COLUMBUS — Tommy Armstrong Jr. liked to get away from life as a Husker football player.
When teammates and buddies asked him where he was headed and he said Columbus, they all had the same response.
“Why are you going to Ohio?”
Armstrong quickly corrected them.
“Nah, I’m going to Nebraska. Columbus, Nebraska,” he’d say.
The former Husker quarterback is no stranger to that city.
Armstrong came to town several times a year while playing for Nebraska.
“I can’t count anymore how many times. I’ve been up here a lot,” he said.
Columbus served as Armstrong’s hideaway. Whenever he needed a break from the spotlight, this was his destination.
“I think that most people need a place to get away from everything and just relax and clear their mind, and I found that to be Columbus throughout my career at Nebraska,” Armstrong said Thursday during an autograph session at the local Hy-Vee.
He met Columbus resident Saul Soltero through former Husker and current Minnesota Viking Jeremiah Sirles during his redshirt freshman season and the two quickly became good friends.
“Me and Saul became great, great buddies,” Armstrong said. “Ever since then we’ve been clicking and linking up and hanging out after games.”
An avid outdoorsman, Armstrong visited to go fishing or boating or just hang out whenever he had a few days away from football. He’d give Soltero a call, and if he was in town, Armstrong hopped in his car and drove up.
If a couple of teammates also wanted to get away, Armstrong brought them with. Sometimes, it’d be just him and his fiancée.
“It’s a small town, but it’s somewhere to get away from the area,” he said.
Armstrong hasn’t been to Columbus much this year. He’s had other things on his mind.
First was recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered in the Nov. 12 game against Minnesota.
Then came the transition to wide receiver to give himself a shot at the NFL.
By the time Nebraska’s Pro Day rolled around on March 14, he was ready to prove to teams he could make the move to receiver.
“I think my Pro Day proved I was ready and I was in shape and healthy,” the former quarterback said.
Armstrong, who is Nebraska’s all-time leader in career passing yards, total yards, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns, showed teams his knack for the new position.
“Coach Dub (Keith Williams) is doing a great job helping me get through that,” Armstrong said of the transition.
He made an impression on NFL scouts. A number of teams have scheduled visits to watch him work out again on April 6. The Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings are coming to see Armstrong for a second time.
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
On Thursday, he took a break from draft preparation to sign several hundred autographs for fans at the local Hy-Vee.
Armstrong, seated on the east side of the store between the checkout lanes and Health Market, signed everything from shirts and hoodies to helmets, footballs and even a forehead — the oddest request of the evening.
“It had to be,” Armstrong said with a laugh.
For 90 minutes, the line stretched from the table he sat at back to the dairy section in the northeast corner of the store.
Fans waited more than 30 minutes for a signature and quick photo with the former Husker. He has very humbled by the turnout.
“It means a lot, not just to me, but to the fans to hear that I’m in town and they actually get a chance to see me,” Armstrong said. “It shows a lot that they go out of their way to come see me and how much I’m an impact on their lives. Whether it’s little kids to grown-ups, it just shows it’s more than football, it’s kind of a family or a friendship when it comes to your fan base.”
Shifting his focus back to the draft at the end of April, Armstrong said he’ll try not to get overanxious watching it. He may not watch it at all.
“I don’t want to be sitting around and be disappointed. I kind of want to be surprised about it, keep my phone with me,” he said. “I want to do something that I actually enjoy while it’s going on. I may go fishing in Oklahoma or something for a couple days.”
It might be a good time to give his buddy in Columbus a call.