It was 7:30 a.m. when Matt Nichols learned his fate.
Out for the season. Torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Surgery required.
Six hours later virtually every available sports media man in town was gathered for a press box press conference at Commonwealth Stadium with expectations this might be one of the most emotional moments since Ö well, since the day they traded Ricky Ray away.
The young man head coach Kavis Reed had identified as ďthe next franchise quarterback of the Edmonton EskimosĒ during the previous two seasons had just learned heíd completed a devastating double whammy like few in this history of professional football.
His horrific ankle injury in the East Division semifinal, which left his left foot pointing south instead of north, will be remember as one of the most disturbing quarterback injuries to watch since Joe Theismann way back when.
And now this.
In the first quarter of the first pre-season game of the season in his first game after six months of rehabilitation to get back and compete to be the No. 1 quarterback, his season is over. Eleven more months of rehabilitation is ahead. And when he returns the opportunity to be No. 1 may be gone.
This one just tears the hearts out of his team-mates, who had become big believers in his leadership abilities. Inside and outside the dressing room, I believe Matt Nichols was the sentimental favourite to be No. 1.
But there he stood Tuesday, as his teammates took the field for practice at Commonwealth Stadium down below, and you couldnít be more composed than Nichols managed to be.
His 15 minutes standing on his injured knee behind a podium was a study in maturity.
ďObviously itís tough but, for whatever reason Iím being tested a little bit,Ē he began.
ďI donít think youíll find a more positive guy about it.
ďThis is not something thatís going to make me fold up the tent.
ďHonestly, I feel like itís just another obstacle for me.
ďIím just going to drive myself harder. I feel like I have a lot of years of football left in me,Ē he said in total control of his emotions and with no evidence of having spent much time feeling sorry for himself.
ďThe good thing is I just turned 26. Itís something I can fully recover from. Try again next year,Ē added the Eastern Washington quarterback who moved to Edmonton from his Spokane off-season residence to rehab his injury during the winter and plans to do the same again.
ďAge-wise, I feel I can play another 10 or 15 years.Ē
Nichols said in the brief time from finding out his season was over first thing in the morning to makes his rounds on crutches in the dressing room, he felt an outpouring of sympathy.
ďI think everyone just feels bad that I just had something like this happen only to go right back in and have another catastrophic injury.
ďOverall I think everyone wants to see me come back from this. I think everyone wants to see me be healthy again.
ďI let them know Iím going to be here and in all the meetings and stuff like that. But I can tell they think itís just a little unfair that I have to do this back to back.Ē
Nichols had already embraced his role going forward.
ďI plan to be an extra set of eyes, whether itís on the field, in the press box, in the film room. I plan on still having a role this year and do everything I can to make sure this team is still successful.Ē
Nichols said he was optimistic all the way to 7:30 a.m. that he was only going to miss a game or two.
ďI didnít think it would be this major. I didnít hear a pop or anything. It kind of surprised me, really. I prepared for the worst news, but ... Iím going to continue to move forward and heal from this and come back next year even stronger.Ē
The thing about the injury is, it came on an interception. Carlos Thomas ran it back for a touchdown for Saskatchewan. As the last man back, in attempting to tackle Thomas, Nichols was blocked by Kenny Rowe, a defensive end cut by the Roughriders after the game.
ďI can sit here and think about it and think it was a pre-season game and I should have just let him score. But I think natural instincts take over. Any time you throw an interception, you go chase the guy down.
ďIím not going to overanalyze what happened or why it happened. I was just playing football. For whatever reason Iíve had a couple unlucky plays.
ďIíve been playing this position since third grade. Iíve never been injured in my life. And now in back-to-back games I had pretty major injuries.
ďWhen you get this kind of injury you look around and realize how many people have had this particular injury and have come back and had lengthy careers. Iím going to do everything I can to make sure Iím 100% healthy.
ďI have a full year now. Iím not really going to have to rush to heal this. Iíll be able to do it the right way. Iíve already heard that dealing with this injury is about 10% how the surgery goes and 90% how you rehab it. Iím going to do everything I can to make sure it heals completely.Ē
Prior to meeting with the media, Nichols spent time with his teammates, including Mike Reilly, who became No. 1 at 14:00 of the first quarter Friday night when Nichols went down and now goes forward No. 1 for the season.
ďMike feels bad for me. We both knew this was a pretty big battle and he even said to me he even hates to kind of win the battle this way. Itís not how either of us wanted it to go down.
ďHe just said heís going to lean on me, watching film together and that type of thing. Let him know what I see during games at half time.
ďHe just said ĎGet better and weíll go at it again next year.íĒ
Thereís a silver lining here. Maybe.
It was just assumed that the loser of the Eskimos battle for No. 1 would end up going to Ottawa in the expansion draft. Now? Would Ottawa take a quarterback who suffered that horrific left ankle injury in the East Division crossover semifinal before suffering a season-ending right knee injury in the first quarter of his first game back?
The other theory was before the Eskimos would allow the loser of their battle for No. 1 quarterback to be taken in the expansion draft, theyíd likely be more inclined to trade him to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Now the most likely scenario would be for Nichols to return as an Eskimo next season.
ďBoth of us were preparing to be the starter. I donít think thereís going to be extra pressure on him now. I think heís going to be more than ready mentally and physically and Iím going to do everything now that I can do to help him be prepared because his success can go a long way to this teamís success.Ē
Thatís the thing that makes this story so compelling to me. Matt Nichols is committing his season to making Mike Reilly be better and to be successful. Nichols is effectively committing himself to working hard to put himself in a position to be no better than going to training camp next year with little chance of being anything but No. 2.
ďYou never know what this season holds so thatís kind of a tough thing to tell right now,Ē he said.
ďAll I know is that Iím looking forward to seeing Mike play and I hoping he does incredible things on the field this year.
ďI want to see this team win. As much as Iíd like to be out there doing it with them, thatís still what I want. regardless where I come in on the depth chart next year Iím going to prepare to be the starter like I always have. Thatís not something Iím going to worry about. Mentally Iím going to try to stay engaged and do anything I can to help this team win this.Ē
Matt Nicholsí limbs may not be screwed on straight of late, but his head sure is.
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