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Way back in 1890, some high schools around the state of Iowa start participating in football. These teams were more like clubs rather than school-affiliated programs — heck, some of them featured players who weren’t even in high school.

Fifteen years later, the newly-formed Iowa High School Athletic Association banned football from being played in Iowa after 15 players died and 180 others took on serious injuries at the collegiate level. President Theodore Roosevelt, in a special testimony before Congress, called on leaders of all colleges to save the sport.

Four years after that, the IHSAA lifted the ban, allowing schools sanctioned through the association to play football beginning in 1909. The game we know today has evolved and made autumn Friday nights at the local high school football a community gathering place. 

In the 109 years since, many great teams and players have come through the state of Iowa. Some went on to find fame beyond their high school, while others remained hometown legends. Some are in the record books while others played before record keeping became a thing.


Continuing the Register's "best of the preps" tradition, we are honoring Iowa high school history and traditions throughout the year. Last week, we picked our 50 greatest high school football teams after selecting our greatest high school wrestlers and girls' and boys' basketball players last winter. 

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Now we are listing our 50 greatest Iowa high school football players of all time. 

Our staff reached out to Iowa high school sports historians and experts in developing this list. We took into account mostly high school accomplishments. It's our greatest Iowa high school players, not greatest players from Iowa who became the greatest college and pro players. Even more, there were only 50 spots — many great players did not make the final cut. 

The names we ultimately chose, which are listed below in alphabetical order by last name, will be familiar to some and not to others. We went as far back as 1931, and included some recent record-breaking stars like Oliver Martin and Trent Johnson.

We hope this brings back old memories and sparks some (friendly) debate. We hope you’ll be reminded of star players from the past, both recent and far. 

Most of all, we hope you enjoy the list. It was not an easy one to make, but we did our best.

Without further ado, here are the Des Moines Register’s 50 greatest Iowa high school football players:

Trev Alberts, LB, Cedar Falls Northern University

Two-time all-state selection in 1987-88. Alberts went on to Nebraska, where, in 1993, he won the Dick Butkus Award, the Jack Lambert Trophy and was a consensus All-American. He was the No. 5 pick overall in the 1994 NFL Draft. But as a senior in 1988, he led Northern University High School to its first playoff appearance.

Tom Altemeier, OL, Newton

All-state pick in 1962. Was also a first-team all-state pick in basketball in 1963. A dominant force in both football and basketball. Went to Luther College and ultimately became an eighth-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967.

Pat Angerer, LB, Bettendorf

A two-time all-state pick in 2003-04. Before Angerer became a household name at Iowa, he was a world-beater at Bettendorf. He still holds school records for most tackles in a game (25) and season (197). He finished his prep career with 344 tackles, 63 for a loss and 17 sacks.

John Arnaud, DB, Sioux City North

All-state pick in 1978. Went on to become a four-year letterwinner at Iowa State, where he got the nickname "Land Shark." Arnaud also won a state track title in 1979 in the high jump. He died in 2012 after a lengthy bout with lung cancer.

Tavian Banks, RB, Bettendorf

A two-time all-state pick in 1991-92. Banks went down as one of the best running backs in Iowa high school history, recording 4,317 rushing yards and 75 rushing touchdowns. He was a primary reason why Bettendorf won back-to-back state titles during his junior and senior seasons.

Jordan Bernstine, DB, Des Moines Lincoln

A two-time all-state pick in 2005-06. Bernstine found fame while playing at Iowa from 2007-11, then played a year for the Washington Redskins before a knee injury effectively ended his career. He was the state’s No. 1 prospect as a senior in 2007.

Jay Berwanger, RB, Dubuque Senior

All-state pick in 1931. Berwanger went on to play for the University of Chicago, and in 1935, he became the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy — which was later renamed the Heisman Trophy. He was also the first-ever pick during the National Football League’s first-ever draft in 1936, going to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Adam Coleman, DL, Bettendorf

Two-time all-state pick in 2006-07. Coleman recorded 82 tackles in 2007 alone, and totaled 14 sacks during those two seasons, helping the Bulldogs to a state title in 2007. He was a brawler of an offensive lineman, too.

