AMES, Iowa – Mitchell Harger loves challenges. It’s in his DNA.
When looking at colleges to attend, Harger yearned for a challenge academically and athletically.
His unique confident and competitive nature guided Harger to Iowa State University for the sake of accomplishing two major goals he set out to achieve: Graduate in one of the most demanding majors at the school, aerospace engineering, and make an impact as a walk-on at a “power five” football program.
Harger fulfilled both goals at Iowa State, becoming one of its greatest success stories.
He is not in a position to sit back, relax and rest on his laurels, however. The profession he chose will not allow him that luxury.
Harger works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a job he accepted a month after the 2016 football season ended. It’s high-stress, dynamic work, but Harger cherishes every day he walks into the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“It was always kind of a dream that you never thought would be a reality,” Harger said. “I always thought it would be the coolest thing in the world if I could say, ‘Hey, I work for NASA.’ After all the opportunities kind of presented themselves, and things started lining up, I remember stopping to think right around my second interview, ‘holy crap, I’m about to get a position at NASA!’ It is kind of a surreal feeling, especially now that I’m down here.”
The 2012 Alburnett (Iowa) High School class valedictorian has an official title of Extravehicular Activity Flight Controller (EVA) for NASA. Harger’s responsibilities include training astronauts and ensuring the safety of an astronaut’s spacesuit.
He fully understands the importance of his daily duties.
“Whenever the astronaut steps outside the international space station, goes to work on the space station or eventually, the astronaut would land on the moon again, or hopefully on Mars, I’m in charge of their spacesuit,” Harger said. “I’m in charge of everything the astronaut is doing task-wise and I’m basically in charge of their safety out there, because every time an astronaut steps outside in the vacuum of space, the harsh environment of space presents a 1 in 6,000 chance of dying, whether it’s from micrometeoroids hitting them, suit malfunctions, or whatever it may be. It’s a very high intensity, high stress environment.”
Harger could have had a head start on his career like his fellow classmates who graduated in the spring of 2016. He spent four years as a walk-on on the football team and then underwent shoulder surgery after an injury in the 2016 spring game.
He earned his degree. He gave his all for Cyclone football. Time to move on, right?
He had one more goal to check off.
“Honestly, when I was on the scout team, I knew I would eventually get my chance,” Harger said. “The only time I ever doubted my decision making was after I graduated in aerospace engineering and I decided to come back for that fifth year. It was during fall camp. My shoulder was killing me and I could be starting my career. It kind of dawned on me, ‘Why am I here?’ I then remembered I had unfinished business with the football team and realized I was devoted to the football team. I was going to finish this. My motto was always to finish what you started and that’s how I’m going to be for the rest of my life.”
The decision to attend graduate school and compete for his fifth and final season for the Cyclones ended up being a script Hollywood would covet.
The running back was an outstanding prep football player.
He was the Class 1A Player of the Year in 2011 after rushing for 2,716 yards and 40 touchdowns at tiny Alburnett High School. However, at only 5-10, Harger had only a few offers to continue his football career at the next level.
This didn’t bother Harger, however. He was going to Iowa State, one of the best engineering schools in the nation, and he was determined to score a touchdown for the Cyclones.
Nothing was going to stop him.
The day Harger’s number was called is something dreams are made of, but it didn’t happen overnight.
Harger toiled on ISU’s scout team for four seasons, earning a spot on special teams in his redshirt junior season. He won the Outstanding Walk-On Player Award at the postseason banquet that season.
Harger’s position coach at ISU for three seasons, Lou Ayeni, observed his determination up close.
“Nothing shocks me about Mitchell,” said Ayeni, Iowa State’s Running Game Coordinator and Associate Head Coach. “I watched what he did, how he led our running back room and how he carried himself. There was something special about Mitchell. He’s got it.”
Harger wasn’t shy about letting Ayeni know he could count on him in a game. He would strategically sidle up to Ayeni at practice and games, always in his sightline, displaying bravado and exuding confidence.
