles and is badly in need of aesthetic repair to half of its buildings.
Only a theater, a McDonalds and a few dive bars could distract a native from the cold. Visitors are easy to spot, because nearly all of them walk around town in purple and grey Under Armour sweats with headphones as ear muffs and gallons of water hanging from a hand.
Those visitors play football for Ellsworth Community College. It’s unlikely any of them want to be there. Ryan Guthrie, a former linebacker for the West Forsyth Wolverines, is one of them.
Guthrie is asked that, over the past few seasons playing for the Panthers, if he feels like Iowa Falls — 941 miles away from Cumming, Georgia – feels like home. There’s a pause as he calibrates a respectful answer.
“It definitely makes you appreciate a place like Forsyth County,” he says.
KEEPING A SECRET
At the crack of dawn Guthrie and others wearing the purple and grey emerge from a residence hall on the school’s campus that could be mistaken for a jail. It sits just below a white-water tower that reads “IO-A FALLS” because the ‘W’ has faded.
The football players take a small trek from the campus to an open field that blends in with the farm patches surrounding the outskirts of town. A nippy mist drifts off the nearby river and adds frigid moisture to the air. The Panthers have lost three games in a row to fall to 4-6, but every player shows up to practice with unrivaled eagerness. It’s understandable that their minds might wander between drills, especially when you stop for water, look off to the horizon, and realize just how landlocked Ellsworth Community College is.
But Guthrie is happy to knock heads. He has pep in his step. That’s because he’s keeping a secret to himself — he will commit to a Division I college within the week. On Feb. 1 he will sign his national letter of intent. Nobody knows where, but when Guthrie rolls out of bed in the morning his drowsiness is remedied by a stack of letters from colleges — 19 to be exact. Seventeen of those offers are from Football Bowl Subdivision schools, which have greater value for student athletes because of the potential for expanded coverage of living expenses.
Guthrie’s picture has been spreading through social media circuits like a wildfire, recruiting services, known and unknown, praising his name. He’s listed as an all-American, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.
'DIDN'T FEEL RIGHT'
In high school at West Forsyth, Guthrie was 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. His exploits as a defensive back and linebacker were never unnoticed by the FCN, which named him to the all-county first-team at linebacker after he amassed 72 tackles with two fumble recoveries and a sack his senior season in 2014.
Coaches were in and out of the county often. Hampton McConnell, Guthrie’s teammate, received an offer he honored from Georgia Southern after passing and rushing for 28 combined touchdowns. Many of the other all-county performers from 2014 signed with a Division I school within the next two seasons. The rhetoric was changing—Forsyth County might have been an “off-the-map” location, relatively speaking for the state of Georgia, but coaches were familiar with the area by this point.
Still, Guthrie struggled to influence coaches. His switch from safety to linebacker between his junior and senior season might have been an issue, he speculates, but “it shouldn’t,” he says sternly in hindsight.
“They didn’t like me because of my size,” Guthrie said.
On signing day in early February, 2015, Guthrie watched as his peers across the county put their pens to paper. Signing day for him meant nothing and wrenched him in the gut.
Guthrie hoped that his football prospectus would earn him a chance to receive a full scholarship, or at least a partial scholarship at a smaller school, in college. When the dust settled the only schools that had talked to him were Division III. That meant that the opportunity to play college football was there, but a high-profile academic scholarship would be one to fight over. Guthrie’s opportunity looked abysmal.
“I thought hard about walking on somewhere,” Guthrie said. “Kennesaw State had just started their program. I thought I could go down to Georgia Southern and try to walk on there. For some reason those options just didn’t feel right.”
LEAP OF FAITH
Two and a half months later, on April 29, Guthrie was joined by his parents, sister and head coach Adam Clack at a desk with three purple balloons, one gold one, a senior football photo in a small frame and a cheap, off-brand cap with “ELLSWORTH” roughly embroidered across the front.
He finally put the pen to paper. He called it a “leap of faith.”
“I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I signed without ever visiting the campus or the town. I didn’t know anything about the program. I actually didn’t even know there was a junior college—Georgia Military—in Georgia. There was a lot of anxiety and contemplating, but I was 18 years old, my parents were supportive and I just went and did it.”
Guthrie found out about Ellsworth Community College because teammate Alec Coburn signed there on national signing day. The two of them would be the only players on the junior college team from the state of Georgia. Ellsworth competes in the Iowa Community Athletic Conference, which is only comprised of three teams — Iowa Central and Iowa Western being the others — so a conference title is meaningless.
Still, Guthrie made the most of it once he got there. The Panthers won their final six games in 2015 — Guthrie’s freshman season — to finish 7-5. In the process, he was named an honorable mention all-American from the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Two schools — Akron and Eastern Michigan — came calling.
Two Division I (FBS) schools, which are required to offer full scholarships. Guthrie had finally achieved his goal, but he knew he was capable of more.
So, after visiting both institutions, he decided to return to his dilapidated dorm in Ellsworth for another year.
It’s Monday, Nov. 28, and Guthrie is eagerly waiting for the NJCAA to unveil the all-American team for this season. He’s sure he’s going to make first-team. He leads the association in tackles with 104, is sixth in tackles per game at 12.2 and has 6.5 sacks on the season. His face adorns the front of the Panthers’ football web page. His team, which he admits he’s grown much closer to over two seasons stranded in Iowa Falls, is preparing for Rochester Community and Technical College, which they’ll face in Cedar Falls on Saturday.
He reflects on the moment when he went from feeling like he’d taken the biggest risk of his life to knowing that his leap of faith had been worth it.
“It was once I earned that all-American honor,” Guthrie said. “Seeing that, I knew from then on I’d get somewhere.”
He rebranded his social media account to look like a recruiting profile, began re-tweeting as much content about him as possible and within time became one of the most wanted junior college linebackers in the entire country.
Out of Guthrie’s pile of offer letters — Akron, Eastern Michigan, Southeast Missouri State, East Tennessee State, Mercer, Duquense, Bowling Green, Ball State, Missouri State, Louisiana, Marshall, Toledo, Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Charlotte.
If he wants, he can join McConnell in Statesboro, on scholarship, right where he hoped to be in the first place. If he wants he can come back to Atlanta, play for another group of Panthers, and be within driving distance of his hometown.
But he won’t. He’ll follow former Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz to New Orleans to play for Tulane—because now, as the man Guthrie knew he always was, he has that kind of clout. He’ll have the opportunity to study business at one of the best academic institutions in the country, play in televised games and—most importantly—show everyone that he wasn’t crazy to head 941 miles away to play for a football team he’d never heard of in a town he’d never heard of. A football team and town nobody had ever heard of.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he says, seemingly breathless — like he took his own breath away.