NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This whole week, while the rest of the team warmed up on the practice fields at Vanderbilt University, Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams couldn’t help but look over at the sideline.
There they were. Every day. Both in street clothes. Both wearing backwards hats. One on crutches and one with a distinct limp.
Seniors Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Jordan Westerkamp, the roommates, the faces of the Nebraska football program the past few years, two of the pillars of the 2016 Huskers, hurt and unable to play in their final collegiate game Friday against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Every time you see them it kind of hits you a little bit,” Williams said this week. “It’s unfortunate for them, individually. Obviously, for them, you want your best players playing, but even more so for them it hurts because it’s the last game.”
Armstrong has not officially been ruled out with a lingering hamstring injury, but Nebraska coach Mike Riley said on Thursday there’s pretty much no chance Armstrong trots onto the field for any reason other than to hand the ball off for one play in an emergency. It’s more than likely that Armstrong’s illustrious career at Nebraska ended in a loss at Iowa, when he was hampered by the hamstring injury he suffered diving into the end zone to beat Minnesota on Nov. 12.
Westerkamp has officially been ruled out after the senior tore his meniscus at practice last week. The injury came without contact on what Westerkamp called a simple cut.
For some Nebraska players and coaches, this game doesn’t seem right without Westerkamp and Armstrong.
That’s why Williams can’t help but look over at the sideline and wonder why.
“It’s a shame,” Williams said. “It’s really a shame.”
Which is why, on Friday in the Music City Bowl, Westerkamp and Armstrong’s teammates will be playing one more time for them.
Westerkamp the role model
Senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore has told his son before, and will continue to tell him until he’s a man, to model his life after Westerkamp.
“With a guy like Jordan Westerkamp, with a guy who does everything right, who makes no mistakes, really, you wanna be like those guys,” Moore said this week. “I want to be like him. Those are the type of guys I tell my son about. ‘I want you to be like Jordan Westerkamp, who does everything right.'”
On the field, Westerkamp has made his mark in Nebraska history.
He’ll finish second in school history in receptions with 167, fourth in receiving yards with 2,474 and will finish one game shy of breaking Johnny Rodgers’ record of 37 consecutive games with a reception.
He has made behind-the-back catches and Hail Mary stunners and has the most recognizable mustache in the state of Nebraska. And yet off the field is where Westerkamp really shines.
“He leads by example, totally, off the field,” said Williams, who has coached Westerkamp the past two years. “And then he takes that determination and work ethic and brings it on the field and he gets results from it. And his leadership by example has been great, and he is also vocal. Not as much in terms of the whole team, but in our room he is vocal and he helps those guys out and even the older guys.”
Sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. credits Westerkamp for his rise on the field.
In the wide receivers room, Westerkamp is a voice, and a constant reminder of how to do things the right way, Morgan said.
“He’s in there with me just showing me the ropes, and these guys are about to leave and I have to take everything they taught me and just build off it,” Morgan said.
Which is why when Morgan heard Westerkamp wouldn’t be able to play in his final game, he didn’t even think about football.
“When stuff like that happens I just think about those guys and how I know those guys outside of football and how much this team means to them,” Morgan said. “I just thought about how much he loves this game and how much he loves being out there for the Huskers and it’s just, it’s just devastating to see him go down like that.”
The Armstrong example
Transitions after coaching changes are tricky, messy and hard.
And they can’t happen smoothly without the leaders of the team buying in, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said.
That’s why he was so happy he got Armstrong on board early. Without him, the transition after the firing of former coach Bo Pelini could have been rocky.
“It’s hard for those veteran guys,” Langsdorf said. “They have to learn a new system, they don’t have the advantage of the redshirt year. They have to be engaged right off the bat and learn quickly because you’re throwing them into a new system.”
But even after shifting from a zone-read offense to more of a pro-style, then shifting from not wanting Armstrong to run hardly at all to running him even when he’s hurting, Langsdorf has appreciated how much Armstrong was willing to be malleable for the betterment of the team.
“Those two really did a nice job in the transition kind of embracing the change and working at how they can improve their own game but also within the system that they’re playing,” Langsdorf said.
For as much as Armstrong is talked about for being good Tommy or bad Tommy, not enough is said about historic Tommy.
Armstrong will finish first in school history in passing yards, completions, touchdown passes, total offense, total offensive yards per game, total touchdowns, number of 250-yard passing games, number of 300-yard passing games, number of 200-yard passing and 100-yard rushing games, and total number of starts in a Nebraska uniform. He’ll also finish seventh in Big Ten history in total offense.
And not only that. He’s been a vocal leader in the locker room for years, Moore said.
And he’s taught everyone on the team, maybe even without knowing it, how to be tough, Moore said. Through injury after injury, it was always expected Armstrong would be back.
After getting knocked out of the Ohio State game this year and being taken to the hospital, he trotted back onto the field with the hospital bands still on his wrist. Then started the next week.
After that, the hamstring injury against Minnesota. He had just six days to get healthy and start on the road at Iowa. And though Nebraska lost that Iowa game, Armstrong still played through it.
And though he could hardly walk off the field after the game, he did just that. No leaning on teammates. No crutches. He walked off on his own power, because that’s just who he is, Moore said.
“He’s showed me a lot,” Moore said. “He showed me how to be tough. When I first came in I didn’t have no toughness, but watching him and seeing how he goes about his toughness, it kind of rubbed off on me and that’s kind of what keeps me going.”
Which is why without both of them on Friday, it’ll be so weird. So uncomfortable. Almost wrong.
But Moore thinks maybe this is one last chance for Nebraska, as a team, to give back to Armstrong and Westerkamp what they’ve given to the team the last few years.
To give them a win, and send them off the right way.
“God makes no mistakes,” Moore said. “We’re just gonna go out there and we’re going to dedicate every play to them.”