Like many of us that have been at the end of a relationship, Matt Nichols wasn’t completely shocked when the bad news came.
“I kind of felt like there was some writing on the wall there. People in the organization that I felt like I talked to quite a bit, I felt like I wasn’t hearing from them quite as much,” Nichols said on Monday, standing in the Toronto Argonauts’ locker room at BMO Field.
That irregular silence was broken in late January, when Bombers coach Mike O’Shea called Nichols and told him that the team was going in a different direction at quarterback (in fairness, that’s more notice than many players have received from their teams in the past). They gave Zach Collaros a two-year contract on Jan. 27. Nichols almost immediately went into talks with the Argos and they made their three-year deal official on Friday.
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“My agent (was) trying to figure out what was going on and he was either getting no response or a vague response. The writing was kind of on the wall and for whatever reason that’s what they decided to do,” Nichols said.
“It’s something I’m not taking personally. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen and now this new opportunity is here that I’m extremely excited for.”
It’s not the turn that Nichols, now 32, envisioned at this point in his career, but the one thing that’s learned through a decade spent in the CFL is that there are almost no linear paths in this game. He learned it the hard way when he was in Edmonton, filling in for an injured Mike Reilly in 2015 and was dealt to Winnipeg.
“When you first hear it, it’s going to hurt a little bit,” Nichols said.
“You think about how your life for five years is all of a sudden going to be changing. There are those thoughts but never thoughts of animosity. It is what it is, I know what business I’m playing in and obviously it helps when you basically immediately have an organization calling you and telling you…they’d love to have you, that type of thing.
“That was the mindset for me. This team that does want me and this team that does believe in me, I’m going to give everything I have to them.”
Nichols’ everything could go a long way to helping the Argos back-to-back 4-14 seasons behind them, provided he’s healthy. He was in the midst of a career year when he injured his shoulder and eventually required season-ending surgery. He’d led the Bombers to a comfortable seat atop the West Division and had thrown for 1,936 yards with 15 touchdowns to five interceptions.
With the team tumbling down the standings in Nichols’ absence, Collaros arrived at the trade deadline. He started in the Bombers’ regular-season finale and the team didn’t lose again, taking a hellish road to a fairytale ending, bringing their 29-year Grey Cup drought to its finish.
Argos’ GM Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons was on the phone with Nichols quickly after the Bombers had released him and met with him a week ago in Toronto. Clemons didn’t see an outright anger in Nichols over what had happened as much as he sees someone that’s just highly motivated.
“He works out five-plus hours a day during the off-season. He has his own trainer that takes him through the ropes and at the same time he’s working on his Master’s degree during the off-season, working hard at that,” Clemons said.
“He’s a 5 a.m. guy. He gets to the stadium at 5 a.m. I won’t be there,” the GM laughed.
“A guy that works this hard, does anger help? Maybe. Maybe that’s what makes you get up at 4:30 without an alarm clock to get here. Whatever it is, he has that thing. Vince Lombardi would say what’s greater than the will to win is the will to prepare to win.”
Nichols has said he’s ahead of schedule with his recovery and wants to be on the field when training camp opens in mid May. There will be a battle waiting for him in camp. Both Nichols and McLeod Bethel-Thompson have said they’ll be the starter this season. For what it’s worth, Nichols’ reported contract numbers would indicate he’ll be paid like the starter.
“In my mind, in all of my discussions I was brought in to lead this organization, to lead this locker room and that’s what I plan on doing,” Nichols said.
“Having competition at every aspect, I expect every person that we sign, that we bring in here, whatever locker they’re sitting in, whatever position they’re fighting for, that everyone has that mindset…thinking that they’re going to be the guy.”
Before Nichols signed with the Argos, he met up the best possible source for info on what awaited him. He went to high school in Redding, California, the same town that Ricky Ray did. Ray was stunned when he was traded from Edmonton to Toronto in December of 2011, but he made Toronto home and won two more Grey Cups before retiring in 2019.
Nichols got his Grey Cup ring in Winnipeg and like Ray, had the map of his career take an unexpected turn. He visited with Ray over the past week and got his former Edmonton teammates’ advice.
“He just kept saying how much he loved playing here. He loved his time in Edmonton but playing in Toronto were his favourite years,” Nichols said.
“I soaked up a lot of information from him and it got me even more excited for this opportunity. We’re from the same hometown and with him getting traded here and winning a Grey Cup in 2012, this is a similar feeling to me. I plan on doing the same thing.”