Strange Connection: Tom, Tommie and Havana

Gus Rodriguez and Paul Fell flank Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne.

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By Randy York

A few weeks ago, Gustavo Rodriguez got to meet one of his all-time favorite American idols, none other than Tom Osborne. The surprise meeting came a day after Gus was invited to speak at Peru State College. This is one of those classic Nebraska football fan stories that begins in Cuba and goes all the way inside the glass door of Nebraska’s athletic director for a chance not only to shake Osborne’s hand, but also document the meeting, surreptitiously arranged by Gus’s American friend, Paul Fell, Nebraska’s longtime newspaper/Huskers Illustrated cartoonist. “Cuba seems like the wrong place to be a football fan,” Gus admits. “There’s no information of any kind, no games on TV or radio, no sport magazines and to make things worse, football was, in the eyes of many in the island, the classic game of the ‘enemigo’ (enemy)!” Still, living and working in Cuba, Gus said 1994 and 1995 were good years for him. “The only way I could get any football news was from a couple of Miami radio stations when the weather was nice enough,” he said, adding that listening to all of the expected hoopla around the Florida teams “made me hate them a bit, mostly because a couple of their announcers were really annoying to my ears.”

When Florida State beat Nebraska (18-16) in the 1994 Orange Bowl, “I felt a soft spot in my heart and really started rooting for Nebraska when they lost that game,” Gus said. “That’s when I became a big fan of Tom Osborne.” One of Gus’s friends worked at the Havana Airport and was always hawking Sports Illustrated copies that Canadian tourists would leave in their seats on the plane. “He was a Major League Baseball fan and had no problem handing me the football issues whenever there was one,” Gus said. “One of those issues covered Nebraska and Miami’s meeting in the Orange Bowl with great intensity, so I had extra motivation to cheer against Miami. Beating them was sweet, but next year (in the Fiesta Bowl) was even sweeter because Tommie Frazier ran like crazy over those Florida Gators.”

Imagine a longtime native of Cuba hording his American idols through magazines at the same time he would check out what he considered Florida propaganda jamming the evening airwaves. By the time Osborne won his second national championship, Gus Rodriguez almost felt like he knew the Nebraska coach and the Husker players he revered from afar. He called Osborne “Tom” and Frazier “Tommie”, and the talked so much about them that his friends and family members knew who they were. Fell first met Gus in Havana when he visited Cuba with a group of American cartoonists, and they’ve remained friends for years. This fall, Gus, now an American citizen that draws editorial cartoons for the Spanish language edition of the Miami Herald, spoke to Peru State College students and faculty about his experiences as a cartoonist in Castro’s Cuba. “After I finished my presentations at Peru, I couldn’t believe that my good friend Paul had lined up a tour for me to see the Memorial Stadium that I could only picture in my mind,” Gus said. “I was very excited imagining how it would all be, but never, never, never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I was going to meet Coach Osborne, shake his hand and take a picture with him…never, ever, did that thought even enter my mind.

“I admired the state-of-the-art facility and still see it in my mind as the Husker sanctuary,” Gus said. “I stepped on the end zone, and it was my first time I have ever been on a real football field. I could not believe it. Then I walked through the tunnel in the stadium and saw all of those trophies won by my favorite team. I was so excited and so humbled. All I could think was Tommie Frazier and Havana. Who would have thought that someone cursing at a poor radio signal while listening to football broadcasts in Cuba could have made that connection true? I am so grateful for all of the kind people who made that happen. It is one of the highlights of my entire life. I cannot thank people enough. It was a dream come true.” For Gus, who now lives in North Miami Beach, there is a postscript to his experience. “When I was at the Omaha airport getting ready to fly back to Miami, I saw Johnny Rodgers,” Gus said. “He had a bunch of people surrounding him asking for pictures and autographs. I was so close to going over there and joining all of those fans. I know I could have left with another treasured memento. But I was shy and still overwhelmed by so many good memories in just one day, and I didn’t want to ruin something that was already perfect.”

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The connection between Havana and Lincoln and a Cuban cartoonist leaving his native country and coming to America and then meeting Tom Osborne is, in a word, priceless. When I finished reading this blog, I couldn’t help but think of Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comedian who would always end his favorite observations with a great punch line: “Is this a great country or what?” I can only imagine how overwhelmed Gus must have been shaking Tom Osborne’s hand. By the way, I’m not a Nebraska fan, just an admirer of the program. I found this story on Sports Illustrated’s Big Ten college football website and look forward to reading many more. Steve Brown, Detroit, Michigan

Great article on connecting Havana to Lincoln!  I’m a Husker in South Florida and can appreciate this story very much.  I likely live right down the street from Gus and would love to see if we can start a Husker support group in Miami! Justin P. Hofmeister, Miami, Florida

Cool story with a very happy ending or, perhaps, a happy beginning!!! Joe Sokolovsky, Fremont, Nebraska

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your article about the gentleman that met Tom Osborne after all these years. It’s pretty cool to know that even someone from Cuba can appreciate good ole Tom and also have a disdain for Florida teams as strong as we did back then. It’s so hard to find a good, quality article these days, so this was like a breath of fresh air to read something that has character and integrity. I’m a true-blue (ha…true-red) fan who finds it meaningful to read about the Husker program and the fans that follow it. Thank you very much. Steven Dolan, Lakewood, Colorado

I enjoy your writing very much. It’s informative and fun to read. My husband and I have lived in Ohio for 23 years and remained loyal Husker fans. Our kids grew up in the 1990s going to Husker national championship games. Keep up the great writing! Evie Freimuth, Dayton, Ohio