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Shatel: The man behind Tom Brady signing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers is pure Nebraska
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Shatel: The man behind Tom Brady signing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers is pure Nebraska

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Jason Licht

It’s been nearly 30 years since Jason Licht left Nebraska. He’s lived a full NFL life, in the front offices and scouting trenches. Now he's front and center as the architect of the Super Bucs, writes Tom Shatel.

The man who signed Tom Brady was supposed to call. Yeah, right.

The media relations director from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emailed to say that General Manager Jason Licht was at practice but would call when he had a chance.

What were the chances?

Yes, Licht was born in Fremont, Nebraska. And was a walk-on offensive guard for Nebraska and Tom Osborne from 1989-91, then Nebraska Wesleyan in 1992-93.

Of course, his mother, Karen, still lives in Lincoln. And he has a long list of old friends, like Jeff Lindquist and Terry Connealy, still in the Good Life State.

But it’s been nearly 30 years since Licht left Nebraska. He’s lived a full NFL life, in the front offices and scouting trenches from Miami to New England to Philadelphia to Arizona to Tampa.

Most of all, it’s Super Bowl LV week and Licht is front and center as the architect of the Super Bucs.

Not 30 minutes after the Bucs’ media director sent the email, my phone rang.

“Hi, Tom. It’s Jason Licht. How are you?”

When I thanked him for calling, Licht replied, “It’s The World-Herald. And I always try to do what I can when it’s Nebraska.”

And Licht (pronounced light) is not talking about signing Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett or drafting Khalil Davis.

Licht is pure Nebraska. He’s Nebraska Nice and Nebraska Genuine. For him, the words “big time” are an adjective, not a verb.

Even though Licht left NU to play across town at Wesleyan in 1991, he still exchanges emails with former Husker coach Tom Osborne.

“Jason was a nice young guy, always pleasant,” Osborne said. “When we started Teammates, he was one of our original mentors. He gave us a donation a few months ago.”

Jim Svoboda, who was Licht’s coach at Wesleyan, is the football coach at Central Missouri State University. He still keeps in touch with Licht.

“What’s cool about him is he never forgot where he came from,” Svoboda said. “If I text him, he’ll text me back, within an hour most of the time.”

Then there’s Lindquist, the Seward native and quarterback who followed Licht from NU to Wesleyan. They became fast friends and roommates.

Earlier this week, Lindquist, an executive with State Farm in Lincoln, got a call from Licht.

He was inviting Lindquist and his wife, Becky, to join Licht’s mother and sister, Patti, as his guests at Super Bowl LV.

“He’s the same guy he was in college,” Lindquist said from Tampa. “He takes care of people. He has a genuine heart for generosity.

“It’s an amazing story. When you think about it, there’s 32 NFL teams and 32 people who have those (GM) jobs. He’s one of them. For him to still come back here and maintain those friendships, it’s pretty cool.”

“Husker Ron” would have approved.

* * *

The road from Fremont to Super Bowl LV goes through Yuma, Colorado.

Ron and Karen Licht moved to Yuma — about two hours west of McCook — when Jason was 5.

You could take the boy out of Nebraska, not Nebraska out of the boy.

“Everything was Nebraska,” Licht said. “We watched the games every Saturday. We’d make it to a game (in Boulder) every other year and once a year or so we would go to a game in Lincoln.

“If Nebraska lost, I would be sick on Monday.”

Licht, a 220-pound high school linebacker, turned down small school offers to walk on at NU in 1989. He was immediately moved to guard and the scout team.

“I still have bruises on my arm from going against Kent Wells and Kenny Walker,” Licht said.

He beefed up and got some playing time in 1990. That increased in 1991, when Jason had his career highlight — playing against Colorado State and a former Yuma teammate.

But Licht had one serious problem: timing.

“I took a look around and I was backing up Will Shields and Brendan Stai, Steve Ott and Joel Wilks,” Licht said.

“It was a tough decision, but I transferred to Wesleyan. And I loved the fact that I got a taste of both a big-time program and a smaller one on the rise and have a lot of fun playing again.”

At Wesleyan, Licht moved to defensive tackle. Svoboda said Licht thrived there with his athleticism.

“He was a hell of a player for us,” Svoboda said. “I got a few of those kids every year, where they wanted to play football and not practice football.”

Licht made new friends at Wesleyan and kept old ties, too. He worked as a bartender at the Brass Rail. As Connealy recalled, “There were some late nights where he spent the night on our couch at 24th and J.”

Licht was a pre-med major back then. He wanted to be a small-town doctor.