Marv Cook, WR/TE, West Branch

A two-time all-state pick in 1982-83. Actually, in 1983, Cook was an all-state pick at both end and kicker. In 1982, he was an all-state selection at quarterback. Versatile athlete that ultimately went to Iowa and was an All-Pro tight end in 1991 while playing for the Patriots.

Roger Craig, RB, Davenport Central

All-state pick in 1978. Helped Central to a state title in 1976. As a senior in 1978, Craig was named a high school All-American after he rushed for 1,565 yards and 27 touchdowns. He went on to Nebraska and, later, the San Francisco 49ers, where he was a three-time Super Bowl champ and two-time All-Pro selection. He is one of just two players in National Football League history to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season.

Joel Crisman, OL, Grundy Center

A two-time all-state pick in 1987-88. Led Grundy Center to back-to-back state titles during those years as a junior and senior. Went on to play for the University of Southern California, where he earned All-Pac 10 honors and was an honorable mention All-American. 

A.J. Derby, QB, Iowa City High

A two-time all-state pick in 2008-09. Accounted for 4,833 total yards of offense — 3,017 passing, 1,816 rushing — and 62 total touchdowns during those two seasons, during which City went 24-1 and won the 2009 Class 4A state title. 

Jared DeVries, DL, Aplington-Parkersburg

A two-time all-state pick in 1992-93. Led Aplington-Parkersburg to 1993 state title as a senior, during which he was selected as a Blue Chip Illustrated high school All-American at defensive end. DeVries also rushed for 4,582 yards and 81 touchdowns over three seasons.

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Randy Duncan, QB, Des Moines Roosevelt

All-state pick in 1954. Ultimately went to Iowa where he won the Walter Camp Award, was a Heisman runner-up and played in two Rose Bowls. Before that, Duncan led Roosevelt to an undefeated state championship during his senior season. Also a standout basketball player.

Tim Dwight, RB, Iowa City High

A three-time all-state pick from 1991-93. Helped City High to a 13-0 season and state title in 1993. Dwight rushed for 4,230 and scored 83 touchdowns during his three varsity seasons. He went on to Iowa and was twice named a first-team All-American.

Paul ‘Tiny’ Engebretsen, OL, Chariton

All-state pick in 1927. He ultimately reached the National Football League, where he won three league championships — one with the Chicago Bears in 1932 and two with the Green Bay Packers in 1936 and 1939. He played both offensive lineman and kicker. Passed away in 1979.

George ‘Sonny’ Franck, RB, Davenport High School

All-state pick in 1935. Also led Davenport to a state track title, wherein he anchored the 880-meter relay. Went on to Minnesota, leading the Golden Gophers to a national title in 1940 and finished third in the Heisman voting.

Robert Gallery, TE, East Buchanan

All-state pick in 1998. Before he went to Iowa and won the 2003 Outland Trophy, Gallery starred at East Buchanan at both tight end and linebacker. East Buchanan went 24-8 during Gallery’s three years in the program. Went on to an eight-year career in the National Football League.

Dennis Gibson, LB, Ankeny

All-state pick in 1981. Went on to star at Iowa State and played eight years in the National Football League. He knocked down a fourth-down pass in the 1994 AFC Championship that helped the Chargers advance to Super Bowl 29.

Jerry ‘Boomer’ Groom, OL, Dowling Catholic

All-state pick in 1946. Starred in both football and baseball at Dowling before going to Notre Dame and becoming a consensus All-American in 1950. He was selected by the Chicago Cardinals in the first round of the 1951 National Football League draft. 

John Harty, DL, Sioux City Heelan

All-state pick in 1976. Helped the Crusaders to a state championship during his junior season in 1975. Was heavily recruited by both Iowa and Nebraska, but ultimately chose the Hawkeyes and went on to record 232 tackles and became a second-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers.

