In this time of general uncertainty, it’s nice to get a little concrete news of the positive kind, and in the state of the surgically-repaired shoulder of Matt Nichols, we have some.
The Toronto Argonauts quarterback can provide a glowing progress report, one that has him feeling he’d be ready for a full practice load in the middle of April, never mind weeks beyond that when he reports to camp.
Post-operative uncertainty? There is none of that in evidence as Nichols finds himself capping his daily workouts, not because of any physical setback, but because he simply wants to guard against overdoing things.
“As far as how everything’s going, I feel like I could be ready in a couple weeks,” said Nichols over the phone from his home in Spokane, Washington. “But there’s no real reason for that,” he adds.
Nichols gives his progress report from home — where so many of us find ourselves presently — with wife, Ali, and young daughters Elliot (6 years old) and Parker, (2 and a half), presumably nearby. Maybe a session of school is underway.
“My wife and I are pretty much just pre-school teachers most of the day,” laughs Nichols. “Ali has a little classroom set up in our den.
“I’m the teacher’s aide,” he says, pointing out that he takes on duties such as showing Elliot flashcards that have letters of the alphabet on them. Occasionally, they’ll mix in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe.
“Teach her some critical thinking,” Nichols says.
He’s just back from a visit to rehab, and a session of tossing the pigskin. The busywork of advancing from damaged shoulder with a dangling arm to game-ready rocket launcher continues as it has all fall and winter, now into early spring.
Nichols’ journey to being ready for the 2020 season has been powered by personal dedication to a rigorous strength and conditioning schedule, bolstered by the support of a loving wife as well as a team of high-calibre medical professionals. The words of two hall of fame-bound quarterbacks, Ricky Ray and Drew Brees, have been helpful too.
The 33-year-old has supplied an optimistic prognosis that will provide Argos management and fans with an over-the-moon feeling of encouragement. Surgery on a quarterback’s throwing shoulder can sometimes mean a long, long road to recovery and can oftentimes come with disappointingly adjusted expectations along the way.
Nichols, though, is in need of no extensions as the season approaches.
“Today, I finished my throwing session with ten balls at 30 yards,” he reports, brightly. “I’m lengthening out the distance a little bit. I’m doing kind of quick-snap throws on receiver bubble screens, all that stuff. My distance is coming back pretty quickly.”
He believes that he could easily blast through the rehab milestones with even greater velocity if he were to choose to keep the tempo up. He won’t do that, though, opting to rein himself in rather than getting swept up in giddy momentum.
“We’ve chosen to pump the brakes on it a little bit because I’m progressing so fast that I was basically on pace to finish an eight-week throwing progression in a two-week span,” says Nichols, obviously delighted with the state of his shoulder and arm health.
But with the season still down the road a piece — and with training camps now postponed beyond the intended opening date of May 17th — he sees little reason to give in to temptation.
“With everything that’s going on, there’s no reason to just be chucking the ball 55 yards a week from now, even though I’m on pace to get to that point,” he says.
Nichols’ current rehab status and that of him being an Argonaut have come about after events were set in motion last Aug. 15.
That night, as Nichols was leading the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a win over the visiting BC Lions, he was squashed under the weight of defensive end Shawn Lemon as the game was approaching the midway point of the fourth quarter. Nichols walked off the field, his right arm tucked protectively against his body.
After first attempting to nurse his shoulder back to health over the course of about five weeks, the decision was made that he would undergo corrective surgery, which he did, last September.
The Bombers, with quarterbacks Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros in the lineup, went on to beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, and speculation over Nichols’ future in Winnipeg began almost immediately.
A pending free agent, Nichols was granted an early release, in January, and soon after, he agreed to a three-year deal in Toronto. Months prior to that, though, the hard work had already begun, with Nichols determined to be ready for 2020 when the curtain was raised, wherever he might be.
“Luckily, I have a wife that’s super supportive and lets me put in the hours that I need,” says Nichols of Ali, to whom he’s been married for 10 years. “And a great team here in Spokane.”