“Thank God that didn’t turn out,” said Connealy with a laugh, speaking perhaps for every Tampa Bay fan.

Licht found another dream: he wanted to be an NFL scout.

“During the season, when scouts would come to our practices, I would always be very intrigued with what they were looking at,” Licht said.

“What they were looking for. The players that would go on to get drafted. Why some would get evaluated so high.

“I was starting to evaluate some of my teammates in the back of my head. It started becoming what I wanted to do.”

Crazy? Not at all. Rob Zatechka, another of Licht’s offensive line teammates at NU, says he’s not surprised when a former lineman turns up in an NFL personnel role.

“As an offensive lineman, you’re not just blocking the defensive tackle,” Zatechka said. “You’re blocking ends, linebackers, safeties and corners. You have to know what each one’s job is all about.

“And, you obviously have to know what each player on offense is supposed to be doing. Those are the guys who know how to evaluate everybody, because that’s what you do.”

But every great story needs a great break. Licht was friends with former NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.

One day in 1995, Licht was working out at Memorial Stadium and confided in McBride that he wanted to be an NFL scout and to let him know when any scouts were in town.

“In a matter of hours, Charlie called me,” Licht said. “He had a guy in his office from the Dolphins, Tom Braatz, who was former GM of the Packers and Falcons. He said, 'Get up here now.'”

That’s how Licht got his foot in the door, as a scouting intern at Miami for the great Don Shula.

“I would make highlight tapes,” Licht said. “I would drive players who were flying in for physicals from the airport to the doctor, take them to lunch. On game day, I would take the still (photos) and run them to the coaches on the sidelines. Fill up the refrigerators with water.”

With laser focus and “super understanding” wife, Blair, Licht carefully moved up the ladder.

In order, he was a scout for Carolina (1998) and New England (1999-2001), where he was promoted by coach Bill Belichick to assistant director of player personnel.

Licht was a personnel exec for Philadelphia from 2003-07, the Patriots (2009-11) and two different stints with the Arizona Cardinals.

Along the way, he forged relationships with Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Bruce Arians (Arizona in 2013) and Andy Reid (Philadelphia). He was part of putting together Super Bowl teams with the Patriots, Eagles and Cardinals.

Licht, Arians

Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht shakes hands with new head coach Bruce Arians in Jan. 2019.

“My goal was always to become a GM,” Licht said. “A GM that won multiple Super Bowls.”

Licht got that shot in 2014 with Tampa. It hasn’t been perfect. He’s on his third head coach — a rarity for general managers. But his draft track record, including taking receiver Mike Evans in 2014, has kept him around.

Then he was able to land Arians and Brady in consecutive years and at least one Licht observer is not surprised.

“He could show up somewhere, start talking to someone and be best friends in 10 minutes,” Lindquist said. “Jason lights up a room, makes everyone feel welcome.”

Connealy said, “He’s a small-town humble kid who’s just worked hard and it’s fun to see it fall into place. To be the orchestrator of that team is pretty cool.”

Lindquist tells the story of the time Licht came through Lincoln for a family visit. The friends went to MoMo for pizza and low-key conversation.

“One of the cooks sees him and says, “Hey, I know you, you’re Jason Licht with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” Lindquist said.

“Jason didn’t know what to do. It’s not like he’s the face of the franchise. He was flattered. He ended up signing a hat for the guy.”

Being benevolent and humble are traits Licht learned from Ron and Karen. His parents moved to Lincoln during Licht’s college career and his father owned a construction company.

Lindquist said that Ron was such a Husker fan that Jason’s friends called him “Husker Ron.” He loved going to games in Tampa and hanging out with the players.

“He would sit outside and the players would all come up and talk to him,” Licht said. “I probably have 100 pictures of him and Lavonte David.”

Those memories weigh heavily this week. Husker Ron died unexpectedly in the fall of 2019.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my dad,” Licht said. “I know he’s very, very proud.”

Lindquist said, “Husker Ron always had a smile on his face. I think that’s where Jason gets a lot of that. Very humble, hard-working guy.

“Coming down to Tampa with his mom and sister, we were telling Husker Ron stories. How he would be smiling. Such a big, big smile. I know he's so proud. It’s too bad he’s not here but I guarantee you he may have orchestrated this up in heaven.”

The son has gotten a lot of credit this week, but Jason deflects it, saying, “It’s a team effort.”

“I’m really proud of my staff,” Licht said. “After signing Tom (Brady), it was like the missing piece. To finally have a big year has been very rewarding. But we have to finish it off.”

For the lineman GM, that means taking one more step up the ladder.

To the Super Bowl champions award stand.


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