Dave Haight, DL, Dyersville Beckman

A two-time all-state pick in 1982-83. Went on to Iowa and became the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year as a junior in 1987 and a first-team All-American selection as a senior in 1988.

Chad Hennings, DL, Benton (Van Horne)

All-state pick in 1983. Also a heavyweight state wrestling champion as a senior in 1984. Went on to the United States Air Force Academy, where he started at tight end and then switched to defensive line and became a unanimous first-team All-American pick as a senior in 1987.

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Josey Jewell, LB, Decorah

A two-time all-state pick in 2011-12. Led Decorah to a 34-6 overall record in three seasons. He accumulated 246 total tackles and led the Vikings to the state finals in 2011 and a state title in 2012. Also rushed for 3,240 yards and 42 touchdowns in three years as a running back. Now a rookie linebacker for the Denver Broncos.

Trent Johnson, RB, Dike-New Hartford

A three-time all-state pick in 2014-16. Graduated as the state’s all-time leading rusher, amassing 7,653 rushing yards during three varsity seasons. Also scored 97 touchdowns and led Dike-New Hartford to back-to-back state semifinal appearances.

Nate Kaeding, K, Iowa City West

A two-time all-state pick in 1998-99. Made 153 of 160 point-after attempts and 21 field goals during his high school career. Helped the Trojans to back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons as a junior and senior. Also played in basketball and soccer state championship games during his high school career. Went on to Iowa and the National Football League.

Aaron Kampman, LB, Aplington-Parkersburg

A two-time all-state pick in 1996-97. Helped lead Aplington-Parkersburg to the 1996 Class 2A state title game. He set records for tackles in a game (26), season (188) and career (447). He was a second-team All-American by USA Today and a Parade Magazine All-American. Went on to Iowa and the National Football League, where he was twice named a second-team All-Pro.

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Nile Kinnick, RB, Adel

All-state pick in 1933. Led Adel football team to an undefeated season as a junior. Also a standout basketball player. Moved to Omaha ahead his senior year, and became an all-state pick in Nebraska before going on to win the Heisman Trophy at Iowa. 

Mike Klinkenborg, LB, Central Lyon

All-state pick in 2002. Recorded more than 350 tackles during his high school career. He went on to Iowa and recorded 129 tackles during the 2006 season, the second-most in the Big Ten Conference that season.

Allen Lazard, WR, Urbandale

A three-time all-state pick in 2011-13. Hauled in 105 catches for 2,296 receiving yards and 29 touchdown receptions. He also recorded 15 interceptions. He was the state’s top-rated 2014 prospect and a USA Today All-American and played in the 2014 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Now a rookie on the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

Bill Lewis, OL, Sioux City East

All-state pick in 1980. He went on to play for Nebraska, helping the Cornhuskers to two Big Eight Championships. During his collegiate career, Nebraska also played in the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls. Played eight years in the National Football League.

Oliver Martin, WR, Iowa City West

A two-time all-state pick in 2015-16. Ended his career with 239 receptions, the most in Iowa high school football history, as well as 3,449 receiving yards and 33 touchdown receptions. Was the state’s top-rated prospect in 2017 and played in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Now at Michigan. 

Grant McGraw, WR, Pleasantville

A three-time all-state pick in 1993-95. Finished his career with 46 touchdown receptions, which is tied for second all-time in Iowa high school football history. Recorded 171 catches for 3,710 receiving yards, a mark that sits second all-time. 

Steve McWhirter, LB, Fairfield

A two-time all-state pick in 1976-77. Went on to play for Tom Osborne at Nebraska, during which the Cornhuskers won 41 games in four years.

James Morris, LB, Solon

A three-time all-state pick in 2007-09. Helped the Spartans to back-to-back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons. Scored 113 career touchdowns, good for third in Iowa high school football history. Also rushed for 6,466 yards and amassed 7,000 total yards of offense in his career.

Jerry Moses, RB, Waterloo East

A two-time all-state pick in 1968-69. He was considered one of the nation’s top recruits at the time, and decided to play collegiately at Iowa State over offers from Nebraska, Notre Dame and Alabama, among others. He was picked fifth by Register reporters on a 2013 list of the state’s greatest male athletes.

