April 25, 2019

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Nichols cuts back on burgers and he's starving – for a Grey Cup

Opinion

Matt Nichols is spending the winter trying to eat better. Maybe shed a few pounds. Get a little bit quicker.

Hey, aren't we all?

"I'm a huge cheeseburger guy. So that's a hard one to get rid of. But the hardest thing is my kids eat mac-and-cheese and grilled cheese all the time, so I've got salmon and broccoli and I'm looking at a half-eaten grilled cheese that I just want to finish off. That's the hardest temptation, is not finish my kids' food," Nichols said Thursday, back in the city for an off-season check-in.

Unlike the rest of us, there's a lot more riding on the health of the starting Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback than whether he can drop a pant size. Yes, the hopes and dreams of an organization and fanbase trying to snap a 28-year Grey Cup drought ultimately come down to the arm, and body, of a soon-to-be 32-year-old who has heard the whispers about whether he truly has what it takes to get his team to the CFL Promised Land.

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Matt Nichols is spending the winter trying to eat better. Maybe shed a few pounds. Get a little bit quicker.

Hey, aren't we all?

"I'm a huge cheeseburger guy. So that's a hard one to get rid of. But the hardest thing is my kids eat mac-and-cheese and grilled cheese all the time, so I've got salmon and broccoli and I'm looking at a half-eaten grilled cheese that I just want to finish off. That's the hardest temptation, is not finish my kids' food," Nichols said Thursday, back in the city for an off-season check-in.

Unlike the rest of us, there's a lot more riding on the health of the starting Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback than whether he can drop a pant size. Yes, the hopes and dreams of an organization and fanbase trying to snap a 28-year Grey Cup drought ultimately come down to the arm, and body, of a soon-to-be 32-year-old who has heard the whispers about whether he truly has what it takes to get his team to the CFL Promised Land.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols met with the media for the first time since the end of the 2018 season at Investors Group Field Thursday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols met with the media for the first time since the end of the 2018 season at Investors Group Field Thursday.

Father Time is the ultimate opponent, and history shows he's undefeated. The burning question is whether Nichols can get the job done before he hits his best-before date. So far, no good. And his seat is only going to get hotter going forward.

"It's been 28 years, but it's been three years with me as the quarterback," Nichols said. "Is Aaron Rodgers one of the best quarterbacks in the world? And how many Super Bowls does he have. One? In 12 years of starting. It's not easy to do. So that pressure's always there."

An interesting take. With a hint of defensiveness, perhaps?

'It's been 28 years, but it's been three years with me as the quarterback' – Matt Nichols on Winnipeg's current Grey Cup drought

Rodgers plays in a league where 31 other teams compete for the ultimate prize every year. Nichols and his teammates just have to be the last ones standing out of nine. That's a big difference, and a source of frustration around these parts after the Bombers lost the Western Conference final in Calgary. They arguably had their best roster assembled in years, yet still came two wins short of a championship. The normally high-powered offence led by Nichols sputtered when it mattered most, falling 22-14 to the Stampeders.

"At the same time, you understand that staying the course and doing what we've done to be a perennial kind of 12-win team and be there in the playoffs and just make those couple plays we need to make — even last year, we were in that game with Calgary," he said. "We make one or two plays and we're going to the Grey Cup and the tune's changed.

"We understand the city's frustration or the fans' frustration with how long it's been. But with this core group of guys, it's been a couple of years. We feel like we're right there. We put that pressure on ourselves every day as professional athletes that we play this game to win championships, and we haven't done that. That's our focus."

The Bombers have already re-signed several pending free agents, including key players such as Adam Bighill, Stanley Bryant and Justin Medlock as they try to keep the band together, which might not be a bad strategy considering the turbulence in the rest of the league, especially among Winnipeg's closest rivals.

Saskatchewan coach and GM Chris Jones has left that organization reeling by fleeing to the NFL. Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton QB Mike Reilly are getting interest south of the border from NFL teams. The Wild West suddenly looks wide open.

'We feel like we're right there. We put that pressure on ourselves every day as professional athletes that we play this game to win championships, and we haven't done that. That's our focus'

"I hope they both go sign in the NFL and never come back," Nichols said.

Joking aside, he said not having a ton of off-season turnover is a positive for a team that appears to have a Cup-or-bust mentality.

"Trying to get over that hump and earn a first-round bye and a west final here in Winnipeg is the goal. We feel like we can be as good as anyone. Guys want to be a part of that. I think it’s showing with some of the signings that are happening. I think it’s going to show in free agency when some guys choose to come here," he said.

There are some who'd like to see the Bombers take a run at a free agent such as Reilly if he opts to remain in the CFL, believing he'd be a significant upgrade over Nichols. There's also the belief the team might be better off tying its fortunes to No. 2 QB Chris Streveler, who brings a lot more mobility to the field than Nichols does.

I'll say this. If there's one thing Winnipeg loves, it's a backup. We're seeing it right now with the Winnipeg Jets, where Laurent Brossoit is being heralded for his strong play while questions about Connor Hellebuyck swirl. Much the same story played out at times last summer and fall when Nichols went down with an early injury and Streveler was handed the keys for a stretch, opening many eyes along the way.

Nichols welcomes the challenge.

'I hope they both go sign in the NFL and never come back' – Nichols on Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell and Edmonton QB Mike Reilly getting interest from NFL teams

"Competition breeds greatness. It's always great when you're pushing people," he said.

"I was in that position for a long time before I got a chance to play. I'm a fan of (Streveler), also. He's a very talented football player. He took it very seriously, getting in with me early in the mornings and trying to learn everything he could from me to improve areas of his game that can definitely improve," Nichols said.

"A young guy that really just wants to be here. There are a lot of guys that come in and, 'I'm going to be here for a couple of years and then I'm going to be back in the NFL.' Those are the mindsets that don't work out. He's got the mindset of playing the long game and understands there's nine teams in the league and it might take a little time to find your way on the field, full time. He's willing to put in that work and try to improve as a player, week in and week out. And it's my job to help prepare him."

Of course, that preparation could ultimately lead to a changing of the guard. But Nichols doesn't appear to be sweating it.

"Because first and foremost, it's about this team winning games and winning a championship," he said.

To that end, Nichols has adjusted his training program, focusing much more on nutrition and fitness than in the past winters.

"I do recognize the things I need to get better at. For me, my main focus right now is continuing to evolve the diet, and with all the information that’s out there right now, (there's no excuse) to not be eating correctly and not be in the best shape possible. My plan is to be in the best shape of my life coming into training camp," he said.

"I thought I took a positive step in 2017 of running around a little bit more and making some more plays with my feet. I think I maybe got away from that a little bit too much last year and I would like to implement that back into my game. I think there’s some real opportunities that are there for big plays, extending plays and using my feet a little bit more."

Nichols is also working on his long-term future, now two semesters into his Sport and Athletic Administration master's program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. He's involved with both the men's and women's basketball teams.

"Getting to kind of see the ticket side of it, working with donors, doing little things like taking stats onto the court during media time-outs, just things that you don’t realize as a player — all the little jobs that make a sporting event happen," he said.

"That part of it has been awesome for me, just to get that experience. It’s nice to kind of do something outside of football and get that experience."

As much fun as school is, Nichols is hungry to get back on the field. Of course, if he can deliver a Grey Cup next November, he can ditch the salmon and broccoli for a time and eat like a champion, with all the cheeseburgers his heart desires.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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