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Armstrong keeps criticism at arm's length, values brotherhood in locker room
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Armstrong keeps criticism at arm's length, values brotherhood in locker room

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He took them on a tour of the great football cathedral last Friday. It was quiet and empty then.

Tommy Armstrong has seen Memorial Stadium like this many times during his Husker career, but this time was different. This time, for the first time, his mother and sister were looking around in wonder at it with him.

"Whoa, it looks smaller on TV," said his mother, Nadine. "All these seats gonna be filled tomorrow?"

Yep. Completely full, the Husker senior quarterback told her.

The next day, the silence gone, Armstrong threw for 377 yards, ran for a touchdown and threw for three others, giving him 57 career touchdown passes, more than any Nebraska player before him.

In the postgame locker room, Husker head coach Mike Riley gave Armstrong the first game ball he's ever received at Nebraska.

But part of being the Husker quarterback is that criticism still finds you even on a day when you receive a game ball and throw for all those yards.

Because in that 52-17 win against Wyoming, Armstrong also made one throw he knows he can't afford to make in bigger games, like the one this Saturday against Oregon. On a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, pressured and rolling to his right, he forced a pass instead of throwing it away. It was intercepted.

"Totally unnecessary," Riley said of that turnover after the game.

For a quarterback who has heard for eight months about the 16 interceptions he threw a season ago, it takes only one mistake like that for critics to point at as cause for concern.

This, sophomore left tackle Nick Gates suspects, is the life of a quarterback at many places, not just Nebraska.

"If the game is going good, they're going to get the shine and if the game is going bad they're just going to rain on him, so it comes with the job," Gates said.

Armstrong, whose performance against Oregon this week will no doubt bring out many dramatic opinions, is plenty used to it by now.

He puts the focus on what his coaches and teammates think about his performance each week.

"Because those are the guys that grade me on how I play, and they make the final decision of what plays I have to do," Armstrong said. "At the end of the day, people say this or that, and it's easy to say that on a computer or behind a phone.

"You don't put in the work we do. You don’t wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning and go through 12-to-13-hour days six days out of the week, and then turn around and just have three hours of a day that all of a sudden could determine if you're good, you're bad, or if they just don't want to watch you at all."

The words read strong, but not untrue as to how it is. The quarterback said all of this in an even tone.

He watched Taylor Martinez take many arrows before him, and he knows that whoever follows him at the position next year, be it Tanner Lee or Patrick O'Brien, will take their own criticism after their first mistake in a game as a Husker.

His advice to them: Don't pay close attention to social media, for one. And find some close relationships with at least a few players on the team.

He mentions Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly, Tre Foster and Alonzo Moore as guys who have helped him. He's also maintained a close connection with former Husker O-lineman Jeremiah Sirles, now with the Minnesota Vikings.

"You're not going to be friends with everybody on the team, but you have a select few that you're really close with and that at the end of the day, you guys are going to stay together," Armstrong said. "I think that having a relationship with certain guys that know exactly how it feels to be in that situation helps.

"And I know that Tanner and Patrick have guys that are older like myself and Brandon that they're friends with that they'll learn from and understand that. Hey, you may be praised right now, but once you get in there and that first mistake happens, how are you going to handle that situation?"

The support of teammates can lift you up even after the worst game of your life, the quarterback added.

"You go to the locker room and they say it’s going to be all right, 'Let that go, we've got another game next week.' That's how I handle criticism. My brothers got my back, and I know at the end of the day they're going to support me no matter what."

Such support is always critical, but especially on Saturdays like this one, when every decision made by Armstrong will be placed under heavy analysis.

Fair or not, people are going to make big statements one way or another on how they think his senior season will go based off his performance in a big game against the Ducks.

"It's a tough position to play," said the senior wide receiver Moore. "If I was in that position, I probably wouldn't handle it so well as he does, but he's a tough guy for doing that."

For whatever criticism that's come, Armstrong is the only active FBS quarterback with more than 7,000 career passing yards and 1,000 career rushing yards. With 24 career wins, he is six victories from moving ahead of Turner Gill for No. 3 on the NU chart for most wins by a QB. Eric Crouch is tops with 35, and Tommie Frazier has 33.

You have to have staying power to be on that list. You have to be able to not let the noise bog you down.

You also have to relish those moments like this past weekend, when his mother and sister got to peek inside his world.

"I just wanted them to enjoy the moment even more than myself," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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