Nick Noble, DB, Riceville

A two-time all-state pick in 2001-02. Noble recorded 23 interceptions during his four years, an all-time Iowa high school football record that stood until Albia’s Blake Bayer recorded 24 from 2013-15.

Bob O’Dell, RB, Sioux City East

All-state pick in 1939. Went on to play at the University of Pennsylvania, where he won the Maxwell Award in 1943. Became a head coach for Bucknell, Penn and Williams College. Was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

Ed Podolak, QB, Atlantic

All-state pick in 1964. Went on to play multiple positions at Iowa, then was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1969 NFL/AFL Draft. At the time of his retirement, he was the Chiefs’ second all-time leading rusher with 4,451 yards. 

Ross Pierschbacher, OL, Cedar Falls

A three-time all-state pick in 2011-13. Pierschbacher was the state’s No. 1 recruiting prospect as a senior. He was also named a Parade Magazine All-American, a second-team All-American by MaxPreps and was chosen to play in the Under Armour All-America Game. He was a consensus four-star prospect and was tabbed as the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard prospect by ESPN. Now a senior at national champion Alabama, Pierschbacher was a first-team All-SEC pick last season. 

Tom Randall, OL, Mason City

All-state pick in 1973. Randall initially wanted to be a big-time basketball player, but he flashed his stellar football abilities during his senior year at Mason City. He went on to Iowa State, where he switched to defensive line, then reached the National Football League, where he played offensive line again.

Bill Reichardt, RB, Iowa City High

All-state pick in 1947. He went on to become the Big Ten Conference’s Most Valuable Player and a first-team all-conference selection in 1951. He was later drafted by the Green Bay Packers.

Reggie Roby, P, Waterloo East

All-state pick in 1978. Versatile multi-sport athlete who ultimately became a consensus All-American punter at Iowa in 1981. His career average was 45.4 yards per punt. He went on to play 10 seasons in the National Football League.

Bob Saggau, DB, Denison

A two-time all-state pick in 1935-36. Saggau went on to play at Notre Dame, and, in 1940, he held the school record for passing yards in a season with 483.

Tyler Sash, DB, Oskaloosa

A two-time all-state pick in 2005-06. Sash found fame as a safety at Iowa, but he was a do-it-all player for Oskaloosa. He recorded 2,141 receiving yards and 22 touchdown receptions during his three years on varsity. 

Mike Stensrud, DL, Lake Mills

All-state pick in 1973. Stensrud won a state wrestling title in the unlimited heavyweight division as a senior in 1974. He went on to play for Iowa State and then played 11 years in the National Football League.

James Vandenberg, QB, Keokuk

A two-time all-state pick in 2006-07. Before playing quarterback at Iowa, Vandenberg set all sorts of state records at Keokuk. For his career, he threw for 7,701 passing yards and 93 touchdowns, both of which rank among the top 10 all time in Iowa high school football history. He led the Chiefs to a state title in 2007.

Kyle Vanden Bosch, DL, West Lyon

A two-time all-state pick in 1995-96. As a junior, he helped lead West Lyon to the Class 2A state title game in 1995. As a senior, he earned All-American honors and was named the Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the Year by USA Today. He went on to Nebraska and played 12 years in the National Football League.

Brandon Wegher, RB, Sioux City Heelan

A three-time all-state pick in 2006-08. He currently sits second in Iowa high school football history in career rushing touchdowns with 119 and fifth in most career rushing yards with 6,823. He led Heelan to back-to-back Class 3A state title games, including a state crown in 2008.

Casey Wiegmann, OL, Parkersburg

A two-time all-state pick in 1989-90. As a senior, he helped Parkersburg reach the Class 1A state title game in 1990. He went undrafted after a fruitful career at Iowa, then spent 15 years in the National Football League playing for the Colts, Jets, Bears, Broncos and Chiefs.

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Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.