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This article was published 5/7/2018 (414 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was the kind of uncharacteristic reflex reaction from Matt Nichols that seemed to foreshadow the worst for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
When Nichols, the Bombers' starting quarterback and undisputed leader, suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee during a training camp practice early last month, the severe pain resulted in the veteran pivot grabbing his helmet and tossing it to the ground.
Always conscious of his body language — rarely, if ever, will you see Nichols throw even his arms up in disgust — the scene certainly created some doubt that the 31-year-old would be back any time soon. It also didn’t help that many of Nichols’ teammates seemed troubled by what they had just witnessed from their quarterback.
The pending news of how long Nichols would be out left the team on edge, to the point that head coach Mike O’Shea felt the need to give an impromptu pep talk that enforced the message that one player doesn’t make a team. But Nichols isn’t simply one player; without him, many believed the Bombers' season was lost before it had even started.
So you could imagine the boost those same players got when it was revealed Thursday that Nichols, back on the field this week less than a month into what was projected to be a four-to-six week absence, would start Saturday when the Bombers (1-2) host the B.C. Lions (1-2).
"Just his voice and what he brings — his attitude, his brain and obviously his arm — are all things that we need in our offence," running back Andrew Harris said. "We’re excited for him to recover as fast as he has and we’re excited to see him get back in the game and make plays for us and help us win games."
Nichols doesn’t remember tossing his helmet. He does recall, however, what unfolded once he got to the locker room.
Speaking to reporters for the first time Thursday, he said once he got to his stall, his emotions now in check, he felt a calm come over him. Then he was hit with a bit of intuition, recalling, even before getting tested by doctors, that he would be back for this week’s game against the Lions.
“Just his voice and what he brings — his attitude, his brain and obviously his arm — are all things that we need in our offence” – Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris on quarterback Matt Nichols' return to the lineup
"For some reason I had this vision of being out here for the B.C. home game," Nichols said. "I didn’t even know what the injury was at that point but just for some reason it was what I set my mind to on when I was going to be back out there."
While early reports suggested Nichols hadn't suffered any early setbacks and would likely return closer to four weeks than six, he said he wasn’t rushing back to action simply to get back on the field. Nichols insisted he’s at 100 per cent health and besides having to wear a brace on his knee he wouldn’t be restricted in any way.
"I feel like I’ve been extremely sharp the last few days and I’ll never give myself excuses that I need to go in and knock off rust," Nichols said. "I went through a full training camp only a couple weeks ago and played in a pre-season game. It’s a situation where it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago and I came right back out here and started throwing the ball around well, up to my standards for myself and I fully expect to go in and play well."
The fact the Bombers have one win three games, and another loss would put them in a worse position in a tough West Division, also didn’t play a role in Nichols' return. In fact, Nichols was impressed with the play of Chris Streveler, a 23-year-old rookie quarterback in his first season in the CFL. In three starts, Streveler completed 63 per cent of his passes for 570 yards and six touchdowns, while throwing just two interceptions. He also rushed 22 times for 183 yards and two scores.
"I know what it’s like for a young quarterback coming up to this league and the way that he performed was much better than 99 per cent of the rookies that come up and play in their first year," said Nichols. "He did a great job and I think he’s got a bright future."
The rookie quarterback also benefited from Nichols and his determination to stay involved while working through his injury. Streveler agreed to join Nichols in his daily routine, which meant meeting most mornings at 5 a.m. The two watched film together, breaking down a new opponent each week.
Nichols remained committed to the team throughout. He spent extra sessions in the gym and was part of the game-planning with offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. For home games he wore a headset and listened to the play calls; while the team was on the road he watched from home, taking mental notes.
"Generally speaking, you want a guy who is injured to be around his teammates as much as possible. And he wants that, too, but we forced him to stay in the training room and do as many rehab sessions as possible," O’Shea said. "There’s a bit of give and take there. He knows that is best, too, but we both believe that being around your teammates is a very positive thing. Just because he was sidelined or not on the field, it doesn’t mean his capacity to lead changed at all."
"We have a check-mark list in our workout room and you can see he’s been working out the most out of everyone," said Harris. "So he’s been staying in shape and working out hard, so we know that he’s ready to jump in and not skip a beat."
Nichols is coming off his best season in the CFL. He led the Bombers to a 12-6 record in 2017, hitting career marks in passing yards (4,472) and touchdowns (28). The native of Redding, Calif., is looking to pick up right where he left off.
"I don’t know if you can put words on it but I don’t think my teammates have seen me without a smile all week," Nichols said, before transitioning to what he told his teammates after last week’s 31-17 road loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"My main message to them was some things didn’t go great for us as a team in Hamilton and just through the TV you could kind of feel the frustration. Talking to the offence, that’s not us. We’re guys that come out and have fun and no matter what’s going on around us we have a good time out here. That’s rubbed off a little bit this week and I hope that carries over to game day."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.