This story originally appeared in the Sept. 2020 issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.
The eyes of the football recruiting world were on Council Bluffs, Iowa, the week of Lewis Central High School’s season opening game. On a sticky August night at Titan Field, fans, parents and media watched the season kickoff against the Saint Albert Falcons. In some ways, it felt like a normal Friday night that you could find across America. The Lewis Central cheerleaders drove around the field blaring music while waving their pom-poms to fire up the people making their ways from the parking lot to the gate. The “El Si Locos”, the leaders of the student section at the school, hosted a small group for grilling before the game. For a moment, everything felt normal. Except things were a bit different.
With a high school football season unmatched in the history books, teams across America stepped onto the field united in their aspiration to play. The preparations needed during the COVID-19 pandemic meant faces covered with masks. Fan attendance was limited to just four people per participant. Only 10 media members could check out one of the top 50 recruits in the nation, Thomas Fidone. The 4-star (HV Rating: 96.3) tight end from Lewis Central committed to the Huskers on Aug. 26, two days prior to the first game of his senior season.
Watching the recruiting process unfold for Fidone kept several fan bases on the edge of their seats. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds with strong hands and a 4.6 forty-yard dash, it is easy to see why he rated among the best players in the country. His final group of schools—Nebraska, LSU, Michigan and Iowa—all recruited him hard. When Fidone made his announcement live on local television in Omaha, many saw it as must-see TV. For the tight end and his close circle, it was a family affair filled with anticipation.
“It was kind of like a kid waiting for Christmas,” Thomas’ dad, Tom, said. “Waiting for that present and waiting for him to say he’s going to the Cornhuskers. We had family coming in. My brother drove from Houston. My nephew flew in from Colorado. Then we just had a bunch of friends and family that were pretty close join us. When he said his choice was Nebraska, I think the whole energy there just lit up. I think it caught him by surprise how the energy was released like it did. It was so loud that he didn’t know what to do.”
Fidone’s dad had another reason beyond the typical excitement of seeing your son make his college choice. Upon Thomas’ saying “Nebraska,” Go Big Red and Husker Power chants filled the room. He and his family are die-hard Husker fans. That commitment moment culminated a lot of hard work but realized a dream come true for so many observing, including Thomas’ cousin Gianni.
“Oh, wow, seeing that just brought back the memories,” Gianni said. “I remember going out to the backyard with Thomas acting like we’re playing for Nebraska, tossing up the football, screaming that we just won the game. To be able to see him score a high school touchdown means the world. It just brings joy to me for my cousin to be able to work so hard and accomplish so many great things. I can’t wait to see him do more.”
Gianni saw Thomas score that touchdown in the season-opening game on his first catch of the season. His family in the stands high-fived and cheered. Of course, they almost all wore Husker gear. Putting on Husker gear is in Thomas’ immediate future. Getting to have that moment of putting on a Husker uniform for real will be surreal. But Thomas has plenty of experience pretending that he is in Memorial Stadium in front of the Sea of Red.
“My family is crazy, die-hard Husker fans,” Thomas said. “We’d cry after the games if we lost and stuff like that. I remember me and my cousins—Gianni, Sal and Luciano––we would always be out at the farm in the backyard during games. We would still be able to hear the TV because our parents have it so loud. We would mimic what they’re saying and doing. I’d go out for a pass and it was always just good memories to have as a kid with your cousins.”
It’s a dream come true for Thomas to be a part of the tradition at Nebraska, though he had to separate his childhood feelings about the Huskers from his recruiting process. Thomas wanted to give the schools recruiting him a fair chance and needed to find the best fit for himself. Yet, there was always something different about Nebraska for Thomas, and he always felt at home within the program.
It wasn’t a secret in the household that Tom wanted Thomas to be a Husker. That didn’t mean Thomas would choose Nebraska. That made the moment when Thomas informed his dad of his final decision even more special.
“I said my piece with it and then I let him decide what he wanted to do,” Tom said. “I had some scary moments that I thought he was not going to Nebraska. I wasn’t always sure where he was going. But when he finally told me, it was probably a few weeks before he actually made a verbal commitment. When he told me, I was still nervous.
“I was just kind of waiting for the moment to really hear it from him. When it happened, it definitely brought tears to my eyes. I was happy for him. I think it’s the best fit for him. I think he’s going to have the best coaches who are going to help raise him as a good person and a good football player.”
It’s a big deal to turn your son over to a college coaching staff. A level of trust is needed between the player’s parents and the staff. Nebraska built that relationship with the Fidones better than anyone else because of tight end coach Sean Beckton. Thomas’ future position coach would call Tom so the pair could get to know each other. They talked about more than football. It wasn’t like that with all the schools pursuing Thomas. Beckton and Scott Frost made it clear they had a passion for landing Thomas. The Husker coaches demonstrated that his son was a need for their team and not just a want. It was that genuine approach that struck a chord with Tom.
Thomas will be among the highest-rated recruits the Huskers have landed since 2005. Prospects that are borderline 5-star players don’t come around in the region often, but it’s not just measurables or eye-popping stats that make him stand out. Thomas’ work ethic fuels him to be the best. His coaches and family members all see that. His dad helped model that work ethic by bringing Thomas along while he ran his lawn-service business. Thomas credits his family with instilling the value of hard work.
“Nothing is going to be given to anyone so you have to work for it,” Thomas said. “That’s how I was raised in my family. We’re a really close, big Italian family and all my uncles roughed us up as kids. Every time we were ever together, our uncles would usually be in the games with us in the backyard games. They were hitting us. They never made it easy. It was never two-hand touch football. It was always backyard tackle football. So, I kind of grew up in tough family. It’s just kind of a testament to how my family is and how we deal with things.”
In a pandemic football season where perseverance, planning and protocols are needed, this family continues to show up to support Thomas at games. Soon he will be off to Lincoln as an early enrollee. His family will soon make memories of cheering on their new favorite Husker in Memorial Stadium. And soon, a lifetime Husker fan who once was a two-year-old sporting a Husker jersey will suit up in the scarlet and cream.
Greg is the Recruiting Analyst for Hail Varsity and has covered Husker athletics since 2013. He has always had a passion for sports while growing up in the Chicago area. As he got older and had to hang up his cleats and sneakers, he realized his passion for sports went beyond just watching and attending games. He has covered many events from the Rose Bowl to championship boxing matches. If he’s not talking sports, he’s hovering over his grill. He is married to an amazing woman, Kim, and they have a dog that barks when Greg yells at the TV during games.