A Balanced Diet:

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Cyclone talks of success balancing school, life, and football — with a side of ice cream

By Ethan Stoetzer, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

For nearly all collegiate athletes, especially at the Power 5 Conference level, the balance between school and athletics is a delicate one. Finding time to attend classes, complete homework and group projects, participate in grueling daily practices, commit to outside strength and conditioning workouts, all while maintaining a semblance of personal lives, often leaves these student athletes with limited academic options to choose from that fit into this balance.

Iowa State University football’s starting right tackle Derek Schweiger knows this delicate dance well and likens his position to having a legitimate full-time job as a student. While playing in front of 40,000-plus people every weekend isn’t a “job” in the traditional sense, as an athlete on scholarship, it is the next closest thing.

“You play football at this level because you love it,” Schweiger said. “You go through hard times, but you like the guys, the comradery — you love the outcomes that you get. It is hard, though.”

What about the academic end of this scale? Well, nothing much, except that he is the only student on the football team’s current roster with, not one, but two STEM-based degrees. This winter, he will graduate with his master of science in food science and technology, building on his completion of a bachelor of science in food science in 2019. Two degrees. Full-scholarship athlete. Three years.

“No players really have a science major,” Schweiger said. “It’s rare [to have a] science major because it’s difficult to balance labs, and really balance everything.”

Built By Dairy

The journey to Iowa State for food science was something Schweiger started before he put on a set of shoulder pads. Schweiger hails from “the cheese capital of the world,” Plymouth, Wisconsin, where it is estimated that 10-15 percent of the nation’s cheese is processed and sold from Plymouth-based facilities, which include household names like Sargento and Great Lakes Cheese.

In high school, Schweiger took field trips to these cheese-making facilities, as well as those operated by Johnsonville Sausage. It was on these trips — and through his family’s two-generation background in dairy farms — that he became interested in food product development. From that point on, he was set on pursuing a career in food science.

When it was time to pick a college, the decision to go to Iowa State was an easy one. Schweiger’s brother, Drew, attended Iowa State for Aerospace Engineering, and Schweiger frequently visited him during high school. But Schweiger said it was the Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) program itself that truly influenced his decision.

“[Iowa State] was something I was familiar with and gravitated toward automatically, and I really felt connected in the FSHN program,” Schweiger said. “Other programs I visited were very specific to their regional or state product. The department here has different people from a range of industries, so you get to see a lot of different things, rather than just one facet of the food industry.”

While general food product development was Schweiger’s focus throughout his undergraduate time with FSHN, he found himself pulled back to his roots in dairy when he met Virginia M. Gladney Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Stephanie Clark.

Clark first met Schweiger in the fall of 2019, unaware that he was on the football team. It wasn’t until she encountered a colleague who, in passing, praised his efforts in the weekend prior’s game. Schweiger was already an attentive and dedicated student participant Clark said, but she was further taken aback by Schweiger’s humility and dedication to his commitments. he two work closely during his graduate degree, even during the pandemic, conducting research in Dairy Education, where he developed surveys, infographics, focus group scripts and ice cream for testing.

Going Long

While a student-athlete in high school, including football, Schweiger didn’t plan to pursue the sport any further. Already accepted into Iowa State, a tiny inkling of doubt remained in his mind: What if he was a Cyclone, through and through? He had the talent, but what would that be like? Could he even do it?

Recruiting season was over and the opportunity to be on any collegiate team were nearly zero. A brief phone call to the area recruiter said as much. But, Schweiger decided to attend a last-minute walk-on session with the Cyclones where he was grated preferred walk-on status.

After months of challenging work on the field and in his studies, Schweiger was prepared to graduate a semester early with his bachelor’s degree in food science in 2020. But he also faced a decision about his future: should he stay at Iowa State and continue playing football while pursuing a master’s degree, or graduate and start his career.

At this point, Schweiger wasn’t on scholarship and had no definite prospects of an additional degree being funded. He was coming off his first season of major contribution to the team at right tackle, that saw the 2019-20 Cyclones go 7-6 on the season and poised to make waves in the Big-12 in 2020-2021. Faculty and staff within FSHN had already been a huge help in coordinating assignments, internships, and lab time around his football schedule, and he felt empowered to continue his relationship with them. With eligibility remaining on his playing career, Schweiger took a chance and decided to put off entering the world of product development to pursue a master’s degree with a focus in dairy education.

Around this time, Cyclone Football Head Coach Matt Campbell called Schwieger into his office. Unknown to Schweiger, Campbell was planning to put him on full scholarship for his improvements during the season, his commitment to the future of the team and his work in the classroom. To present, Schweiger has won several awards for both his academic and physical prowess as an athlete including: First Team Academic All-Big 12 (2019, 2020), Second Team All-Big 12 – Coaches (2020), Burlsworth Trophy Semifinalist (2020), and the Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Award (2021).

“[Schweiger] has embraced our program’s values better than any other player,” Campbell said. “He bet on himself when he arrived here as a walk-on. There were no promises given; he just went to work every day and put himself in a place where he became the best version of himself. We are so proud of what Derek has accomplished here at Iowa State and he has been a huge part of our success.”

Down the Line

Schweiger’s career options remain open to being a restauranteur/connoisseur of taco trucks, working for a food company in product development or as a consultant, or developing his own brand of uniquely flavored gourmet popcorn. If his future continues like his collegiate career,  he may balance a little bit of everything. Of his endeavors, he’s quick to thank his professors and coaches for helping him to pursue his passions, though some are quicker to say the passion was all theirs.

“Accommodations were made for Derek to schedule things,” Clark said. “But he did the work! He did well in all his classes because of his time-management skills and intelligence, not because he was accommodated. It was a pleasure to accommodate him because he was grateful and did not take undue advantage of it. He worked hard and did good work. It is nice that he appreciates us helping, but it is important for people to know that he earned his degrees through dedication and intelligence.”

Schweiger wants future students to look at his experience as proof that though difficult, balancing a demanding academic schedule and workload while a starting athlete in a Power 5 Conference can be accomplished, especially if one really wants it and is willing to ask for help to accomplish their goals.

“There are so many people that want to help you,” Schweiger said. “They don’t want to see you come here and fail. It can be done.”