Like father, like son: Banderases live and love Husker dream
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Tom Banderas has lived the Nebraska football dream as a player. For four years, he's lived it as a dad.
Tom was a rugged tight end with sneaky good hands – a ''glorified guard,'' he calls himself – for Tom Osborne-coached teams from 1985-87 that were fixtures in the top 10.
His son, Josh, never wanted to go anywhere but Nebraska, and now he's winding down his senior season playing some of the best football of any linebacker the 17th-ranked Cornhuskers have had in recent years.
Tom, a longtime Lincoln insurance agent, shows up at practice at least once a week, usually on Tuesdays. Afterward he and Josh, still in practice gear, meet on the field to discuss football and life.
''I love it,'' Josh said. ''Having him around, it's always good to have family close. A lot of other guys don't get that. For Thanksgiving I get to go home. Other guys are from eight hours away. I love him coming down and talking, and he gets to learn a little about what's going on and get the inside, which I know he likes.''
When Josh started playing flag football in grade school, Tom instilled in him that putting on the Husker helmet is an honor that's earned through hard work, and lots of it. Josh never took his eye off the prize, developing into a four-star recruit at Southwest High in Lincoln .
Tom and Amy Banderas celebrated senior day with Josh last Saturday and then watched him make nine tackles against Maryland. Josh will start his 30th game when Nebraska closes the regular season at Iowa on Friday, and he said he's never forgotten what his dad told him.
''The way I put it,'' Tom said, ''is that 60 percent of that crowd in the stadium, whether 80 years old or 5 years old, would give two toes on their left foot to go down there and play a single play,'' Tom said. ''That's the responsibility you have to those 92,000 fans, to give 250 percent on every single play. That's your responsibility, take it or leave it.''
Josh has taken it and run with it. He was voted a captain in August, and his 80 tackles lead the team. He's averaged 10.2 tackles a game from his middle linebacker's spot since Oct. 15, the best six-game stretch by a Nebraska defender since Lavonte David averaged 11.5 in 2011.
With 219 career tackles, he's in position to crack the top 15 at Nebraska if he keeps playing, as coach Mike Riley says, ''like an all-star.''
''He's really emerged even more this year as a real leader, and then his preparation is just about perfect,'' Riley said. ''He's made not only tackles but really decisive kind of defining-type tackles.''
Josh credits his defensive linemen and fellow linebackers for keeping blockers off him, allowing him make all those stops. He said his confidence has never been higher.
As a freshman he was forced to play right away because the Huskers were thin at his position. He said he wasn't ready. Even as a sophomore he struggled, which caused anxiety because he knew coach Bo Pelini had him on a short leash. He would look over his shoulder because if he made a mistake, he would go to the bench. He considered transferring.
''I look back, and I didn't like playing football,'' he said. ''I wasn't playing confident. I was playing scared. If I would have redshirted, that would have benefited me. That would have been good to get a year under my belt, learn the system and get a little stronger.''
His turning point came at the end of his sophomore season, the 2014 Holiday Bowl against USC. Pelini had been fired about three weeks earlier, and the assistants stayed on to coach the bowl game. Josh made a career-high 14 tackles.
''It was kind of like, `I'm going to play, and I don't care. This is the last game of the season. Maybe this is going to start a new phase for me,''' he said. ''So I went out and played football like I did in high school. That flipped things.''
So did the hiring of Riley and linebackers coach Trent Bray. Josh wouldn't criticize how he was handled by the previous staff. He said he meshes better with the style and system of the current staff. But Tom said the importance of the coaching change can't be overstated.
''It was a resurrection, in a way, for his career,'' Tom said.
Nebraska was a model of stability when Tom came to Lincoln from Oak Grove, Missouri. He appeared in 28 games and got as much joy from knocking down defensive ends in Osborne's triple-option offense as he did from catching passes. Tom's time to shine came whenever quarterback Steve Taylor caught opposing defenses loading up to stop the run and saw him running wide open. Tom caught 16 passes in his career, 10 for touchdowns. In 1987, he was second in the Big Eight with six TD receptions.
So who had the better career, Tom or Josh?
''I defer to the boy on that,'' Tom said, laughing.
With Josh's college career two or three games from being over, Riley wonders what Tom will do come January.
''I just see a picture of a dad, a former player, all that, really enjoying watching his son,'' Riley said. ''We talked about it the other day when we were walking out, that the hard part for Tom's going to be Josh's graduating. He's just going to have to come down and watch the other guys practice.''
As it turns out, there's another Banderas, Anthony, and he would love to live the Nebraska football dream, too. Anthony just finished his junior season at Southwest High. He's an outside linebacker who's getting looks from Kansas State and, yes, Nebraska.
Tom said Anthony will show whether he has what it takes to play for the Huskers during his senior season. Meanwhile, Tom is soaking up these last few weeks of the season with Josh, who as a toddler would bumble around the house in his dad's old helmet while wearing a Nebraska jersey and football pants.
''That's thousands of kids in this great state of Nebraska,'' Tom said. ''But how neat is it that he was able to go ahead and earn that right to go do what I did?''
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