‘A God Thing’

NU taking a chance on a kid from South Carolina paid off in a big way

Story by Shane G. Gilster

Tyrone Legette broke the NU season record for pass breakups in 1991.
Tyrone Legette broke the NU season record for pass breakups in 1991.

Under Tom Osborne, Nebraska rarely recruited the state of South Carolina. NU’s best-known player from that neck of the woods was a walk-on named I.M. Hipp from Chapin.

Hipp left NU in 1979 as the program’s all-time leading rusher. But in terms of a scholarship recruit, the Huskers never had any from the Palmetto State.

That didn’t stop NU assistant Ron Brown from taking a look at a kid named Tyrone Legette from Columbia, home to the University of South Carolina. Brown became interested when Legette’s high school coach sent Nebraska a VHS highlight tape of his star player.

Legette was a first-team All-Big Eight cornerback.
Legette was a first-team All-Big Eight cornerback.

Brown was in his first year on Osborne’s staff in 1987 coaching wide receivers and tight ends. Brown talked about Legette’s recruitment during NU’s Big Red Blitz Tour in Broken Bow, Nebraska, this past June.

Both Brown and running backs coach Frank Solich believed Legette could be a productive player.

“We went to Coach Osborne and we said, ‘This is a kid, man,'” Brown said about Legette. “But Coach Osborne wondered why didn’t anyone else think so. The kid was 5-9, 165 pounds, so Tom wasn’t really jacked up about the physical appearance of the kid, and neither was Danny Ford at Clemson and Joe Morrison at South Carolina, so they didn’t even offer him.”

Brown and Solich then went back and watched tape of all of Legette’s high school games. They then asked the following questions:

What does he do when he doesn’t have the ball?

What position is he going to play?

What kind of kid is he?

“It came down to signing day, and it was between us and Furman,” Brown said. “Coach Osborne was like, ‘Dadgummit, Ron, are we really going to take this guy? His own state doesn’t even want him.’ Frank and I said, ‘Coach, we’ve done all the research. We don’t want a bad player either.’ So, Tom finally said, ‘OK, let’s go with it.'”

Legette attended Spring Valley High School, which was in the state’s largest school classification. He was the Columbia Touchdown Club’s 1987 Player of the Year and an all-area defensive back and running back for a team that had back-to-back 10-2 seasons in 1986 and 1987. As a senior, Legette set school rushing records of 210 attempts and 1,580 yards.

But size was an issue. He wasn’t built to be a collegiate running back. In-state schools like Clemson and South Carolina were slow to offer.

Brown and the Huskers saw things differently. They wanted Legette as a defensive back, something other schools hadn’t considered.

“It was a God thing,” Legette said. “Coach Brown saw something in me that a lot of people in-state didn’t see. In my mind I was an athlete and whatever I could do to help the team, I was OK with it. Coach Solich made a visit to my house and my parents felt comfortable with the support I would have at Nebraska. Because coming from a big family – youngest of 10 children – I always had that and I found an extended family in Nebraska.

“Coach Tom Osborne told my mom that they will make sure I will do a great job academically and as a man at Nebraska, nothing about sports.”

As a freshman in 1988, Legette played on the freshman team, as was the norm at the time. He started at right corner for Coach Shane Thorell’s 5-0 squad. Legette led the freshmen in kickoff returns with five for 201 yards and a 40.2-yard average, including a 94-yard touchdown against the Air Force junior varsity.

Early on at Nebraska, Legette struggled to find his way.

“I started off in a new position and had to work hard,” he said. “It was a challenging process and I was getting discouraged, but I told Coach Osborne that I was a team player. Things didn’t move or happen as fast as I would have liked, but I didn’t realize I was developing as a player and person. These are the trying times you must go through to be able to become what God wants you to be in the future.”

Even though Legette had never been outside his home state until attending college, he acclimated himself at Nebraska because of the people who supported and surrounded him.

