Meet the nation's top tight end: How his family's tragedies and resolve drive Lewis Central's Thomas Fidone
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Ia. — T.J. Fidone knows exactly when his son Thomas was going to be a football player.
This was years ago. Thomas was 2 years old, maybe 3, wearing a tiny Nebraska jersey and a plastic helmet. He’d square up like a running back and smile. Father and son, rough-housing in the living room.
And then T.J. accidentally popped Thomas so hard that his helmet flew off before he hit the floor.
“I’m like, 'Oh no,'” T.J. recently recalled. “He gets up and looks at me. I kind of laugh, and then he laughed and said, ‘Dad, let’s go again.’
“I was like, 'All right, then. He’s going to be tough.'”
But not even Dad could have envisioned just how tough.
Thomas Fidone, of course, is now a 6-foot-5, 225-pound superstar, the latest high-profile recruit for Class 3A power Lewis Central. Not only that, he's one of the nation's best. The senior is considered the No. 37 overall player nationally in the 2021 class, was assigned a four-star rating by 247Sports and is widely regarded as the top tight end senior prospect in the country.
Entering the second round of the Iowa playoffs — the seventh-ranked Titans (6-1) host Norwalk on Friday night — Fidone has recorded 32 receptions for 728 yards, the seventh-most in the state, and nine touchdowns. That’s also good for 22.8 yards per catch and a touchdown every four receptions.
Fidone’s recruiting profile, however, is built largely around his overall athleticism. Take last January’s All-American Bowl Combine, for example. He posted a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, flashed with reliable hands and a diving catch in one-on-one drills, and he maxed out the device that measures vertical leap, a Vertec Jump Measuring Device that normally goes to 12 feet.
“He fits the mold of what a new-age tight end looks like,” Allen Trieu, a 247Sports recruiting analyst, wrote after Fidone committed to Nebraska in August. “Fidone can play out wide, in the slot or attached. He can hurt you after the catch, he can win jump balls, he runs double-move routes.
“There is not much he can’t do from a receiving standpoint. He has excellent general body control and hand-eye coordination. He is competitive, plays hard, and that shows up in his basketball clips (his athleticism gets additionally verified there as well), too.”
Fidone’s meteoric rise has been powered by both family and his peers, and each played a crucial role in his overall development.
Just two years ago, he was a lanky 6-3, 185-pound receiver for a Lewis Central team that reached the state title game. Two months ago, before deciding on Nebraska, he had as many as 36 Division I offers.
That living-room tackle served as his introduction to football and sparked his love for the game. His family, full of athletes, fueled his competitive spirit. His peers, past Lewis Central stars Max Duggan (now the starting quarterback at TCU) and Logan Jones (now at Iowa), taught him the importance of details.
The combination looks like the third play from scrimmage during last week’s first-round playoff game against Creston. Fidone lined up wide, crossed left into the middle of the field, hauled in a reception, then outraced four Creston defenders and slipped through two tackles on his way to a 27-yard touchdown.
“This is all he’s ever wanted to do,” T.J. said. “We knew he’d love it, but we didn’t know he’d be this good.”
'I don’t really have a backup plan'
That young kid in the tiny Nebraska jersey became a huge Cornhuskers fan. Growing up, Thomas Fidone spent many Saturdays at his grandparents’ home with his family, and he could hear the TV broadcast while playing two-hand touch outside with his cousins.
“One day,” Fidone said recently, “we scored, and my uncle Mark jumped so high, he hit his head on the ceiling. We just love Nebraska football.”
The Fidone family is big. Salvatore II and Shirley, grandpa and grandma, had four boys: Salvatore III, Rich, Mark and T.J. Both Mark and T.J. wrestled in high school, and T.J. also dabbled in semi-pro arena football after a stint with the U.S. Air Force.
That meant plenty of cousins for Fidone to compete against growing up. One cousin, Gianni, played football for Council Bluffs Lincoln a few years back. Another, Salvatore IV, spent a season running track for South Dakota. A third, Luciano — Lucci for short — is a sophomore for Lewis Central.
“Every football game, we’re out in the backyard, and that’s all I could think about, just playing at that next level,” Fidone said. “We’d have the Nebraska game blaring, so we can hear it outside.
“They’d score, and my family would be screaming and me and my cousins would say what the announcers said and mimic the same plays in the backyard.”
The Fidone family is closer than most, if only because they’ve been through a lot.
Five years ago, a fourth cousin, Sebastiano, was diagnosed with cancer, then battled a stroke and a seizure, all at just 3 years old. Nine months after the cancer diagnosis and eight months after a massive blood clot was found in his brain, Sebastiano resumed his stellar youth wrestling career.
Two years later, in 2017, Salvatore III was killed in a roadside accident. He worked for the City of Omaha and was filling potholes near 144th Street and U Street when Alan Solarana drifted into that lane and hit him. Uncle Sal died from injuries at the hospital at age 48.
