In football, your entire season could change in the blink of an eye. That was the case for quarterback Matt Nichols.
The 33-year-old had gotten off to a great start in 2019, helping the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a 6-2 start to open the year heading into Week 10.
But in that contest, a home game against the BC Lions, Nichols was taken down from behind by Shawn Lemon. It was an awkward landing and the quarterback came up holding his arm and immediately headed for the sidelines.
“I think we ran a play-action pass and I started rolling out and I didn’t really have any options downfield,” Nichols recalled of the play. “I could kind of hear the O-line yelling that someone was behind me and I kind of braced for it, but he did a good job of taking me down and it’s just unfortunate that I kind of had my arms pinned to my body.
“I’ve fallen to the ground a thousand times way harder, but I just caught the wrong angle and immediately felt that there was something wrong.”
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The Bombers’ worst fears were confirmed a few days after the game, as Nichols was placed on the six-game injured list on Aug. 19.
Just over a month after that, he’d undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, meaning that Chris Streveler would assume the full-time starters role for the Bombers for the remainder of the 2019 campaign.
With where the team was sitting and their 29-year-long Grey Cup drought looming overhead, this particular injury was a bit tougher for Nichols, but he had dealt with injuries in the past and knew what he needed to do to get back.
“It was brutal at times,” he said. “But at the same time, I think I’ve always just kind of attacked injuries the same way and luckily, I have an extremely supportive wife and a family that doesn’t let me feel too sorry for myself on the rough days.
“I’ve just always had a mentality with injuries and do a good job of taking the little victories and not focus on how many months it’ll be until I’m back. I think it can seem very daunting if you do that so I think I’ve always done a good job of just seeing the little victories as I go along and those really help fuel me towards the next day’s rehab.”
The team picked up Zach Collaros at the trade deadline, giving them some more depth, and the duo would wind up clicking at the perfect time, helping the team topple the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium in the Western Semi-Final before beating Saskatchewan in the Western Final to punch their ticket to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
With the dual-quarterback system, a standout performance from Andrew Harris and a staunch defensive outing, the Bombers snapped that drought on the same field where they started their postseason journey.
“Even though I couldn’t actually be out on that field, I was there at five in the morning with the quarterbacks, coaching and giving as much information as I could,” Nichols said. “It was just as fun to watch Jermarcus Hardrick, Stanley Bryant, Andrew Harris and Darvin Adams get to play in that game and celebrate together because it’s a team game and it takes everyone. I feel like I did my job and helped put us in a great position halfway through the season and the guys behind me did a great job finishing off the season.
“It would’ve been easy for me to be selfish or woe is me or whatever it was, but that’s not the approach I took and I just fully soaked in the Grey Cup celebrations.”
Once the off-season rolled around, the pressing question was who the Bombers would go with as their quarterback for the future. Both Nichols and Collaros were pending free agents as was Streveler.
Nichols was interested in staying in Winnipeg, but he said that after trying to chat with the Bombers, nothing came to fruition. He received a call in late January from head coach Mike O’Shea, who told him that they were going to be moving on, making him a free agent ahead of time.
He and Nick Arbuckle were the top two quarterbacks on the market and with former Bombers OC Paul LaPolice taking the reigns in Ottawa and former Stamps QB coach Ryan Dinwiddie headed to be the head coach in Toronto, the consensus was that they would look to bring in the quarterbacks they knew best from their previous tenures.
Nichols said that he did have brief discussions with LaPolice and the REDBLACKS, but they traded for Arbuckle’s rights ahead of free agency opening.
The interest from the Argonauts was always there with Nichols, and it didn’t take the two sides long to touch base.
“The second that I was free, I had about an hour-long conversation with John Murphy,” Nichols said. “He told me how much they believed in me and respected what I had done. They didn’t care about the fact that I was technically injured at the time. They were looking more towards what I could bring to the team this year and for years moving forward.
“I could feel how much they wanted me, and at this point in my career, what I wanted was a team that believed in me and can respect the amount of games I’ve won.”
After that initial chat, Nichols flew up to Toronto to have dinner with Murphy, Dinwiddie and general manager Michael “Pinball” Clemons.
He said that he and Clemons also went on a drive around Toronto to see the different parts of the city and take in everything that it had to offer. After that, it was a done deal between Nichols and the Argos. The two sides agreed on a three-year contract that’ll see the veteran stay in Double Blue through the 2022 campaign.
While he was figuring out where the next stop in his football journey would be, Nichols was rehabbing his injury multiple times a week, working on his range of motion and bringing the pain down with every workout. He made sure to document his progress so that he could see how far he had come in his journey.
“Now I look at where I was a month ago, and those are the kinds of things that help push you forward,” he said. “To see how far you’ve come and what the process was like, it was not a fun time at all.
“… Hopefully, it can be a source of inspiration that no matter what you’re up against or what you’re dealing with, if you have the right mindset, you can overcome it.”
Nichols said that he’s back to 100 percent and would be good to go full-tilt whenever CFL football returns. He’s been throwing four-to-five times a week as of late.
Among the other activities involved in Nichols’ busy off-season, he also finished off his Master’s Degree in Sport and Athletic Administration from Gonzaga University. It’s something he had started a few years ago and he’s even worked as a part of the Zags’ athletic department during the last two off-seasons.
The quarterback has goals of going into an administrative role once his football career is done, and although he can break down a defence on and off the field, he doesn’t have his sights set on coaching once he hangs them up. However, he could see himself in a front-office role.
He’s not the only Argonauts quarterback who did some serious work in the classroom during the off-season. McLeod Bethel-Thompson also finished his Master’s in Education at Cal Berkeley.
The pair of quarterbacks have been working hard to help get the offensive playbook installed ahead of the year. They’ve been hosting zoom calls for the offence to get everyone on the same page. That has been doubly important given that the Argos’ offence is largely comprised of new faces. DaVaris Daniels, Natey Adjei, Juwan Brescacin and Dejon Brissett headline the additions at receiver while Bishop Sankey and Karlos Williams have been brought in to shore up the run game.
Much has been made of Nichols and Bethel-Thompson and the impending battle that will take place for the starting job, but Nichols is just focused on what he’s in control of.
“Nobody puts more stress on me than me,” Nichols said. “I don’t really care what the situation is. I was the starter in Winnipeg for the last five years and I felt like I was fighting for my job every single day. That’s just the mindset you have to have.”
Given the prospects of a shortened season, there won’t be time to get in a groove. Teams will have to be in top form from the outset. So these meetings will do nothing but help the Argos get some chemistry in. But they’ll need to apply what they’ve learned in the virtual meeting room on the field for the Boatmen to have a chance of turning around their fortunes following a second consecutive 4-14 year in 2019.
“There have been plenty of seasons like the 2011 BC Lions, where they started 0-5 and they made a run. You’re not going to have that abilty this year,” Nichols said. “If you come out of the gate and you lose your first couple of games, you might be looking at being that team that’s not going to make the playoffs. So I think that it’s more important than ever that we get to play and we’re coming together quickly as a team and coming out winning football games.
“It’ll be a nice trial by fire with the new team and the new staff and see how we gel together. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens quickly.”