Legette (pictured bottom left) with other starters from the 1991 Blackshirt defense including clockwise from top left: Mike Petko, Tyrone Byrd, Travis Hill and Pat Engelbert
Legette (pictured bottom left) with other starters from the 1991 Blackshirt defense including clockwise from top left: Mike Petko, Tyrone Byrd, Travis Hill and Pat Engelbert.

“The Nebraska coaches were like a bunch of dads and their wives were like our moms. They brought me up the right way,” Legette said. “When I got to Lincoln, Doug Waddell was already on the team and he and I were friends from middle school back in South Carolina. Guys like Broderick Thomas, LeRoy Etienne, Lawrence Pete and Charles Fryar were all older but they took us younger guys under their wings and helped us out. It was a tightknit group of guys.”

With a support system in place, Legette became a fixture at cornerback over the next three years. He played in every game his sophomore and junior seasons, having the versatility to play both corner spots. He became a full-time starter at the end of his junior year in 1990, starting the final three games of the season and in the Citrus Bowl.

As a senior, Legette earned first-team All-Big Eight honors. He broke up nine passes in 1991, breaking the school record, and had 45 tackles. His best game was against Kansas State when he had 12 tackles (seven solo) in NU’s 38-31 win.

During his collegiate career, Legette’s teams won two conference championships but never got a shot at playing for a national title. NU was close in 1988 and 1989, but they lost one game each season, knocking them out of playing for the title in a bowl game, which is another thing Legette never got to win in his career at Nebraska.

“It wasn’t our time to win a national championship, but we helped build up toward that later in the mid-1990s,” he said. “And it didn’t bother me that I didn’t win a bowl game. It was part of the growing pains and development we had to go through to win those after I left.”

Legette’s career didn’t end at Nebraska. Despite his size, he was on the radar of NFL scouts for the 1992 NFL Draft.

“When I was getting ready for the draft, Coach Osborne came to me and said I had some teams looking at me and that I likely will get drafted. But he said that I wasn’t very big so I should save my money when I get there because I might not be playing long. He was really being a father to me and telling me what to do in the long run,” Legette said.

But Legette played longer than Osborne thought. After being drafted in the third round (72nd overall) by the New Orleans Saints, Legette was able to stay in the league for seven seasons with the Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers.

Eventually injuries took a toll, and Legette retired in 1999 to pursue another profession.

“I was interested in helping families get into their own homes,” he said. “New Orleans had a huge rental population so my goal was to get them out of the apartments. So, I started a construction company in New Orleans called Legette Construction that dealt with affordable housing and subdivisions for people who never owned a house before.”

Legette then opened a Save A Lot grocery store in the Baton Rouge area, providing affordable, healthy food to customers. After taking care of others, the 51-year-old Legette is now retired and focusing on himself and his family.

“I’m living in New Orleans and working on my health and my family,” he said. “I had quite a few concussions from playing football. When I played special teams on kickoffs, I would be the one who would go down to bust up the wedge. That was never fun when you were 180 pounds going against 300-pound offensive linemen all locked together.”

Legette is married to wife Shontell and has three kids. His oldest, Tyla, is 22. Tyrone Jr. is 21 and daughter Ronnie is 20. All three children attend Southeastern Louisiana University. Tyrone Jr. is a sophomore defensive back on the football team.

Legette still looks back fondly at his time in Lincoln. He said Nebraska was the best time of his life with some of the nicest people and fans who cared about his well-being. He hasn’t been back to any Husker home games in a while but is excited that one of his former teammates is back to hopefully help coach NU back to national relevance. Mickey Joseph, who was a starting quarterback during the 1990 season, is now on the Husker coaching staff.

“Nebraska needs a guy like Mickey who has been there; a guy who knows what Nebraska needs to be built on,” Legette said. “Mickey was the guy who kept everyone together. He got in your face and let you know what you don’t want to hear, and that’s the truth. That was one of the things I liked about him, he spoke his mind, was truthful, and then loved you afterward. He was for the betterment of the team because his goal was to develop a team.”

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