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On Tommy Armstrong, Grit, and Formative Years in the Spotlight

If injuries do not derail him, Tommy Armstrong will play his final game in Memorial Stadium this Saturday.

It kind of felt like we were never going to type and/or say that, didn’t it?

In some ways, it feels like Tommy has been here since John Latenser, Sr. was drawing up the plans for Memorial Stadium way back during the Harding administration and in some ways it feels like Tommy will still be our quarterback when we’re all being driven to the stadium in our Google smart-rockets before we’re teleported to our seats in the moon-stadium in the year 2067.

He’s been here.  He’s done that.

What hasn’t the cannon-armed, at times cannon-foddered, young man been through while wearing the red and the white and the fervent, absurd expectations of nearly 2 million?

When I think of Tommy Armstrong, and his career, I think of it using a wide-angle lens.  Zoom in too close on Tommy and you might miss the panoramic breadth of what he has done during his career at Nebraska.

He suffered crushing, crotch-kick losses, that dropped fans to their metaphorical and literal knees.  He orchestrated comebacks with maestro-like command, a conductor using the full complement of his orchestral powers.  He unhinged jaws, turning the Adidas-clad masses into 86,000 Anacondas, hissing with amazement as he hit his stride into the open field.  He rolled eyes, causing even the most stoic supporter to turn their face into corneal roller coasters with decision making that was — at once — reckless and breathtaking.

I can’t profess to know Tommy Armstrong anywhere but between the lines on a football field, viewed through the prism of my own amateur analysis.  I have never spoken to him directly, but have absorbed snippets of who “Tommy Armstrong, football player” is through 4 years of osmosis.  When someone starts for you at quarterback, for this long, in this state?  Hell, you end up feeling like you can call a guy by their first name.  That level of familiarity can be both good and bad.

And Tommy, for his part, experienced the full array of both extremes.

There are few things more inherently difficult in the sporting world than for an 18-year-old kid to become the starting quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Simply put: there is nowhere to hide. You cannot duck behind the shadows of a professional sports franchise.  You cannot slip through the cracks of discussions involving the basketball team or go full Mike Tyson and fade into Bolivia.  Husker football is it.  In italics.  In bold.  In neon if it was possible to type it that way.  If you’re not the ringmaster of this 365-full-bore-no-quit-days-a-year circus, then you are, at the very least, the dude walking across the tightrope in the center ring with the spotlight hot on your skin.

It was onto this interminable treadmill that a Mississippi-born, Texas transplant stepped up in 2013 when Taylor Martinez went down with some kind of Bo-Pelini-shrouded toe injury.  Taking over for that quarterback, with that coach, and the growing tectonic rumbles of a shifting fan base that was growing increasingly desperate for a program-sized leap forward?  That was no warm up.  It was akin to maxing out the blurring, whirring, rubber of that aforementioned treadmill and having someone jump on while it was spinning.  And Tommy leapt without any hesitation.

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Image Courtesy of: The AP.

He’s been running ever since.  Sometimes he’s stumbled; sometimes he’s very nearly fallen.  But always, Tommy has put one foot in front of the other.

But, if we zoom that wide-angle in, if we allow ourselves a more intimate close up of the man who has grown up before our very own wild-eyes, I think we’ll see exactly who and what Tommy Armstrong is.  That up close look allows us to take true measure of a player, to lay aside the statistics and the records and boil down to the key ingredient that makes Tommy tick.

It’s True Grit.

Not the kind from the “T” section of your least favorite writer’s section of The Big Book of Football Clichés, either.  Not the stumbling, doofy John Wayne kind from the original film of that title.  I’m talking Cohen Brothers reboot True Grit.  I’m talking about one of the final scenes from that beautiful, expansively dark, new-classic. Rooster Cogburn, the flawed, unkillable wild man who has been tasked with helping a young girl track down her father’s murderer to grant her some small amount of what she believes will be peace, turns to face a group of multiple kidnappers singlehandedly.  He’s outnumbered.  Outgunned.  He’s beat to hell.  And his entire plan seems to consist of one solitary thought: if I just keep going, they’ll back down before I do.

It’s foolhardy, brave and kind of insane.  Out of context, none of it makes sense and 99.99% of people wouldn’t undertake it.  This one scene to me encapsulates Tommy Armstrong.  Flawed.  Fearless.  Tougher than hell.  He ran the gauntlet of growing up before the eyes of an unblinking mass of football die-hards and did it all without flinching or stopping to think of the consequences to himself.  He’s Rooster Cogburn with his six shooters in his hands and the reigns in his teeth, charging three villains who have superior fire power.

*Spoiler Alert*

Rooster Cogburn doesn’t die.

*Spoiler Alert*

Whether he plays on Saturday or not, The legend of Tommy Armstrong, the never-scared badass who charges ahead when others would turn and run?  That won’t either.

FIN

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