Monday, March 01, 2021

Sports

Ragaini Playing College Football at the Highest Level

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East Haven’s Nico Ragaini recently finished his sophomore season playing wide receiver for the football team at the University of Iowa. Here, Ragaini slips past a Michigan State defender and breaks up the sidelines during Iowa’s 49-7 home victory versus Michigan State on Nov. 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com

East Haven’s Nico Ragaini recently finished his sophomore season playing wide receiver for the football team at the University of Iowa. Here, Ragaini slips past a Michigan State defender and breaks up the sidelines during Iowa’s 49-7 home victory versus Michigan State on Nov. 7, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com )

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Nico Ragaini has 65 receptions with 637 yards and three total touchdowns to his credit in 24 games played as a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ football team. Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com

Nico Ragaini has 65 receptions with 637 yards and three total touchdowns to his credit in 24 games played as a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ football team. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com )

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Sophomore wide receiver Nico Ragaini helped the Iowa Hawkeyes finished with a record of 6-2 in the 2020 season, including a 41-21 road win over Penn State on Nov. 21. Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com

Sophomore wide receiver Nico Ragaini helped the Iowa Hawkeyes finished with a record of 6-2 in the 2020 season, including a 41-21 road win over Penn State on Nov. 21. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com )

Between football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, and track and field, Nico Ragaini’s life has been highlighted by playing sports. But above any other sport, football has reigned supreme for Ragaini. The East Haven resident has taken that passion for football and, through tremendous dedication, become a starting wide receiver at the University of Iowa.

Ragaini recently finished his sophomore season as a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ football team—an NCAA Division I program that competes in the Big Ten Conference. Ragaini has played in 24 games for Iowa thus far in his collegiate career, having caught 65 passes for 637 yards and two touchdowns to go with one TD on the ground.

Growing up, Ragaini’s father Gianni, a former captain for the UConn baseball team, was always encouraging him to stay active and participate in athletics. On the football field, Ragaini started by playing flag football until the 4th grade, when he started tackle. In his 6th-grade year, after helping his East Haven team reach the American Youth Football National Championship in Florida, Ragaini’s interest in football truly came alive.

“My dad played college baseball at UConn. He always had me playing sports when I was younger, running around the house. I just loved being active,” said Ragaini. “I always felt like I was best at football. In youth football, my team was really good. In 6th grade, we went to the national championship in Florida. That’s when I really fell in love with the sport. Ever since then, I’ve always dreamed of playing big-time college football and hopefully playing in the pros.”

Once he reached the high school level, Ragaini began attending Notre Dame in West Haven. Going into his freshman year, Ragaini was already working out with many of the upperclassmen and quickly earned a starting role on the varsity football team.

In his time with the Green Knights, Ragaini was a four-year starter, a three-time All-State selection, a three-time All-SCC honoree at wide receiver, and caught 59 passes for 988 yards and six touchdowns in his senior year. When he graduated in 2017, Ragaini left Notre Dame as Connecticut’s all-time record holder for career receptions with 222.

During his freshman season at Notre Dame, Ragaini committed to play lacrosse at the University of Albany. The next year, Ragaini changed his decision and was then poised to play lacrosse at Cornell. While he had offers from Yale and Boston College, Ragaini knew that he wanted an opportunity to play college football at the highest level.

Instead of pursuing lacrosse in college, Ragaini took a prep semester at Avon Old Farms. In the summer prior to his prep season, Ragaini flew out to attend a football camp at the University of Iowa. At the time, then-Notre Dame Head Coach Tom Marcucci was in contact with Ken O’Keefe, a Milford resident who was an offensive coach with the Miami Dolphins. O’Keefe told Marcucci that he felt Ragaini could play at the Division I level.

In 2017, O’Keefe was hired as Iowa’s quarterbacks coach. Ragaini and O’Keefe would talk frequently, but no offer came. As his prep year was coming to a close, Ragaini had still not received the scholarship offer that he was looking for.

After his season had concluded, Ragaini received a call from O’Keefe, who said he was talking with the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff and that he would get back to him about a potential offer. Ragaini waited and waited until, one Sunday that summer, he received a call from O’Keefe, who told him that Iowa would not be offering him a football scholarship.