“I’ve had guys faster, stronger and bigger, but nobody was more determined than Mitchell,” Ayeni said. “Every practice, every game he would come up to me and say, ‘I’m ready when you need me. I’m ready.’”
On Nov. 12, 2016, Harger was indeed ready.
The Cyclones were in a dogfight with Kansas in Lawrence in a game where both teams were seeking their first Big 12 victory. ISU was down 24-16 late in the third quarter and freshman running back David Montgomery needed a break after taking a hit to his quadricep on the first play of the series.
Looking for a replacement, Ayeni spotted Harger. He sent him in.
Getting the signal, Harger furiously strapped on his helmet and darted onto the field.
His time was now.
“It was kind of like your football life flashing before your eyes,” Harger remembered. “Coach Lou said I was going in and I went on a full sprint out there. I started thinking, ‘Okay, this is what I went through three years of the scout team for. Why I stuck out shoulder surgery and why I decided to come back even though I graduated with an aerospace engineering degree.’”
Harger’s first rush went for 16 yards. His third carry goes for 17 yards. Eleven more yards by Harger, and suddenly the reserve gave ISU first-and-goal at the KU four-yard line.
All Harger envisioned now was the goal line.
Now third-and-goal at the one, it appeared Harger would realize his dream. However, another setback crept in. An illegal shift cost the Cyclones five yards, resulting in a third-and-goal situation from six yards out.
Harger thought his window of opportunity was over. This down and distance is typically a passing situation, and Harger was keenly aware of this fact.
“We finally get down to the four-yard-line and I’ve got the goal line just staring at you,” Harger recollected. “Then we get the penalty and we get pushed back. It just seemed like another punch, another kick that I had to get through.”
Much to Harger’s surprise, however, the next play call was for him. He received the handoff from quarterback Jacob Park and bolted up the middle untouched for a six-yard touchdown scamper.
“They called another running play and finally I got across the goal line,” Harger beamed. “I just felt sudden relief. I said to myself, ‘I did it. I made it. This is for my team. This is for my family and all my friends who supported me.’”
Elation set in. The roar was audible from the press tower.
“To finally get that carry and have it all play in slow-motion and to finally wham it in, it was just an incredible feeling,” Harger said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be stopped.”
Harger had eight carries for 58 yards and a TD in his lone series of action during the game. His score was the impetus for ISU’s 31-24 come-from-behind win over KU.
As he left the field victorious, he found his family in the bleachers and embraced in a group hug that seemed to last an eternity.
You could not find a happier person on Earth.
Ayeni was just as proud.
“I have coached a long time, but Mitchell’s performance that day was one of the most rewarding and special moments I have ever been associated with,” Ayeni boasted.
Harger is at peace now.
His football career is over and his job is top priority. He takes pride in it. He’s aware he is among a select group of former Iowa State engineering graduates who have made significant contributions to NASA.
Like Steve Bales, who, as a flight controller, is credited with making a critical last-minute decision to not abort and continue procedures for Apollo 11’s lunar landing in 1969.
Harger strives to be in that same situation someday.
“Right now I’m just a flight controller,” Harger said. “I’m eventually going to become an instructor and then eventually, my goal is to get to the control room. That is where all those big shots are. That is the biggest goal right now. I can’t picture a better job out there for me.”
Harger’s experience competing for the Cyclones has definitely provided him with real-life skills.
“We are graded every day and thrown into stressful situations,” Harger said. “Playing football for five years had me prepared for this. Honestly, it’s a great fit for football players. It’s a lot of high intensity stuff. Every single day there’s something new and something exciting to look at.”
Ayeni visited Harger at NASA and received a tour of the massive complex over spring break. It was a great time for Ayeni and his pupil to reminisce. It also was a great opportunity for Ayeni to reflect on a wonderful success story.
“It is incredible to see how successful Mitchell is and it means a lot to our program,” Ayeni said. “We all know that winning is important, but to watch people like Mitchell reach their full potential in life is just as equally rewarding.”