Like he’s done every fall Saturday since before he can remember, Thomas Fidone settled in to watch and cheer on Nebraska football.
This was Nov. 21, nearly three months after the top-rated tight end in the Class of 2021 made national headlines when he committed to the Huskers in a televised ceremony. Taking in games as a pledge felt different — if anything, he was even more invested in the process and the outcome than when he was a grade-school super fan.
Nebraska fell flat that day, losing at home 41-23 to Illinois to drop to 1-3. Fidone posted a message on social media, wondering what went wrong. As the television broadcast ended and the afternoon wore on, the Council Bluffs Lewis Central standout received at least a dozen calls or texts from coaches of other Power Five programs.
Just seemed like a good time to check in, they’d say.
“Pretty much all told me the same thing: ‘Come be a part of something great. We’d love you here,’ ” Fidone says. “And some of it was hating on Nebraska.”
Fidone didn’t listen. How could he? His first outfit as a 3-year-old was a red Nebraska jersey with a little white plastic helmet. The Huskers were among the first to discover him, back when he was a relatively unknown lanky receiver who showed up at a 7-on-7 summer camp in Lincoln in 2019. He built relationships with fellow commits that far exceeded anything he experienced elsewhere.
In a way, Fidone has always been a Husker. It simply becomes official Wednesday. By January, the top-ranked prospect in coach Scott Frost’s third full recruiting class will be on campus, interested only in the future of a team with which he has much history.
“I’ll compete with anybody in that tight end room,” Fidone says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be better than all of them at one point.”
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Fidone’s first Nebraska outfit comes with a story. Come to think of it, his father recalls, it was the first time he thought his son might be well suited for football.
The two went outside to play, Thomas Jay Fidone and 3-year-old Thomas Jay Fidone II. On this particular fall day, the elder Fidone decided to introduce some contact. Little Thomas grinned when he took the first hit. The second came hard enough that his helmet popped off his head before he fell to the ground.
Father looked at son. You OK?
“He’s like, ‘Do it again, Dad,’ ” the elder Fidone recalls. “I’m like, ‘There’s my Husker man!’ ”
The Fidone family is big and notoriously rowdy. The original Thomas Fidone is one of four boys to Salvatore II and Shirley along with Salvatore III, Rich and Mark. That meant the younger Fidone had plenty of cousins around growing up, especially when everyone gathered at grandma and grandpa’s house just outside Missouri Valley, Iowa, for Nebraska games.
The tradition dated back to when Fidone’s father and uncles were kids and they would put a big speaker with the radio broadcast outside while they played football, imitating Nebraska heroes like Jarvis Redwine and Mike Rozier. Their own children witnessed their passion in later years — multiple Fidone men have left marks on the basement ceiling from when they banged their heads jumping in anger or jubilation at however the Huskers were doing that day.
“I don’t know if you want to call us that loud Italian family,” Mark Fidone says. “But we were loud, we’d scream. The little kids would kind of look at us, but they loved it.”
Says the younger Thomas Fidone: “There was a whole room filled with insane emotion of every play, of every game. It was basically a holiday every Saturday.”
Fidone and his cousins mostly played football outside while the men hollered indoors. Often they would re-create the plays they heard described on television. Sometimes they made up their own. They always imagined it was happening in Memorial Stadium.
But as Fidone’s recruiting profile began to take off during his junior season, he realized childhood fandom couldn’t have anything to do with how he evaluated schools. And it didn’t.
“It’s hard for people to understand who haven’t been through the process,” Fidone says. “The relationships and the way I felt about that program was a lot better than any other program.”
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Fidone can jump. He counted 27 in-game dunks from his junior year of varsity basketball. At last January’s All-American Bowl combine, he touched higher than 12 feet, beyond the range of the device measuring him.
None of it compares to how fast he’s risen in recruiting circles. Now he’s the 6-foot-5, 235-pound teenager whom Rivals and 247Sports consider the No. 1 tight end among all 2021 prospects. But few knew who he was in December 2018 when he tried out for a 7-on-7 spot with the Warren Academy, a football training group run by former Husker defensive lineman Steve Warren.
The following summer the team competed in a camp tournament at Nebraska, playing nine games in a day and reaching the title game out of a field of opponents from around the Midwest. Recruiting websites that covered the event didn’t even mention Fidone among 2021 players. Warren pointed him out to Frost and his staff, who hadn’t heard of the receiver.
Lots of credit goes to Fidone’s father for his son’s meteoric rise, Warren says, calling him an “old-school guy” who set high standards. The older Fidone, now an engineer with the City of Council Bluffs for waste management, had formerly played defensive line with the U.S. Air Force and later dabbled in semipro and arena football. In the ’80s he raced dirt bikes, a pastime his son now often enjoys with his cousins at a rock quarry around Logan, Iowa.
“It trickles down in that family,” Warren says. “Hard-working people, and Thomas brings a hard-hat mentality. He’s coming to work, and when he’s out here, he’s giving everything.”
