For two decades (‘80s & ‘90s), Omaha Central High was known as “I-Back High”. The school developed a pipeline that kept supplying the Nebraska football team with all-conference running backs.
Keith Jones, Calvin Jones and Ahman Green were among the great backs who kept the Big Red machine running. But there was one player that some people have forgotten who was just as talented and highly recruited as those better-known players.
“I didn’t feel the pressure of living up to any expectations as a running back at Omaha Central,” said Leodis Flowers, who played for the Huskers from 1988-90. “My running style at times was explosive. My coach William Reed called me a “mudder”; when other people were falling down, I was still standing up.”
At 5-11 and weighing 195 pounds with a 4.5 / 40-yard dash, Flowers had the makings of a great college running back. After rushing for about 1,800 yards as a junior, he led Class A in rushing with 1,203 yards as a senior, scoring 19 touchdowns. He hurt his ankle, thus missing two full games and half of two others; otherwise, his senior rushing totals would have been even more impressive.
Regardless, Flowers garnered regional and national honors, including All-American recognition from Parade Magazine, Bally, the Chicago Tribune and Adidas in 1986. He also was the Gatorade regional player of the year and was listed among USA Today’s Top 100 high school players.
Colleges coaches flocked to Omaha, and Flowers began to receive letters before his senior season. Luckily, he had help from his high school football coach to help narrow down his list of suitors to Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa and Texas A&M.
“Most of the time I was shielded by my high school coach, who would do a lot of the talking to the colleges that were recruiting me. I didn’t have the pressure recruits have now,” Flowers said. “Nebraska was one of the big recruiters of me along with Coach (Hayden) Fry of Iowa and most of the Big 8 schools. The recruiting process was very new to me and my family. I was 17 years old and it was overwhelming at times, but it also gave me a sense of pride that all these colleges are taking notice of your talents.”
Besides Nebraska and Iowa, Oklahoma recruited Flowers very heavily. In fact, head coach Barry Switzer made Flowers a priority as his top running back target that year. Switzer’s comments during a news conference in Omaha before a visit with Flowers made it known just how much he and the Sooners wanted the Omaha Central star.
“Leodis is a difference-maker. We need running backs. We’re going all over the country in search of one, and here’s one in the Big Eight territory. If he goes to Oklahoma, he could probably play for us next year. He’d probably be a second-team player as a freshman,” Switzer said. Note: Those quotes appeared in the Houston Chronicle, February 1987. Those comments were later reported as a possible NCAA violation.
“I remember Barry Switzer coming to my house with a TV that had a VHS built in it to show a highlight tape of Oklahoma football. He laid on my parent’s floor while we watched the highlights,” Flowers said. “It was his first attempt to even recruit a player from Nebraska, so I was the first one. He [Switzer] saw a fit with what he was doing at Oklahoma, in me.”
Even though Flowers’s high school team ran an I-formation, he was intrigued by the Sooners and their Wishbone offense.
“With Oklahoma running a Wishbone offense, it had no affect on my decision because a lot of times what they did depended on what the defensive end did,” Flowers said. “So a lot of times the defensive end would take the quarterback and the pitch would go to the running back. I watched Oklahoma games, and the running back would get the ball 20-25 times a game, and in high school I was averaging that many carries. For the type of offense that they were running, I thought I would be a good fit and I liked their tradition.”
Another school whose tradition Flowers liked was Texas A&M, with head coach Jackie Sherrill. They had that 12th Man, which was distinctive to Flowers, and he had watched them on TV.
“I [had] really never been out of the state of Nebraska before, so it was surreal to me,” Flowers said of his A&M trip. “I had never flown on a two-propeller plane before and it was just me and the pilot. I didn’t think I was going to make it to College Station.”
The last school Flowers considered was the University of Iowa. The Hawkeyes were one of the top schools in the country in the mid-‘80s, with head coach Hayden Fry.
“Coach Fry came to one of my high school basketball games. I looked out into the stands and saw him and Coach (Tom) Osborne sitting next to each other,” Flowers remembered. “The main recruiter from Iowa though was Bill Snyder (current Kansas State head coach). He was laid-back and put me at ease. Iowa had one of the better facilities I had seen on my recruiting trips, but on my trip I didn’t feel that Iowa was the place for me.”
