WINFIELD, Iowa — The engine roared as Jess Settles got going in his tractor, moving some grain carts to pick up the corn crop his uncle Gary was picking in mid-November.
Those sounds remind him why he loves farming.
“That’s my favorite part about farming, ever since I was a kid, just firing these up,” Settles said. “Early in the morning you have the dew on your feet and it’s kind of chilly out. It’s better than even playing ball in front of a crowd.”
Those words should not be taken lightly, as Settles knows a thing or two about playing basketball in front of big crowds.
The Winfield, Iowa, farmer was one of the top basketball players in the state of Iowa during the 1990s, named Iowa’s Mr. Basketball during his high school senior season in 1993 and starting for four years at the University of Iowa, claiming Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in the 1993-94 season.
While staying involved in basketball through coaching and broadcasting for the Big Ten Network, he said farming is his full time job, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“This is what I do,” Settles said.
In the blood
Jess, his father, Steve, and his uncle, Gary Settles, work on a row-crop operation together. The family has been working through the tough 2019 season, with Gary saying in mid-November there were still a few days of harvest left in front of them.
While years like this have been a challenge, “from the time I was a little kid, watching my dad, my grandpa and my uncle, it’s in my blood,” Settles said. “My favorite toys when I was a kid were farm toys. The sandbox became a field.”
Gary said having Jess back on the farm full-time in recent years has been important.
“It sure helps,” Gary said. “Jess’ dad and I couldn’t do this by ourselves.”
Farming isn’t the only thing in the blood for the Settles family.
Jess’ brother, Jake, and Gary’s children, Allison and Lincoln, were also star athletes in the Winfield area, while the other side of Jess’ family, the Kriegers, have earned a lot of recognition.
Jess’ mother was one of 10 daughters in the Krieger family and Settles said they are “all ballers.” Several of them were athletes at University of Iowa, and that influence has spread down a generation to two of Settles’ cousins, current San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle and former NFL athlete and Iowa Hawkeye Henry Krieger-Coble.
The determination and mindset that farming instilled in him is a big reason Settles believes farm kids are able to be successful when the competition elevates to a new level.
“Most farm kids have been stepped on, kicked, burned,” he said. “… There’s a ton of danger out here. The pain tolerance has to be high, and when you play college sports you are always in pain. That toughness comes from the farm.”
Upon making the Class 1A high school state basketball tournament in 1992 and 1993 with Winfield-Mt. Union, Settles started drawing attention from some of the best college coaches in the region. Iowa State head coach Johnny Orr and Steve Fisher, head coach at the University of Michigan, were among the primary recruiters, and they would make visits to the farm.
“They’d come rolling into the farm, and they’d sell their schools, and they’d see my court next to the manure pit,” Settles said. “It was a unique experience.”
Ultimately, Settles said his playing decision was simple. He always had dreamed of being a Hawkeye, and when Iowa head coach Tom Davis came calling, he could not resist.
“He was a gift from God,” Settles said. “When you are 17, and your folks send you off, you never know what you are getting behind closed doors. If I had to do it over again, I’d play for him again in a heartbeat. It was a tremendous experience.”
Settles entered the starting lineup right away as a freshman. He said playing basketball in the Big Ten “used to be a war.” He remembers being a freshman going up against players like Michigan’s Juwan Howard and Purdue’s Glenn Robinson, who both ended up in the NBA.
He said the determination and work ethic gained from agriculture was a big reason he became Big Ten Freshman of the Year that season.
Iowa earned 78 victories during Settles’ four years as a Hawkeye, along with two trips to the NCAA Tournament coming in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons.
Unable to reach the ranks of professional basketball due to injuries, Settles moved to coaching. He split time between farming and as an assistant at Southeastern Community College in Burlington, Iowa, and Mount Pleasant High School, near his hometown of Winfield.
He got an opportunity to be a head coach at Iowa Wesleyan, an NAIA school in Mount Pleasant. During his two seasons with the team, Settles posted a 26-27 record.
“It was some of the best two years of my life,” Settles said. “I enjoyed those guys, and we had some great battles and I learned a lot about the game. They ended up going from NAIA to Division 3, so I felt that was a good time for me to transition, since we had three little girls.”
During the tail end of his high school and college career, Settles said his role on the farm became diminished as he focused on basketball. Now, he works as a full-time farmer along with being an in-studio and courtside analyst for the Big Ten Network. He said the schedule typically allows him to focus on farming during the summer, and when harvest is wrapping up, basketball becomes his main focus.
“A few weeks ago, I was in this combine from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., then at 5 p.m. that night I’m on live television in Chicago with Dave Revsine talking hoops,” he said. “I went from being dirty out on the farm in blue jeans and Carhartts to being in a suit and tie with makeup on my face getting ready to get out on the set.”
Being able to work in both of his passions is a dream come true for Settles, but he had some advice for other farm athletes he wished he had taken. He sees many kids — in athletics and life — specializing, and he hopes people try a variety of things.
“Do what you love, but make sure you stay balanced,” Settles said. “That was probably the biggest mistake I made. It’s just important to play a lot of different sports and have a lot of different things going on when you are young.
“Enjoy your high school years,” he said. “Even if you are no good at something, do it for fun.”