Indeed, Fidone was all-in by the time he received his first scholarship offer from Iowa in July 2019. Weightlifting every day, thanks to early guidance from then-Lewis Central teammate and current Iowa lineman Logan Jones. Dedication to the intricacies of being a receiver — footwork, route-running, good hands. He caught 39 balls for 576 yards and seven touchdowns that junior season as the Titans reached the state semifinals.
“We consider him a grinder, a guy that just loves to work,” Lewis Central coach Justin Kammrad said. “And it’s almost to the point that he works too much and doesn’t give himself enough breaks because he wants to be the best on the field and the best in the state. All that work that he has put in has translated to success. His physical traits and his unbelievable work ethic and mentality of wanting to compete is what has separated him from a lot of other people.”
Fidone broke out nationally in January 2020 after an elite showing at the All-American Bowl combine, where he ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash and showed off his massive catch radius in one-on-one drills. Most top-level FBS programs offered from there, and well-known coaches began attending his basketball games and dropping by the school.
A bona fide national prospect, Fidone started to plan his all-expenses-paid official visits to schools he’d never seen — LSU, Michigan, Georgia, Notre Dame, maybe Alabama — when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down recruiting in mid-March. He had already been to Lincoln and Iowa City more than half a dozen times each.
Thomas Fidone has finally found a college football home. And Nebraska has secured its tight end of the future.
The NCAA kept pushing back the dead period, keeping Fidone’s process in a holding pattern. Daily FaceTime sessions with LSU coach Ed Orgeron. Lots of phone calls and texts with other schools, including Frost and tight ends coach Sean Beckton at Nebraska. Some NU commits included him in a dunk contest on social media, which all begrudgingly agreed he won. Nearby Husker pledges — quarterback Heinrich Haarberg (Kearney Catholic), linebacker Seth Malcom (Fremont-Mills in Iowa) and offensive linemen Henry Lutovsky (Mount Pleasant, Iowa) and Teddy Prochazka (Elkhorn South) — drove him to Lincoln for an “official visit” with Nebraska players in early August.
When the dead period extended past September, Fidone knew he was ready to make his decision. In a sense, it was always Nebraska.
LSU finished second, he says, and Iowa third. And as strong as the Hawkeyes’ recent history is with developing tight ends — George Kittle, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were all draft picks in the past three years — Fidone says he “didn’t have the best relationship” with most of the Iowa staff. Plus, the man who developed those tight ends, assistant LeVar Woods, had moved to coordinate special teams.
“I didn’t want to join a program that was already decent,” Fidone says. “Iowa’s decent. I wanted to join a program that I wanted to turn around and be part of something great. That’s what we’re going to do in this 2021 class at Nebraska.”
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The future could come quickly for Fidone in red and white.
Nebraska coaches tell him they project a “big impact” his freshman year. He could flex out wide or fill a hybrid tight end role, similar to Florida Gators star tight end Kyle Pitts. NU may return all four upperclassman tight ends on the roster in 2021, but Fidone represents the first prep recruit under Frost who may stick at the position. He is the third-highest-graded Nebraska recruit in the past decade via the 247 composite (.9604) behind only receiver Tyjon Lindsey (.9769 in 2017) and offensive lineman Turner Corcoran (.9749 in 2020). He is also one of three scholarship tight ends in the class along with James Carnie (Norris) and A.J. Rollins (Creighton Prep).
After gaining 40 pounds and two inches between his junior and senior seasons, Fidone traveled southwest Iowa in the fall giving previews of what’s to come. He set a school record with 244 receiving yards on nine catches one week. He made 43 grabs overall for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games while frequently facing double and triple teams.
Fidone says his blocking needs some work, but that’s no problem for someone who embraces the grind like he does. He sees that trait in his future Nebraska teammates too, guys who will help bring consistent success back to Lincoln.
“We’re a few stupid mistakes away from winning,” Fidone says of the 2020 Huskers. “One more year will make a difference. We’re just young. Once we get acclimated to the system and ready to ball, I know we’re going to turn this thing.”
Jumping and screaming with every play will be the entire Fidone clan. Thomas plays for them, too, especially Uncle Sal, who was killed in a roadside accident while filling potholes on an Omaha street in January 2017 at age 48. He wore No. 24 to remember the day Sal died (Jan. 24) and has a tattoo on the left side of his chest in his honor.
The elder Thomas Fidone says his late brother was like a second father to his son. At those chaotic Saturday family gatherings over the years, both men heard time and again from the boy whose dream it was to be the reason his family was jumping.
“He always said, ‘Someday, someday,’ not realizing that someday is an actual day that I hope we’ll see soon,” the elder Fidone says. “It’s almost like a family tradition that continues to go on. To actually see it and have someone you know that’s in it, it’s going to mean so much more.”
Nebraska football's 2020-21 recruiting class