So it came down to the Huskers and Sooners for Flowers. Even though he was from Nebraska, it wasn’t a given he would go to Lincoln.
“Since I was born and raised in Nebraska, was it a sense of loyalty, did I have to go to Nebraska because I was from here? I kind of wanted to venture out and see some other places before deciding on which college to go to,” Flowers said.
Flowers said he didn’t feel pressure to go to Nebraska from his family and friends. It was a big decision for a 17-year-old to make and leave home. His mom and dad told him to go where he felt was right in his heart.
“I decided on Nebraska about a month before signing day. If Nebraska wasn’t my home-state school, I would have chose Oklahoma,” Flowers stated. “I didn’t want the pressure of staying in-state and being under the microscope, but being close to home to my family ultimately won out. I felt I still needed to be close to home and close to my family in case something went wrong and would happen to me. If I was way out of state, it would be hard for my family to get to me.”
So, much to the delight of the NU coaching staff and Husker fans, Flowers signed on with Nebraska and was projected to be the next great Husker I-back. Flowers also had big expectations and likened himself to some of the great running backs in college football.
“I had more of an Emmitt Smith running style,” Flowers said. “He came out a year before me, so I got a chance to see him at Florida. But I also watched the Nebraska I-backs like Mike Rozier and Doug DuBose, who was one of my favorite players.”
Flowers’s recruiting class was highly ranked nationally, and included wingback Nate Turner and quarterback Mickey Joseph. Turner compared himself, Joseph and Flowers to the second-coming of “The Triplets,” which featured Husker greats Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar.
The class also had another I-back in fellow Omaha product George Achola, an I-back from Creighton Prep. But competition at I-back didn’t discourage Flowers.
“Nebraska had Johnny Rodgers’s son Terry Rodgers at I-back, but I just figured if I went down there and did what I had to do, either I was going to play (at running back) or they were going to find a place (position) for me to play,” Flowers said.
But I-back was his position of choice, and that is where he stayed. Flowers didn’t get a chance to showcase his talents as a true freshman, like Switzer said he would if he went to Oklahoma. Flowers hurt his knee in track doing the long jump, so he redshirted as a freshman in 1987.
Then, in 1988 as a redshirt freshman, Flowers was the third-string I-back behind Ken Clark and Tyreese Knox. He rushed for 202 yards on 32 carries, scoring two touchdowns in eight games. Not huge numbers, but with the amount of talent Nebraska always had stockpiled at I-back, it wasn’t a bad first year coming off a redshirt.
As a sophomore, Flowers began to show why he was so highly recruited in high school. Behind Heisman Trophy candidate and All-Big Eight running back Clark, Flowers played in all eleven games and was the third-leading rusher with 493 yards and seven touchdowns on 66 carries. Subbing for an injured Clark, Flowers started against Iowa State and ran for 118 yards on 16 carries. He led the Huskers in kickoff return yards with 180, averaging 20.0 on nine returns.
The 1990 season was supposed to be Flowers’ year to bloom. He had the starting job to himself entering the season and was poised to finally live up to the expectations Husker fans were waiting for since he chose Nebraska over the Sooners.
But Flowers didn’t quite get there. He had a solid season, starting eight of 11 games and rushing for 940 yards on 149 attempts, and scored nine touchdowns. He was third in the Big Eight in rushing and ranked 15th in the nation.
His best stretch that junior season was when rushed for more than 100 yards in six straight games, including his career-best 208 yards, which included a 70-yard touchdown run, against Iowa State.
Then, after the Florida Citrus Bowl in which he carried the ball just once for four yards, Flowers abruptly left the team before his senior year.
“I just didn’t want to play anymore, I lost my passion for playing football,” he said. “I also had issues off the field which were affecting my play on the field. I am more of a laid-back loner type, and I don’t talk to a lot of people if something is going on. I just felt that the only people I could really talk to were my parents. At Nebraska, I didn’t reach my full potential, and mostly in part that was due to me not being mature enough.”
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Shane Gilster is the advertising manager of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.