The big day came in July. Nick Henrich said yes, he’d help lead Scott Frost’s parade.

Wait. One thing was missing.

The right uniform.

On the day that Henrich, the linebacker from Omaha Burke, committed to Frost and Nebraska, his father, Mike, wanted to take a photo for posterity — and social media.

“Then I realized we didn’t have a Nebraska hat or shirt,” Mike said.

Nothing?

“Nothing,” Mike said. “Nick didn’t have anything. I didn’t have anything. So we had to scramble and talk to some neighbors to get some Nebraska stuff to wear.”

The Nebraska kid who was a statement recruit for Frost — a big one who didn’t get away — didn’t own a single piece of Husker gear. There’s a punch line in there somewhere.

This week, Henrich will be part of Frost’s 2019 recruiting class, one that will be charged with bringing back the tradition — and putting a Husker shirt in every house.

Henrich to the rescue. Last year, Nebraska football was burning. It needed a fireman.

How about a fireman’s son?

Mike Henrich is that fireman. In an alternate world, with no Frost at Nebraska, Mike’s son would have been a Hawkeye or a Badger or perhaps would have worn the golden helmet of Notre Dame.

But Nick, a ferocious linebacker, will be a Husker and is so fired up he’s going to start college in January. That’s the idea of early signing day, for those who can’t wait.

How did Frost protect his turf and fight off Kirk Ferentz and Paul Chryst from raiding the state again? How did the new coach go into an Iowa household and flip the allegiance to Big Red?

The story starts about 36 years ago, in Missouri Valley, Iowa.

Back then, Mike Henrich was a tennis player, one of the top young players in Iowa. He also had a football dream. One problem: He had a tennis body.

During his senior year in high school, 1982, Henrich took a football recruiting trip to Iowa State. He was all of 5-foot-11 and 158 pounds. He told coach Jim Criner he was 165. No matter. Henrich was the smallest player on the recruiting trip.

He would grow up to have sons 6-5 and 6-4 and more than 200 pounds, but that comes later.

Henrich went to college with his tennis racket, first at Northeast Missouri State, then Iowa. After he got his master’s at Iowa and helped coach the Hawkeye team, Iowa State hired him as head tennis coach in 1989.

About five years later, Iowa State dropped the program.

He needed something to do until the right coaching opportunity came along. Some friends suggested this: Become a fireman. You’ll love it.

“I never thought about it, but I liked doing physical things,” Henrich said. “I took the written and physical tests and I loved it.”

There were openings in Millard, which was close to home. Perfect. Henrich, now with the Omaha Fire Department, started in 1995. He and wife Andrea settled into the Omaha area. They had two sons, Andrew and Nick. Both big lads.

The football junkie in Mike tossed the football with his sons, got them into youth football. Occasionally, they would go hit a tennis ball.

“I’d say, ‘Do you like it?’ ” said Mike, who still teaches tennis lessons. “They’d say, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you want to play it?’ ‘No.’ ”

Then came the South Dakota football camp. Andrew was a junior at Burke, and Nick, a freshman, tagged along for fun.

“The South Dakota coach came down (to Burke) and said we’re recruiting Andrew,” Henrich said. “And, oh, by the way, we’re looking at Nick, too.”

Huh?

Things happened fast. Nick played for Burke’s varsity as a freshman. Made all-state as a sophomore. Mike saw something happening. He made a highlight tape of Nick and emailed it to every Power Five conference school.

“A couple weeks later, Nick said Oklahoma showed up at Burke,” Mike said. “I said, ‘Who were they there to see?’ He said, ‘Me.’”

“Coach (Matt) Campbell at Iowa State, he told me that he was the first one to see Nick’s tape, and he told his D-coordinator ‘We got to get this kid.’”

These things have happened in Omaha over the years. It used to be that other schools were hesitant to come in. You’re not going to pull a kid away from Nebraska. Why bother?

Of course, those days were a long time ago.

“South Dakota was the first to offer,” Mike said. “Then Minnesota. Then Iowa State, Iowa were right after that. Coach (Mike) Riley and Nebraska were sixth, seventh, sometime after that.