Both episodes taught Fidone the value of strength. Sebastiano beat a cancer that kills 11 out of every 100 people diagnosed under the age of 20. The accident left Salvatore IV and Lucci without a father, and Fidone without a mentor. He was in eighth grade at the time and was pulled out of class to meet his family at the hospital.
“We get to the hospital, and when the elevator doors opened, I knew right away,” Fidone said. “Everybody was crying. He was a big influence on me, and really, my whole family. He had this spark in him and he could make anybody smile.”
Fidone considered Uncle Sal a second father, so much that he got a tattoo on the left side of his chest to remember him. It is an Italian flag with an electrocardiogram heartbeat, a purple heart and the day he died: Jan. 24.
When Fidone made Lewis Central’s varsity squad in 2018, he asked to wear No. 24, an unusual number for a receiver but a nod to his family. He’s worn it all three seasons now, during which he’s racked up 94 catches for 1,415 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Fidone recognizes that sports is often what brings his whole family together, whether it’s his football games, Sebastiano’s wrestling tournaments, or watching Nebraska play in the fall. It is the common thread that ties together so many of his favorite memories, and why he often views his football pursuits as something more than just for himself.
“I want to make my family proud,” Fidone said. “One day, I want to pay everybody back for helping me along the way. I want to get to the NFL and buy them a house or something. I just want to be successful.
“I don’t really have a backup plan. It’s a one-shot thing for me, and I'm going to do whatever it takes.”
'That ball is your ticket to the NFL'
Before last Friday’s game, Fidone stood on the field at Lewis Central High School and casually snatched one-handed passes from the air. He boasts an 85-inch wingspan and holds a football the same way a normal-sized human might grip a sub sandwich. He can palm a basketball with ease, too.
But the most interesting thing wasn’t the one-handed catches. It was the process of his catches. It's the same every time. He identifies the ball, clamps the ball with his fingers, tucks the ball high and tight into his chest, then looks up for his next move.
“(Former Lewis Central quarterback Max Duggan) once told me, ‘Treat that ball like it’s your ticket to the NFL,’” Fidone said. “That just stuck with me, because it’s true. Every time the ball is in the air, I have to make sure I’m the one that gets it.”
It seems simple, but the attention to detail is often what separates good players from great ones. Fidone has had plenty of experience learning from other great Lewis Central players: Duggan, who's now at TCU, and Logan Jones, who's now at Iowa.
Duggan emphasized the importance of constant improvement and a relentless work ethic. They spent many days playing catch and working on chemistry. Fidone had 311 receiving yards and three scores as a sophomore in 2018, but tight ends are asked to block, too, so he helped clear the way for more than 2,700 rushing yards that season.
Jones, a defensive tackle, taught him the ins and outs of the weight room. Fidone put on 40 pounds (and two inches) between his junior and senior seasons, from 185 to 225. That extra muscle has been helpful this season, both for blocking and also when he faces double- and triple-teams from opposing defenses.
Just two weeks ago, for example, he faced multiple defenders on virtually every play in a 28-10 loss to No. 2 Harlan. He called it a sign of respect afterwards — and still hauled in three catches for 91 yards, too.
“We’ve been really fortunate from a lot of great players that have taught him what it takes to be great,” Lewis Central coach Justin Kammrad said. “The understanding of the work ethic. It’s development. It’s leadership. Those guys understood what it took to be successful, and Thomas soaked up everything.
“It’s not just showing up a playing. There’s a lot of things that go into this. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the country.”
Those lessons are at the heart of everything we’ve seen since: the four-star rating, the invitation to the 2021 All-American Bowl, the 36 offers. Fidone wishes he could’ve visited LSU and a few other schools, but the NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period that’ll now go until January because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Fidone doesn’t really take time to relish in this success, at least not publicly. Another lesson he took from Duggan and Jones was to think big and focus small. Everything he’s accomplished so far has been part of his plan. There’s no need to celebrate yet.
He hopes that’s a lesson that resonates with those who come after him, too.
“I looked up to Logan and I looked up to Max, and I'm sure some kids are looking up to (current Lewis Central junior Hunter Deyo) and are looking up to me, too,” Fidone said. “I saw them chase their dreams, and now I’m chasing the same dream.”
That dream includes playing alongside the likes of George Kittle, an All-Pro; Kyle Rudolph, a two-time Pro Bowler; and Zach Ertz, a Super Bowl champion. One reason Fidone picked Nebraska, in addition to it being his childhood dream team, was tight end coach Sean Beckton, who has a reputation for developing all kinds of NFL talent.
All of this continues to drive Fidone, from a lanky receiver to a bulked-up tight end, from a nice weapon at a traditional Iowa powerhouse to the best tight end prospect in the country. He believed in himself, bet on himself and received help from friends and family along the way.
Everybody is seeing the results now, this monster athlete who could be a nationally-known superstar in just a few years. He'll take with him a lifetime’s worth of preparation to make sure everybody remembers him forever.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.