However, just a few hours later, O’Keefe called Ragaini back and informed him that the coaches had changed their mind and were going to offer him a scholarship after all. O’Keefe then called back just 20 minutes later to tell Ragaini that the coaching staff wanted him to enroll early and that he had to be in Iowa within the next four days. So, Ragaini packed up his things from his dorm room at Avon Old Farms and flew to Iowa, where he has been playing football ever since.

“It taught me to never give up and to keep a chip on my shoulder,” Ragaini said of his recruiting process. “It’s my best quality as a football player. In high school, I played angrily. I wanted it so bad. It’s about believing in yourself, having the confidence, and knowing you can do something.”

After playing in three games as a freshman, Ragaini ended up taking a redshirt in his first year at Iowa, meaning that he was able to repeat his freshman season the following year. When he arrived at Iowa, Ragaini felt like the “little man on campus” in a place where nobody knew him. Ragaini not only struggled with the move, but also the playbook, making mistakes during the spring football session as a freshman.

As Ragaini entered his redshirt freshman season, Iowa had seen starting slot receiver Nick Easley graduate and sign with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. Ragaini knew that he had an opportunity to earn a starting role, and so he put in the work during both practice and spring ball to become a starting wide receiver for the Hawkeyes.

“It was a goal of mine from before the year,” said Ragaini. “The game sort of slows down for you once you understand everything in your head more. You start playing faster. You know what you can do, and everything starts coming together. I realized that if I won the slot receiver job that spring, I could be the slot receiver at Iowa the next four years. I took it really seriously.”

Ragaini’s hard work paid dividends when he was named Iowa’s starting slot receiver at the beginning of the 2019 campaign. He hit the field running after earning the starting nod. In his redshirt freshman season, Ragaini played in 13 games for the Hawkeyes, catching 46 passes for 439 yards and two touchdowns. His 439 yards ranked third on the team, while his 46 receptions led the Hawkeyes, who finished with a record of 10-3.

“I don’t want to say that everything paid off, because it’s not over at this point. But I felt pretty proud of myself for it,” Ragaini said. “Iowa is big for taking kids who don’t have scholarships and turning them into people who play in the pros. Nick Easley had no scholarships either. He walked in at Iowa. I remember sitting in my dorm room and thinking, ‘That could be me. I just have to push myself.’ Then it happened. It was a pretty cool feeling.”

Ragaini recently finished his sophomore season at Iowa, catching 18 passes for 191 yards in eight games played. He also rushed for a touchdown while helping the Hawkeyes go 6-2 on the year.

With new NCAA rules giving student-athletes an extra year of eligibility, Ragaini, a sport and recreation management major, can potentially remain at Iowa for three more seasons. As he continues his time with the Hawkeyes, Ragaini plans on doing everything in his power to continue playing football.

“Obviously, my goal is to play football for as long as I possibly can. I want to do everything I possibly can,” said Ragaini, who’s 6 feet tall and 190 pounds. “I’ve never really took care of my body like I have this past year. I really started to change the way I act and think. I do little things after practice—extra workouts and extra work on the jug machine. I want to continue working, so I can beat everyone out and continue playing at the highest level.”

While he could have played other sports in college, Ragaini ultimately chose football. He said that he loves the camaraderie, the trust, and the bonds he is able to create with his teammates both on and off the gridiron.

Ragaini added that his family—which includes his father Gianni, mother Josanna, and sisters Bella and Taya—have always supported him throughout his football career. Last season, there were typically 20 to 30 family members at Ragaini’s games and, after seeing them take two flights from Connecticut to get there, he knew that he had to give it his all.

At Iowa, Ragaini gets to play against perennial powers such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan in the Big Ten every year. Ragaini’s dream has always been to play in the upper echelon of college football. After working hard and doing everything he could to earn a scholarship, that dream has become a reality.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s what I love to do,” Ragaini said. “This past season with COVID, football players had to pretty much sacrifice their social life to play football. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”



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