The Lincoln North Star first-team offense huddled for instruction and warmth. The normal midweek practice accompanied a chilled wind across the practice field, just a day after near triple digits. Players broke the huddle and lined up
Through the wind cut an authoritative voice. Quarterback DJ Athouris spun back to hear offensive coordinator Tommy Armstrong Jr. before the snap. Clattering pads surrounded him. Green grass and sprinting teammates blurred beyond encroaching arms and noise. He turned to his right and thew at the corner. Braeden Sunken jumped and adjusted his body to the ball. He spun counterclockwise as he secured the ball and tapped both feet in the end zone. Cheers echoed erupted.
Athouris walked back to the group and Armstrong. The same former college quarterback that led the Huskers for the vast majority of his college career congratulated the sophomore. Athouris saw what Armstrong saw in the defense and found his trusted receiver. Job well done. Time to do it again.
“My quarterback is the captain of the ship,” Armstrong said of his offensive system. “He has to know where the ball has to be, he has to know who is blocking who, who’s the free guy.”
Athouris received the next play from Armstrong and relayed it. The Navigators lined up, ready to go. The quarterback started his cadence.
Armstrong absorbed it all. The formation, the personnel, the splits, where the defense lined up. While the distance grows between himself and his playing days at Nebraska, his love of the game is untarnished. He hesitated getting into coaching, unsure that’s what he wanted. Through 7-on-7 camps he saw how the kids took his coaching. Maybe he’d put on the headset after all. Within months he was on the sidelines installing Lincoln North Star’s new offense.
Armstrong burst onto the scene at Nebraska as an underdog. He started the South Dakota State game in 2013 as usual starter Taylor Martinez dealt with a lingering turf toe. Ultimately, he started seven of the last nine games, including the 24-19 win in the Gator Bowl. He went on to start all but three games of his remaining three years. Armstrong threw for 8,871 yards with 67 touchdowns as a Husker. He went undrafted and converted to safety in hopes of prolonging his playing career. It wasn’t enough. The Minnesota Vikings cut him and the former Husker went to the Indoor Football League, where he won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But it was time to move on. He walked away from the pads and helmet. The game, however, wasn’t done.
Armstrong started coaching 7-on-7 camps where he saw the progression. Kids started as much and grew as ball players, as young men.
“That’s where it got me was seeing those guys develop from fifth grade, sixth grade to ninth graders at the time,” he said. “That’s the greatest thing as a coach is seeing the progression of those kids and knowing how important it is for him.”
Armstrong took friends to Lincoln High and North Star games. He wanted to keep up with his 7-on-7 players. North Star head coach James Thompson just took over the football program when he heard through mutual friends that Armstrong might be interested. They met multiple times to ensure it was a good fit.
“I think that was the biggest thing, just accepting the challenge,” Armstrong said of ultimately making the decision. “Believing in the kids. It’s a lot of learning experience not only for them but for me as well.”
Thompson announced Armstrong’s arrival. The kids were ecstatic. They were going to be coached by a Husker. A lot of them, the ones most serious about football, cheered their new offensive coordinator from the beaten benches of Memorial Stadium. That novelty dissipated as they learned the offense.
“I think the kids are really excited the first few days especially,” Thompson said. “But after a couple of days that newness wears off and you realize that guy is here to coach me and I’m here to get better.”
Armstrong brought former Husker teammates Alonzo Moore and Brandon Jackson with him to North Star. They understood their uncharacteristic fame as assistant coaches. But more important they were there to coach a winning culture. That started with work on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom.
“I understand I’ve got some senior guys who say ‘I watched you growing up,’ but at the same time I told them this is the best experience for you is learning from guys who have been in your situation,” Armstrong said. “I told them all the time me, Coach Moore, Coach Jackson we’ve been in high school before, you want to be the cool guy, you don’t want to go to school and say I wish I would have done this better in high school.
“The hardest thing to let them know is high school’s going to go by fast and those seniors, they understand that when they’re having fun they’ll look up and it’ll be January and they’ll be graduating in May.”
The Gators started on a roll, winning their first two games 25 and 38 points, respectively. But two losses to tough competition followed. Four games into the season the coaches saw a turning point. The Gators showed glimpses of their potential. Turnovers and missed assignments followed those teasers. Thompson saw reassurance in his decision to bring the former Huskers onto the staff during that chilly practice before the Millard South game. One quarterback asked for pointers after a drill. Armstrong demonstrated mechanics of each move and explained why.
“They go out of their way that kids understand when they did something right,” the head coach said of his new staff additions. “That’s one thing that they have to continue to do so they can build and not just being told what they’re doing wrong, what they need to fix. They know when they do well.”
To Armstrong, those moments transcend football.
“I’ve been excited for them the past six, seven months I’ve been around and I’ve built some relationships with some kids that’s just incredible and we’re going to be hard on them but we understand they’re 14, 15 year olds and the best thing I could give them for advice is I want to prepare them not only for football but life after football, get them to understand everything they do in life is going to be worked for,” Armstrong said. “The best things in life won’t be given to you, but at the same time if you work hard enough you can earn it.”
North Star went into the game against Millard South looking to earn it. The sun set slowly behind the Thompson’s booth in the press box on the west side of new Union Bank Stadium at Lincoln Northwest as he issued the calls. The Gators fumbled away an initial handoff. Another one of those pesky mistakes they cleaned up in practice. Millard South scored and North Star fumbled again on the ensuing kick return, leaving the Gators offense awaiting redemption on the sidelines.
“The one thing I can guarantee you is this will be a totally different team in the next year or two,” Armstrong said during practice that week. “I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to seeing them progress throughout the year. I wish I could work with the seniors a little bit more because once I get with the offense they progress and start moving and start getting that confidence and next thing you know the season’s over.”
DJ Athouris and the North Star offense eventually got back on the field in need of points. He went deep first but couldn’t connect with the receiver. Armstrong relayed the next call. Moore and Jackson pointed improvements to their respective groups. They inherited a group with low expectations and built their belief. Athouris broke the Gators’ huddle and stood in the shotgun. It all starts with the quarterback, Thompson said.
The junior quarterback received the snap and rolled to his right. He kept his eyes up, just like Armstrong taught him. There, at the 8, senior receiver Dylan Hallett beat his defender. Athouris knew where the ball needed to be. Hallett easily corralled the throw and turned upfield. No one around to stop him. Touchdown North Star. Players and coaches mobbed quarterback and receiver on the sidelines. Armstrong yelled from his booth above the bleachers.
North Star lost that game but rallied to win the next. The Gators’ varsity unity kept rallying while the freshman team went undefeated. A bright future in the system.