IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Omaha-native Noah Fant signed with Iowa back in February 2016, he turned to his brother, and high school football coach, Chris Fant and uttered a surprising sentence.
In his sophomore year, he would play in Memorial Stadium.
Fant was yet to leave the state and he was already eyeing his return to face Nebraska. Well before his breakout sophomore season occurred, Fant saw the big picture and what the game represented.
It was his chance to play in front of family, friends and former teachers as well as those who tried making his life difficult on social media when he picked an out-of-state school
Friday was two years in the making and, yes, Fant wants to make the most of it.
“I can only imagine that he is thinking about it,” Chris Fant said.
Noah Fant isn’t a returning hero. Not to the overwhelming majority of the 90,000 fans in the stadium. Not when he plays for the cross-state rival.
In a way, it’s fitting.
Noah Fant is the kind of player Nebraska fans want roaming their sideline.
His athletic skills potentially showed best on the basketball court as part of a state championship team or in track, where he ran sprints and took part in the triple and long jumps.
His best performances came in football, where he earned first-team all-state honors as a tight end and defensive end at Omaha South. By setting school records for receptions and touchdowns, he earned the prestigious Omaha World Herald Super Six honor, which recognizes the top players in its area. It’s also an indirect list of which local players Nebraska must recruit.
“He had freakish skills,” Omaha South athletic director Mitch Mitchell said.
On Aug, 25, 2016, Noah Fant decided to take his talents to Iowa. It was a great day for him, but one that created a unique situation. For his senior year, he was the local star who spurned the local school nearly everyone in town rooted for.
It created some tense moments.
“There were a fair share of people that were angry,” Chris Fant said. “There were a fair share of people who weren’t happy for a kid who received a full-ride scholarship to continue his education and playing career.”
The response that best sums the reaction to Noah Fant passing on Nebraska’s offer involves Mitchell. Even the athletic director faced questions around town on if he, a man with no say in things, steered Noah Fant away from the Cornhuskers.
Few approached Fant in person about his decision. Most used social media to call him a prima donna, a pampered 21st century athlete, overrated or unlikely to amount to anything in Iowa City.
“I do think he got some pushback,” Mitchell said. “I really do. He didn’t show it though.”
He still doesn’t, two years later. Fant he doesn’t go into great detail on what happened. He only confirms most comments fell into the you’re a traitor category.
“That was a big part of it,” Fant said back in September.
Though requested, Fant didn’t take part in media interviews this week.
Both Chris Fant and Mitchell say there was pressure to commit to Nebraska, especially when the Cornhuskers made a late push to flip Noah Fant.
Chris Fant didn’t see any guilt or concern from his brother about selecting Iowa. While support from Iowa fans helped, Mitchell thought the social media comments left an impact. His concern for Noah Fant finally subsided during a conversation where his student broke down why he picked the Hawkeyes.
He wanted to play right away. Iowa had a history of utilizing and developing tight ends. He fell for the coaching staff, players and football program.
The Cornhuskers were in a transition period and that was a factor. They hired Mike Riley in December 2014. Iowa, and its stability with Kirk Ferentz, made the most sense.
It was that way when he first committed. His thoughts never changed regardless of what Nebraska fans or Riley’s staff said.
“His best fit was Iowa and that’s where it ended,” Mitchell said.
A man with a plan
Chris Fant always marveled at his brother’s observational ability. It seemed straight out of a Sherlock Holmes book.
“When he walks into something for the first time he takes mental notes on what is going on and then the next time he encounters that he already has a plan in mind for how he’s going to attack it,” Chris Fant said.
It’s a heck of a trait for a football player.
Chris Fant knows it helped his brother when he transferred to Omaha South as a junior, watching his teammates and coaches helped him quickly assimilate himself into his new surroundings.
It stood out most when Noah Fant went to a Rivals or Nike camp. He spent as much time scouting the other players as warming up. Chris Fant is certain his brother knew the players attending the camps before arriving.
“That’s just who he is,” Chris Fant said. “He is just looking to see how they move and how they do these things and then he comes up in his mind with a plan of action to go against them.”
His ability to see the football field like an easily solvable Sudoku puzzle was vital to him seeing the field as a freshman and following it up with a breakout sophomore season.
Iowa’s passing game success is tied heavily into his production. He is second on the team with 25 receptions for 370 yards. He is tied for the Big Ten lead with 8 touchdowns.
“Going up to the line I am scanning and seeing what I’m matched up against,” Fant said in September. “Going from that I know what I am going to do. Really, I guess the big part in that is making sure our big focus is making sure I’m prepared for the game, studying a lot. That is something I do.”
Fant doesn’t take anything lightly. He was thinking about his debut in Memorial Stadium before he finished high school.
He knows the situation he’s walking into on Saturday. There will be pockets of supporters. Mitchell, who holds Nebraska season tickets, is planning on wearing a Noah Fant shirt from his seat behind the visiting bench.
Most of the attendees, though, aren’t rooting for him because he’s not wearing scarlet and cream. Most likely, some of them called him overrated not that long ago.
Fant, always assessing the situation, knew his return 660 days before it happened. His friends, family and detractors will all see the playmaking tight end he became. It seems to matter to him, even if no one comes out straight and says it.
“Nebraska, coming home for him, having a little fun, his friends will attend the game,” Chris Fant said. “It’s big for so many reasons.”