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Dinner with champions: Trent Solsma, Connor Niles reflect on NAIA title

The minute he threw the game-winning pass in the NAIA National Championship football game, Morningside College quarterback Trent Solsma says his body went numb.

“I saw the receiver put his arms up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I couldn’t even feel anything,” he says. “I was just zoned in on finding him in the end zone and celebrating.”

“Him” was Connor Niles, wide receiver and lifelong friend. Solsma and Niles were buddies in grade school (where the former was “a little tubby,” the latter was “tiny”) and played a host of sports. Both held fast to the dream of winning a national title and didn’t let go until it actually happened last fall.

The realization of that dream was gratifying, Solsma says. “When it culminates in that one moment of hoisting up a trophy, it’s just awesome.”

Niles admits the reality hasn’t actually sunk in. “I know it will eventually,” he says. But, first, he has other business. The 22-year-old wants to play professionally and, since graduating in December with a degree in biology, has been working out five days a week to land a spot with an NFL or CFL team. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play professionally. Now, I just want to prove it.”

Solsma, meanwhile, is satisfied ending his career with that 35-28 victory over Benedictine College. “I was completely content knowing it was my last season of football,” the 23-year-old says.

Now, their lives are in two different places. Solsma is student-teaching in South Sioux City; Niles is making three weekly trips to Sioux Falls to get ready for post-college tryouts.

Over dinner at Morningside College’s dining room, the two joke about their foibles, praise each other’s strengths. Solsma arrives early; Niles slips in late. (“I’m usually three minutes early or three minutes late,” he says. “I struggle with getting in my car and getting there early.”)

Other differences are obvious. Niles has hair that goes past his shoulders; Solsma’s is trimmed and ready for work. (“I cut mine a few weeks ago,” Solsma says.)

“I never got to have long hair, so it’ll be three years in March,” Niles explains. “I trimmed it eight or nine times, but I didn’t cut it.”

Solsma suggests the long hair bond the two shared goes back to their days at Bishop Heelan High School. “It’s something all Heelan kids think about when we graduate because we have to have our hair above our collars and keep it clean cut.”

Once they got into college, they wanted to try something else – something that represented a passage.

Both found collegiate sports eye-opening. Solsma was used to being a starter and was red-shirted his first year. “It was kind of tough going from starting quarterback, starting in three different sports in high school, to not even suiting up on game day.”

Niles had his awakening when he broke his leg and couldn’t play: “I was in shock; it all happened so fast. I knew I had two years left (of football), but I didn’t think I’d ever be the same player.”

What rallied both was the bonding they felt as part of a team.

“What people don’t realize about football is you could lose your career in one play,” Niles says. “I don’t think there’s any other sport where one thing – like a concussion – could derail you.”

Both, however, were committed to continuing on. Even though baseball was Solsma’s favorite sport in high school, he knew football had a certain allure. “You go out to a game under the lights on a Friday night and you’ve got how many people there cheering you on? I just loved that feeling. Competing with some of my best friends and, then winning a state championship in football? That was what I wanted to do. Baseball was close, but football was it.”

Niles, too, had an affinity for the game. His father played football at Morningside (“he was here during the dog days,” he says with a laugh); his interest in prepping for the season nudged everything else, including baseball. “I’d pick up the bat on May 1 and when we were done in July, I wouldn’t pick it up again.”

Solsma and Niles both thought a college football championship was within reach. They changed their eating habits, stepped up their workouts and always embraced the brotherhood that came from being part of a team.

“Chicken breasts and egg whites. Lots of vegetables,” Solsma says with a smile. “It wasn’t always the best-tasting stuff, but I just wanted to get myself in the best shape possible.”

Niles wasn’t as strict with his diet, but “I worked out so much I don’t think it affected me that much.”

In addition to classes, the two spent a good chunk of their days in the weight room, on the practice field or in the training room. “Hopefully, we didn’t have too much homework to do,” Solsma says.