“(Nick) went to Minnesota practice and saw the facilities and said this is awesome. Then Iowa State. I didn’t even recognize Iowa State. Wow, it was awesome.

“It got to be overwhelming, all the texts, the attention. Schools like Penn State, Notre Dame, LSU, Alabama coming up. It’s a lot.

“He’s a real mature, smart kid. He was able to decide ‘This is what I’m looking for,’ and he narrowed it down to the Midwest. Everything he wanted was here.”

Mike said Nick leaned toward Wisconsin, then Iowa, Minnesota and Notre Dame. Those seemed to be the big four.

Nebraska?

“Coach Riley is a nice guy,” Mike said. “But Nebraska was off the list. There was no chance he was going there.”

And it wasn’t just the coaches.

“If they hadn’t changed athletic directors, I don’t think Nick goes there,” Mike said.

All that changed in March. Frost was a few months into the job. He texted Mike: Can we talk?

“We talked for about a half an hour,” Mike said. “I liked his honesty and directness. Right away he said, ‘Mike, we’ve got a long way to go. But we’re ahead of schedule from where we were in Florida. We really need to flip the culture.’

“He was asking, ‘What does Nick like about Wisconsin?’ I said, ‘Well, he likes the guys in the locker room.’ Scott said, ‘I can see that. Theirs is better than ours right now. But ours will be better. That’s the type of kid we’re going to get. Our culture is going to change.’”

Everything changed as soon as Nick met Frost and linebackers coach Barrett Ruud.

“I remember that first conversation we had with Coach Frost and Coach Ruud,” Burke coach Paul Limongi said. “It was inspirational. I was ready to sign up and play.

“They laid it on the table, were sincere and humble and showed a lot of valued interest. After that meeting, Nebraska took the lead on both of them (Henrich and Burke tight end Chris Hickman).”

Said Mike Henrich, “It was a whole new ballgame.”

The Henriches were impressed by the things that strike most people when they meet Frost. His confidence. He has a plan.

“We met with Coach Ferentz several times,” Mike said. “Whether it’s him or Coach Chryst at Wisconsin, I can’t say enough good about them. There’s nothing bad about them.

“And that’s what Coach Frost said: I’ve got nothing bad to say about Iowa because there is nothing bad. Same thing about Wisconsin. There is nothing bad. I think we’re better and I think we can help you develop more.

“Coach Frost said, ‘Wisconsin, that’s where Nebraska was. They were just smart enough to not get off that track. We’re going to get that, with a speed element and better recruits.’

“He has a deep belief in what they are doing, a real vision. They’ve done it before and they really think they’ll be on top soon.”

The Henrichs got the same vibes from Ruud and strength coach Zach Duval. Mike said Ruud, who played in the NFL, told Nick he had more developed linebacker skills than Ruud at the same age. He needed to grow mentally into the position.

Two things Frost said flipped a switch for his son, Mike said. One, the idea that Frost would have his back and promote a family atmosphere. And the practice of going full speed, and if you make a mistake, keep going and learn from it. Frost isn’t going to spend any time yelling about mistakes.

Suddenly, Nebraska went from off the radar to the only school on it.

“It had to be his choice, 100 percent,” Mike said. “The last few months I really wanted him to go to Nebraska, but I didn’t let him know that. I didn’t let anyone know. I just thought it was a better opportunity for him to grow and develop, better fit with the coaching staff.”

Would Nick have followed his dad’s footsteps to Iowa City? Haunted Nebraska up in Madison? Who knows? The Henrichs are happy to reverse a trend that Mike could never figure out.

“There’s Harrison Phillips (Millard West star who went to Stanford and is now with the Buffalo Bills), right in your back door, and you show no interest,” Mike said. “I watched that kid for two minutes and said that was a no-brainer.

“Noah Fant, my oldest (Andrew) played basketball with him. He’s a no-brainer. To wait a month before signing day to go after him, that’s too late.”

It’s never too late to shop, either.

“I have a couple three Nebraska shirts and hats now,” Mike said. “I’ve put the Iowa hat on the back burner. I’m still an Iowa fan — except when they play Nebraska.”

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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