The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a trendy pick from prognosticators across the country heading into the 2019 Canadian Football League season.
That’s a fact which – roundabout the time the ball is put on the tee Saturday night in Vancouver for their season opener against the B.C. Lions – will mean absolutely nada.
The man in the crosshairs beginning Saturday night, as always, will be quarterback Matt Nichols, and to say his 2018 season was ‘tumultuous’ would be a an understatement.
It began with a three-game stretch on the injured list after he went down in a heap before Week 1. It featured a stretch in the summer when he got his mojo back… and then a couple of weeks where he lost it. And by the back half of the season Nichols had the Bombers humming into the postseason, a stretch that included the franchise’s first playoff win since 2011 before a loss in the Western Final.
All of this, not surprisingly, hardened the 32-year-old Californian through some emotional ups and downs.
“I’m still human. I’m still someone that cares deeply about my teammates, my coaches and my family,” Nichols said Thursday. “I always want to go out there and perform well and, obviously, when you go through a couple bad weeks where your performance isn’t up to your own standards it’s easy to go in a negative direction.
“But having a lot of great people around you can lift you out of that, which is what I have. I’ve surrounded myself with a great support system. No matter what football throws at me I think I’ve seen it all now. I have a pretty good outlook going into this season that nothing is going to negatively affect me. I’ve been through it all now.”
Nichols spoke with bluebombers.com for a long stretch on Thursday and touched on a number of topics, from his 2018 season, to the meaning of his tattoos, to his game day routine.
What kind of advice would the Matt Nichols of today give to the Matt Nichols who just finished at Eastern Washington and is turning pro?
Trust yourself. Trust the process and have tunnel vision of where you want to be. I would also say, all the things you go through, it’s all worth it in the end.
How has being a dad and a husband – and just experience – changed your perspective on the wins and the losses?
It’s completely changed things. My first few years you get so focused on trying to earn your way on the team and you do anything you can not to get cut and have your dreams end. I had five goals when I started playing and I’ve reached all of them besides winning a championship.
That alleviates a lot of pressure to the point that regardless of however things end up I’m proud of the things I’ve done. Now my focus is I don’t care about anything else but winning a championship.
Having my family has helped big time in putting things in perspective that way. I love this game and I put everything into it, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have your best game. They’ve given me that perspective that has allowed me to bounce back from disappointing games. You come home and when everyone there could care less about how work is going, that helps me back from a bad game here or there.
If you had to use one word or term to describe your 2018 season, what would it be?
That Montreal game last year, after the Banjo Bowl, was big for the team and for you in terms of a bounce back. What was the key to that week?
My family and the confidence and texts I got from my coaches and teammates. It was a couple bad weeks, a couple bad breaks and to have that support from everyone made it easy to put all of it in the rearview mirror. I didn’t want to let everyone down and got back to what had gotten me to that point.
I was able to do that, and go from a couple of the worst back-to-back weeks in my career to CFL Player of the Month in the next four games. Like I said, rollercoaster.
Can you talk about your tattoos and the inspiration behind them?
I have one on my leg that is the initials of one of my buddies that died in high school. Me and about 10 of my friends all got similar tattoos – ‘J.K. 2’. He had a hunting accident and passed away when we were in high school.
The first one I got on my arm is related to my Irish heritage. On the inside of my arm is my last name and my mom’s maiden name to represent both sides of my family. I have six daisies – they were the flowers at our wedding and six is my wife’s favourite number. There’s ‘One Love’, which is identical to one my wife has on her foot. I have an appointment with a guy here in Winnipeg for another big one that’s coming. (Grins).
You’ve talked before about the transformation of Matt Nichols, normal guy, to Matt Nichols game-day guy. If we had a camera on you during this, what would this transformation look like?
I keep it pretty normal throughout the pre-game. But once we come out of the tunnel… I try to be laser-focused on everything. I’ve had to work on calming myself down a little bit. A quarterback can’t get as pumped up as some of the other positions. So, when we do player announcements sometimes it’s not a good thing for me because I get too amped up.
It’s hard to explain… when I’m out there on the field I’m super-focused. On a normal play I probably have 15 different thoughts go through my head in about five seconds. I’m super competitive. I talk a little trash here and there and sometimes things come out of my mouth where I’m like, ‘I don’t even know who said that.’
You’re working on your Masters in Sports and Athletic Administration at Gonzaga… let’s play a game here – if you’re the GM of a new CFL expansion franchise, who is your first hire? Head coach? Quarterback?
That would be my main focus: head coach and quarterback. I’ve been around a lot of really good ones and a lot of ones that maybe didn’t work the best for me. I think I have an idea of what I would want to create… honestly, it’s the same to what we have here.
That’s a long-term project and as an expansion team I’m not sure you would have that luxury right away. You try and get as many talented players as you can and then build a culture from there. The head coach… J.C. Sherritt (a friend and former teammate) is getting some coaching experience now (as the Calgary Stampeders linebacker coach). He might be my first hire and then I’d get a quarterback to lead a franchise and get guys to rally behind him.
We’re hours away from heading out to Vancouver for Game 1. How does Matt Nichols kill time from the hours after your last meeting to kickoff Saturday night?
I love it when there is a CFL game on the night before ours. So there’s a game on (Montreal at Edmonton) and we’ll be settled by the time that comes on. I’ll just be in my hotel room watching that while I’m watching my own game film on my IPad. Then I’ll go get dinner with – and it depends on who has family around – Mike Miller, Weston Dressler used to be one of my meal guys, Chris Streveler, Wolly (Drew Wolitarsky).
Then I’ll go back, watch film again, go through my game sheets and fall asleep watching one of my favourite shows, ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ On game day I’ll get up and find a place where I can get a coffee and some bacon and eggs. Then I’ll off-and-on nap from 12 to 3 and have ‘How I Met Your Mother’ on again.
I’ll head to the stadium about four hours early, for no real reason. For the first hour I probably just sit in my locker and start putting the pads in my pants, listen to music, eat a snack. Then I’ll read through my entire scripts, go through my ‘hot’ reads on every play. I’ll go out and throw with Wolly two hours before the game, then it’s getting dressed and it’s go time from there.