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Tommy Armstrong: Guts, Heart and Brains

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Nebraska's picture of toughness is Tommy Armstrong.

Gallery: Huskers Stun Spartans
Tommy Armstrong
David McGee

Earlier this week, I had an audition to provide a voiceover for a commercial. Actually, it was a callback. The previous audition went so well that I was the only person they called in on Monday. The appointment was merely a formality to make sure I could do the same thing a second time.

Vocal cords are thin, membranous folds of skin that are actually quite delicate, and I had ruined mine for a couple days thanks to the antics of the Nebraska football team last Saturday. I can’t be sure, but a certain 34-yard touchdown run by Tommy Armstrong may have been the tipping point. I hadn’t lost my voice like that in a long time. As a kid, I did it every week. But as I grew older and relied on my voice for a living, I realized that my voice was taking longer and longer to return to full capacity (also, the Huskers haven’t won a conference championship since I was 16).

Long story short, I blew it. I didn’t get the role. Three months of rent for a day’s work, and I gave it all up to scream to the point of exhaustion with a bunch of fellow Nebraskans in a Hollywood bar. I’ve pounded myself incessantly over that fact for a few days now.

There are many ways Tommy Armstrong and I are different. I won’t begin to list all of them, but a chief distinction between the two of us is an ability to let things go. Toughness is a moving target, and it’s one that often gets defined by physical characteristics, but it’s not physical toughness that often separates the good from the great. It’s between the ears and between the ribs.

Not a soul on this planet, particularly those who watch at least a second of college football, has ever doubted Tommy Armstrong’s physical toughness. The constant licking he took in East Lansing (and the dramatic ticking that followed) two years ago established his status as a traditional tough guy. Fighting off big hit after big hit against Miami, staving off cramps against Oregon...all of that cemented that same status.

Instead, Tommy often gets chided for his brain. Decision-making and whatnot. And while it often seems as though he’s powering down Jager shots on the sideline and screaming "YOLO" when he takes the field, it’s that very brain that defines his toughness. When an entire state questions your ability, your intelligence, your ability to hold the very position that defines you, it’s that same brain that still needs to make decisions. That same brain that needs to dissect what’s happening on the field and command his body to complete the necessary task. While we often speak in terms of "heart" and "guts," those are merely arbitrary terms. Tommy Armstrong’s small intestine doesn’t have to fend off self-doubt. His left ventricle has never said, "Why didn’t I look off the linebacker on that previous series?" No organ, other than his brain, has ever had to process disappointment, fear, anxiety or desperation.

Fighting off cramps is no small task. But it’s Tommy Armstrong’s mental toughness that interests me the most because it’s the most vexing for all of us in life. We want to believe we can conquer anything we want to conquer just because we say we can. It’s what we’ve been taught since we were children. But the fact of the matter is, it’s never that simple. It’s easy to identify physical toughness and celebrate it because it doesn’t call into question our own psychological insecurities. Physical toughness is easier to quantify.

The weakness of players and coaches is far more interesting than their strengths. The NFL is no longer fun for me because nearly every pass is completed (unless you happen to be watching a Browns game). Without the doubt of real success, what is the fun in actual victory? At the risk of sounding like a No Fear t-shirt circa 1995, winning isn’t the final score. It’s convincing yourself that you cannot fail, even when you have before. Tommy gives Nebraska fans nearly every emotion in the book, but the one he never gives them is pure hopelessness.

That doesn’t mean losing is ever fun. Predictability is even worse when defeat is attached to it. Which is why this season, this team, hell, even this Tommy feel different. For the last four years, we’ve grown accustomed to miniature comebacks. Coming back from injury. Coming back from large deficits in the second half. But those were all bookended by crushing defeats. This 2016 season feels like a larger-picture comeback.

For all that’s been written, for all that’s been said, for all that’s been emoted, this season feels like Tommy’s big climb-off-the-mat moment. And even if it never materializes into something major (i.e. a conference championship), we all know he will forever be grinding away. And we as a fanbase suddenly feel that hope again.

The hope that gets us lost in the emotion of the game. The hope that allows us to let it all go and be fans without fear.

And for me, the hope that lets us forgive our mistakes and enjoy the moment once again. Call it the Tommy Armstrong effect.

Pat Janssen is a writer/actor/comedian from Auburn, Neb. currently living in Los Angeles. He can regularly be heard on The Big Red Cobcast with Ryan Tweedy, Joe Canale and Mike Canale, which is posted weekly on Corn Nation. The latest episode can be found here.