Published Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm / Updated at 1:01 am
Shatel: Banderas following dad's path, which now leads to Memorial Stadium

If only the helmet could talk.

Tom Banderas' old white Nebraska football helmet sat on a table at Lincoln Southwest like a museum piece. There were scratches on the top, maybe from getting his head slapped by Leslie O'Neal. There was a dark bruise on the side, possibly from the time it collided with Brian Bosworth's crimson Oklahoma helmet.

On the back, there was the logo “Our House.” Yep. This helmet participated in the 1987 Oklahoma game in Lincoln, the “Game of the Century II,” when Broderick Thomas and the Huskers relinquished the keys to their house.

This is the helmet Tom wore in the family photo next to his young son Josh, who was pretending to be a football player like his dad.

“My dad was in his helmet and I was wearing a (potato) chip bowl,” Josh Banderas said. “That's when I first knew I wanted to play football.”

The helmet was there for another historical mile marker in the Banderas family: the day Josh signed to play for the Huskers.

Just like his dad.

Christmas in February arrived on schedule Wednesday. It's a day to celebrate hope, celebrate the beginning of the journey. Around the country, hundreds of kids, from football to cross country, were signing up for the future. It's a cool day for all.

But the scene that was unfolding in the Lincoln Southwest student area was enough to make an old Papa Bear's knees buckle.

I can't imagine watching one of my daughters writing a column on deadline at the Orange Bowl. I certainly can't imagine what was going through Tom Banderas' mind and heart Wednesday morning.

Thirty years ago this week, Tom sat in the cafeteria at Oak Grove High School, a half-hour east of downtown Kansas City. His family, coaches, teachers and a handful of students watched him sign a letter of intent to play at Nebraska.

The TV stations in K.C. didn't cover it. There weren't recruiting websites streaming live video. The kid didn't even have any stars behind his name — nobody did.

“You didn't have the media circus you do now,” Tom said. “There weren't ratings. They had a Blue Chippers magazine, and I was in that, along with Brian Bosworth. The year before, I was in there with Marcus Dupree.

“There was one story about me that ran in the Kansas City Star. It showed Notre Dame's recruiting board, and I was the No. 1 name on the board.”

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You bet Gerry Faust wanted the big-blocking, sure-handed tight end from small-town Missouri. So did everybody else. Banderas visited Nebraska, Texas, USC, Colorado, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. NU's fans, game experience, tradition all won out. So did the head coach.

“When Tom Osborne sat in your living room, it made quite an impression,” Tom said. “In 1983, Tom Osborne walking into your house would be like Nick Saban walking in today.”

Banderas had a good, solid career. He played on the freshman team in 1983, redshirted in 1984, and started his final three years on teams that were ranked in the top five, including No. 1 on Nov. 21, 1987. He played in two Fiesta Bowls and a Sugar Bowl. He caught three touchdown passes against Missouri as a senior.

After a brief stint in the Washington Redskins' training camp in 1988, Banderas came back to Oak Grove, looking for his future. That's when the seeds for Wednesday's scene were planted by Tom's father.

“He told me to use my head, not my back,” Tom said. “He worked for a demolition company his whole life. He wanted me to use my education.”

Tom did just that. With the help of Nebraska alumni, he found a job with Farm Bureau Insurance in Lincoln, where he's been for 23 years. Moving back to Lincoln seemed natural.

It may have been the move that paved his son's path to Memorial Stadium, following his dad's footsteps.

For as long as Josh can remember, he was playing catch with his dad, watching Husker games on TV, hanging out with his dad on the Nebraska sideline, meeting old teammates like Neil Smith and Thomas.

“Always,” Josh said. “I remember my first Husker game. I saw a guy get his tooth knocked out. I talked about it for two weeks.”

Tom coached his son in midget football (“He was a hell of a Midget player, running back and nose tackle”). He gave his son options. He never pushed him into football. He didn't have to.

“The first hit I had was probably the most awesome thing ever,” Josh said. “I knew I was going to do it for a long, long time.”

Turns out demolition is still the family business. But with Tom and Josh, it involved wearing a helmet and pads.

“I've seen his old games, old films,” Josh said. “He's on YouTube, the 'Game of the Century II.' He always talks about how he was a blocking machine. I like to get on him about that.”

Tom said “no question, it was our dream to have him in a helmet with the 'N' on it.” The dream, but not necessarily the plan. Josh grew into the dream. He's a special athlete, like his dad, with a similar build. In 1983, Tom was 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. Josh is 6-2, 220.

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That frame was good enough to play tight end 30 years ago. But not now. Josh is a linebacker, a bone-rattler who likes to emulate Jack Lambert, though he hopes to play the weakside spot at NU.

He was talented enough to get attention from schools like Oregon and USC. But Tom said USC and Oregon begged off the heavy recruiting because they assumed Josh was a lock for Lincoln.

They were right. In fact, Josh became an extra recruiter for the Huskers, using Twitter to help persuade other recruits to follow his lead. And there's another difference between father and son.

“I still don't know what Twitter is,” Tom said. “I don't want my thoughts to go out into the world.”

You didn't need more than 140 characters to see how special this day was, for father and son and legacy.

For Josh, the magic carpet ride of being around Nebraska football his entire life just got wilder. His dad introduced him to Osborne, who told Josh, “I sure hope you're better than your dad was.”

Since his commitment to NU, Josh has hung around Memorial Stadium, champing at the bit. He had Bo Pelini to the house for a home visit last weekend. What was there to talk about? Movies. They exchanged reviews of “Zero Dark Thirty.”

For the father, it's been a little surreal, going through the recruiting process again. Then watching his son put pen to paper. Like watching your life flash before you.

“It's an unbelievable experience,” Tom said. “I'm just really looking forward to it. I think he's going to be a solid player for Nebraska and have a good career. He understands the purpose, and he has a solid goal in mind.

“But this, this is just awesome. I can't even describe it. It's 10 times more special than when I did it.”

They had something else in common Wednesday. The look of pride splashed over their faces.

“It's just kind of implied,” Josh said. “It's almost like an aura — I get to do what he did. It's not something we talk about.”

No need. That helmet on the table said it all.

Contact the writer:


* * *

>> Video: Josh Banderas signs his Letter of Intent with Nebraska:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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