“It’s been great to have people around me that know what they’re doing,” he adds, gratefully, noting that his physio team has done a lot of work with the athletics department at nearby Gonzaga University.
Episode 204: Checking in with ‘Big Play VA’
EPISODE OVERVIEW: Donnovan checks in at home with Montreal Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. as he juggles a complicated situation with off-season preparations.
EPISODE RUNDOWN: Vernon Adams Jr. drops in (4:06); Staying in football shape at home (5:31); Staying connected with CFL fans (7:40); Reflecting on how the Als rallied around Adams last season (10:14); Working on composure (18:15); Optimism around new ownership (21:14); Vernon’s Music Playlist (22:27).
The rehab strategy was simple but gruelling.
“We basically hammered strength and range of motion for six months,” says Nichols, explaining that December and January were extremely busy months, seeing him go to physio three times a day, each session lasting abut 90 minutes. His ability to keep it up told him a little about himself. He’d been though the grind of rehab before; a badly broken leg in 2012. An ACL tear in 2013. Would it be worth it again?
“My mindset is still that I’m willing to put in the hours which tells me that I sill have a lot of passion to get back out there and play some high-calibre football,” Nichols says.
Along with the support of Ali and the Gonzaga team, Nichols was able to fuel his determination and keep his psyche healthy by visiting with former Toronto and Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray, who happens to make his home in the place where Nichols starred as a high school quarterback: Redding, California.
“Whenever I get home to see everyone down there,” says Nichols of his hometown, “I always stop by and hang out with Rick a little bit and just talk through the shoulder injury that he had (Ray endured his own surgery and rehab while with the Argos), and letting him know where I was at the time.”
Just after Nichols signed his deal with the Argonauts, he returned to his hometown to be inducted into the West Valley High School Hall of Fame. Once again, he dropped by to see Ray.
“He kinda said, ‘you’re definitely way farther ahead than where I was at that point.’ So, it’s nice to see the hours and hours of work I put in are showing up,” says Nichols. “Being able to talk to someone like him about all those things definitely helps.”
And being able to listen to Brees has been helpful as well.
Nichols downloaded the audiobook version of Brees’ memoir “Coming Back Stronger.” In it, the New Orleans Saints star quarterback chronicles his own struggles — and triumphs — following his own devastating shoulder injury.
“I listened to it from start to finish two or three times, in December and January, listening to him go through his rehab,” says Nichols. “His was drastically worse than mine but still a similar type of rehab process. And so just being able to listen to somebody else, in a similar position, go through it, that was something that really helped me.”
After beginning his throwing program in mid-March, Nichols is now flinging footballs with a little more zip over short- and mid-range distances, quickly stretching things out after beginning with a series of 10-yard throws on Day One.
Now, about two weeks later, he says he’s putting mustard on balls of 25 yards while continuing to incrementally increase the distance on his downfield targets.
The hard winter work in building strength and range of motion has paid dividends.
“I think those two months really helped propel me forward,” says Nichols of his December/January crunch.
It was Nichols’ aim to ensure that he would not ruin his throwing motion by needing to baby his recovering shoulder. He intended to have full muscle power restored before chucking and that is why he put off picking up a football for an extra month. He feels certain that the objective was achieved.
“The whole thought process was not to have to correct anything and my muscle memory would take over,” Nichols explains. “And that’s definitely what’s happened.”
The aim now is not to do too much, even if a part of Nichols is straining at the leash. You have to assume the day that he launches a 55-yarder with no pain will feel pretty good. That’s still a bit down the road, however.
“A bit of it is, just, listen to your body knowing what days you can kind of push it, what days you need to give it a little break,” says Nichols. “I haven’t had setbacks. I’ve just been steady, staying on course.”
In some ways, the hard part of his return to action is over. The grind of rehab is now giving way to the joy of throwing a football with purpose, something Nichols has done since he was in grade three, and something he’d like to be able to do a good long while yet.
“Just making sure that I do everything completely proper and make sure that long term health is there,” he says.
“I plan on playing for quite a few more years.”