A little more than a year ago, Tony Fair’s duties included handling water bottles and towels instead of taking on centers and guards.
The 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle graduated from Washington High in South Bend, Indiana, in 2014 and signed with Indiana State as part of the FCS school’s 2015 class. He redshirted that fall and had injury issues — reportedly concussion-related — keep him from participating in 2016. In the meantime, he was a team manager for the Sycamores. Coaches there thought his career was over.
Fair had other ideas.
Now, four years after his high school graduation, Fair is headed back to Division I. He told the Journal Star that he’ll announce his decision between Nebraska and Indiana as soon as this weekend.
Fair resuscitated his football career at Pima (Arizona) Community College, where he’ll play his second season this fall, graduate in December and have two years of eligibility remaining.
But even considering the unique routes many juco players take to wind up back in a Power Five conference, Fair’s is long and winding.
In 2014, he thought his journey would be straightforward. Follow one of his closest friends, defensive back Haki Woods, to Indiana State and stay there.
“Honestly (the past four years) have been very, very stressful,” Fair said. “It’s been a big headache for me because when I got to Indiana State, I thought that was it. I thought that was as good as it was going to get for me.”
Woods redshirted the year before Fair arrived, but didn’t like the amount of staff turnover. He told Fair he was going to find a junior college and try to reset his recruitment there.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, don’t do it, we’ve got scholarships and we’re good,’” Fair recalled. “He believed that he could go to juco and it could be different.”
By the 2016 season, Fair had changed his tune, desperate for another chance.
So Fair again followed Woods, who is now a defensive back at Oregon. This time, the road led about as far from home as possible, to Tucson, Ariz.
“I just thought, ‘I have to do something, too. This can’t be it for me, being the manager for a football team,’” Fair said. “I just figured that I had nothing else to lose but a scholarship, and I’ll get another one because I’m good enough. I ended up leaving, coming down to Pima, and that made me step into manhood. But if you’re good, you can get out of here.”
The heat? Brutal. So, too, was the process of trying to rekindle a three-year dormant football career.
“I have to tell you, my first practice down here, I was out of shape. Like, I was really out of shape,” Fair said. “I was a beast in high school, came all the way down here, was way out of shape because I had thought I was done with football forever. I had basically given up on football. Came down here and the heat killed me. It was disastrous. I was like, ‘Man, it cannot be this hot every day.’ And every single day it was 110, 110, 109.”
As it turns out, Fair put up beast-like numbers once he settled in at Pima, too. The defensive tackle recorded 98 stops in nine games, including five for loss and a sack. He said he started to feel good about Week 3, a 31-17 loss to Arizona Western. Coincidentally, current Huskers Greg Bell (27 carries for 110 yards) and Jaron Woodyard (nine catches for 129 and two touchdowns) also had big days that September Saturday.
“That was a get-back-in-the-groove game right there,” Fair recalled. “That was really needed. Last year was kind of almost like a practice season. It was real, but it was getting back in the groove of playing football.”
It was enough for several Division I schools to take notice. Nebraska offered May 18 — one day after defensive line coach Mike Dawson spent nearly two hours on the phone with Fair’s coaches, he said — and Fair started doing his homework.
“I didn’t get to watch all of (UCF’s) games or anything, but after they offered me I went and looked up a lot of information and I loved every single thing they did,” he said.
Fair will undoubtedly attract more attention, but he’s waited long enough.
For a guy who’s experienced a lot of change the past four years, NU’s new stability is attractive.
“If I were to pick Nebraska, a big thing for me would be because the whole coaching staff came from UCF,” he said. “I’m really excited about that. I would like to see what they could do at Nebraska because, given what they did at UCF, I know they can do the same thing at Nebraska if they get the right players.
“I’m sure they will.”
Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Pima Community College was located in Pima, Ariz. It is actually in Tuscon.