MORE THAN A TEAM: THE ROLLER HAWKS
By BRANDON HURLEY
The trajectories of many Greene County youths in the 1990s were re-routed by a small round ball, roller skates and the enthusiastic ambition of a life-long Jefferson resident.
At its peak, the Jerry Vincent led J & J Roller Hawks roller hockey team racked up victories and trophies by the truckload, known throughout the region for their achievements, and forever cemented by a national championship. The program, based out of J & J Skateland, was home to hundreds of roller hockey players, ranging from the age of six to 22. They mostly came for the athletic competition, but left with long-lasting memories.
A window showcase which ran through Feb. 28, depicted the rich history of Greene County is on display at the Jefferson Masonic building. Jeff Cunningham, a former Roller Hawk himself, helped coordinate the display and vividly recalls how life-changing those years in skates were.
The youngsters, at the time, thought they were playing for championships and the thrill of competition, but in the grand scheme of life, the hard work did so much more. Now, some 20 plus years later, the impact roller hockey had as a whole resonates immensely.
Vincent led the Roller Hawks from 1984 through the late 1990s, and were named for J & J Skateland, which was owned by Vincent and his wife, Annie, for nearly 17 years, a skating staple throughout Greene County.
The Vincents created the roller hockey program in the 1980s, pushing more competitively geared kids into skating to combat the slower paced artistic dance that was popular among the skaters. The sport immediately succeeded at the local level until the players grew tired of facing the same guys all the time. That’s when Vincent took the program on the road, all over the country. They played in New York, Kansas City, Lincoln, Nebraska, Texas and California. It was all made possible through fundraising, odd jobs that including detassling, walking beans and generosity from the Vincents.
The success piled up quickly as they won the 1993 national championship and finished runner-up a year later. The Roller Hawks also placed second at the 1998 junior national championship. With little experience in the roller hockey realm before he initiated it in Greene County, Vincent was ecstatic to see the young adults rewarded for their efforts.
“That was my enjoyment. We won a lot of tournaments and I got a lot of satisfaction from what the kids were achieving,” Vincent said. “I had a lot of other dads help me with the coaching. It was a fun thing we put together.”
Jefferson-Scranton graduate Kory Rozell, who now lives in Oklahoma, is beyond thankful for his years spent in the local roller hockey program. Not only was he able to achieve immense athletic success, but he also grew as a human being.
Coach Vincent, who graduated from Jefferson in the 1950s and still resides in town, was so much more than a guy that ushered a new sport to Jefferson. He challenged his athletes to become better people, preachin g responsibility and accountability.
“Jerry and Annie Vincent are the reason that I am who I am. Through J&J Skateland and the Roller Hawk program, the Vincents shaped hundreds of boys and girls into young men and women,” Rozell said. “They pushed us to become better educated, better mannered, and gave us the opportunity to see success and understand pride.”
Cunningham was a teammate of Rozell’s in the early 90s and is now a Iowa State Patrolman in Greene County. He spent a majority of his youth living with his grandparents. His siblings weren’t the most ideal role models, so he gravitated toward the Vincents. He began visiting their house for Christmas and Super Bowl parties and Jerry and Annie’s son, Roger, who’s 10 years older than Cunningham, became a makeshift brother.
Cunningham needed a bit of direction as a youngster and latched on to the skating rink as a 13-year old, taking his first job. He immediately saw his life change and enrolled in the roller hockey program. He quickly became a star as the accolades came pouring over the Roller Hawks, but it was the personal attention from the Vincents that stuck with him most.
“They guided me down the right path. I don’t know where I would be without them,” Cunningham said. “They found me as a diamond in the rough on the inside and they polished me on the outside.”
Transitioning from roller skating into hockey was a simple one for Cunningham.
“I grew up at the skating rink. I was naturally a good skater and excelled,” he said. “It fit my personality. It was fun. Hockey was just fun.
The life-lessons coupled with rare athletic feats took the Roller Hawks to unprecedented heights. They not only won, but they did it in convincing fashion. The local Jefferson squad was a dynasty akin to the likes of the fictional Disney movie franchise, the Mighty Ducks.
Rozell gushed over the legends that graced the program, though the former Ram garnered a handful of honors as well, roaming the net as goalkeeper, donning the bulky pads and mask in all its glory. The Roller Hawks rose to the occasion when it mattered most, they weren’t traveling the country to just merely participate.
“It was seldom that at a tournament somebody on our team was not elected Most Valuable Player,” Rozell said. “I myself was elected Most Valuable Goalie at four consecutive regional tournaments, and four onsecutive National Tournaments. That is still a record held at the United States Association Confederation of Roller Skating Sports.”
Of course, Rozell heaps all the praise on his counterparts, the ones that gave him the leads he was enlisted to protect. He was especially enlightening on Cunningham’s prowess on inline skates.
“I was good, but my teammates were great. Jeff Cunningham was a god to all of us,” Rozell said. “He was our Wayne Gretzky. And having two sets of brothers on the team made us all one solid unit that played together five straight years.”
The decline of roller hockey hit in the early 2000s as the sport became too rough and got out of hand. Safety was no longer ensured and it took its toll on Vincent as a coach as well.
“During the 90s it was a big thing, but they were letting the sport get too rough, that was probably where my down fall was,” the former coach said. “They had a national organization that oversaw it all and I pushed them for stronger rules, to keep the roughness out of it. But, eventually, the sport started to drop off, they had their last tournament and it was a disaster by 2000.”
Cunningham went off to a career in law enforcement. He’s been an officer with the Iowa State Patrol since 2005. The professional leap didn’t take much thought. Thanks to the lessons from the Vincents and his generous nature, law enforcement made sense.
“Growing up, I had a lot of mentors in the community that taught me right and wrong. Law enforcement was a natural fit,” Cunningham said. “I knew right and wrong was right for me. I never tried any drugs. Life’s not that hard, you choose right and you choose wrong.”
As he thinks back on the early 90s, the wins were never more important than the drive. Roller hockey was a way for Cunningham, Rozell and many others to build relationships and show their worth. The championships were nice, but they didn’t mean much.
“I don’t even think, at the age we were at, we were maybe young enough to not even comprehend it,” Cunningham said. “For me, I liked making Jerry and Annie proud.
Making my family proud was my biggest drive. It wasn’t winning as much as making friends and family proud.”
The roller hockey exhibit is part of a project for the Jefferson and Greene County HomeTown MuseumsTeams - Museums on Main project, presented by Main Street Iowa, the Smithsonian Institution, Jefferson Matters: Main Street and the Greene County Historical Society. The national exhibit will be on display at the Historical Society from Aug. 11 through Sept. 23.
The next Masonic window display will be on the county’s wrestling history, March 1-16.