Although it’d be easy to say they majored in football, both insist academics didn’t take a back seat. Niles says he’ll go back to school and study medicine once his playing days are over.

Solsma says he couldn’t let his grades slip. “My parents always pushed me hard academically,” he says. “If I would get a B on a report card, they’d be like, ‘Why can’t you get this up to an A?’ They weren’t demanding, but they’d push me to be my best in a positive way. From an early age, my parents made me take academics seriously.”

Both will be a part of Morningside’s graduation ceremonies in May; both say they’ll always view this time as an important moment.

“It’s obviously something we can celebrate for the rest of our lives,” Niles says of the championship. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily something that’s going to define who we are as people. This was one of our goals in college. Now, we have to turn this page and move on. We have to do something with our lives. We can’t just live vicariously through the Morningside College football team for the rest of our lives. We have to be productive members of society.”

Success, however, does have its privileges. Both say they’re fondly greeted by fans (and frequently get free drinks); both are looking forward to getting the championship rings that come with the title.

When Adam Timmerman, a former Super Bowl champion from Northwest Iowa, came to speak to the team, he brought his championship rings. “I just looked,” Niles says.

“I held them all,” Solsma admits. “I said, ‘We’ve got to get one of these.’”

At events like last week’s championship celebration, the two have seen young boys look up to them and want to know how they did it, how they managed to make a dream come true.

The key, they say, was having great support (family and friends didn’t miss their games) and determination.

“Coach (Steve) Ryan always says, ‘You can outdo 90 percent of America just by showing up,” Niles says. “Working hard is the other 10 percent. That’s something that always stuck with me. If you work as hard as you can, you can accomplish it, eventually. It may not be the first year. It may not be the second year. For us, it was the fifth year. And you can apply that same thing to school and other things in life. If you just keep your head down and work, you can accomplish everything you ever wanted.”

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Sioux City's Debi Durham one of six agency heads paid more than Iowa governor

DES MOINES  -- A $50,000 retention bonus has raised Debi Durham's salary to about $204,000, making the Sioux Cityan the second-highest paid state agency head and one of nine top officials to earn more than Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The state sets a maximum limit for directors' salaries at $154,300, but administrative rules let some employees be paid a retention bonus if they commit to serving for a certain amount of time.

Durham, who has been director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority since 2011, and in early January Reynolds tapped her to also lead the Iowa Finance Authority, which administers housing programs. Durham had previously served as as interim head of the IFA after former director David Jamison was fired March 24 amid accusations of sexual assault and lewd behavior. 

Durham's new salary represents about a $20,000 bump over what she had been making when she was just running the economic development agency, the Des Moines Register reported.

Durham said she took the job because she believes "in the mission," not because of the pay.

"I didn't do it obviously for the salary, because I could do a lot more in the private sector," she told the Register.

Before then-Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Durham the state's economic development director, she had served as president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and The Siouxland Initiative. She continues to maintain a home in Sioux City. 

Durham will earn more than all but one Iowa agency director, the Register reported. Timothy Orr, adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard earns $213,256.68, according to the governor's office. But about 1,000 state employees earn more than Orr and Durham. 

Iowa law sets the governor's salary at $130,000, and three aides to Reynolds and six newly appointed agency directors earn more than the governor, in a decision a spokesman said reflects the need to attract top talent.

"The salaries paid to governor's staff and department directors are what it takes to recruit and retain top talent," said Pat Garrett, a spokesman for Reynolds.

Other top earners in the governor's office include Sam Langholz, chief counsel; Paul Trombino III, the chief operations officer; and Sara Gongol, the governor's chief of staff. They'll be paid between $134,000 and $157,000.

David Roederer, Reynolds' budget director, said it's not unusual for staffers to make more money than the governor.

"From my perspective, it's not that the others are so much higher — it's the fact that the governor's salary is what it is," Roederer said. "But they know what those salaries are when they run for office."