Facing cameras, microphones and a throng of reporters in Canada’s most populous city, quarterback Matt Nichols fielded questions in February after signing a three-year deal with the Toronto Argonauts.
The Canadian Football League’s oldest and most tradition-rich franchise is experiencing a seismic shift, recently hiring 39-year-old head coach and former Boise State quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie after back-to-back losing seasons.
Nichols, a former Eastern Washington quarterback who owns the Big Sky Conference’s career passing record (12,616 yards), was an immediate target for Toronto after being released by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, an organization he helped swiftly turn into a contender.
The 33-year-old was one of the CFL’s steadiest arms before a season-ending shoulder injury in 2019. He totaled 1,936 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions and 71% completion percentage in the first nine games for the Blue Bombers, who went on to win the Grey Cup without his services.
The bearded, unassuming Nichols, who signed a $1.2 million contract with Winnipeg in 2017, was a recognizable figure in Manitoba’s chilly capital, signing autographs at a regular rate.
South of the border, when he’s walking his garbage to the curb of his Cheney subdivision or eating at a Spokane restaurant, no one looks twice.
He likes it that way.
“(Playing in the CFL) isn’t that big of a deal here,” said Nichols, who turned in his final assignment as a Gonzaga graduate student last week. “In Winnipeg, I couldn’t go to a grocery store without being recognized, and here nobody really knows or cares.”
EWU football purists might disagree, identifying Nichols as the start of the Eagles’ pass-happy pipeline to the north.
After helping kick-start the Beau Baldwin era by leading EWU to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs as a senior in 2009, Nichols had a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys in the 2010 preseason before signing with the Edmonton Eskimos, where EWU great Rick Worman (Class of 1985) was a QB coach the three previous seasons.
EWU’s next two starting quarterbacks – FCS greats Bo Levi Mitchell and Vernon Adams – are currently CFL starting quarterbacks: Mitchell (Calgary Stampeders), one of the league’s most successful players, and Adams (Montreal Alouettes), an up-and-coming talent.
Former EWU signal-caller Gage Gubrud, who set the FCS single-season passing record as a sophomore in 2016 (5,160 yards), has been in potential contract talks with the BC Lions, led by veteran QB and former Central Washington star Mike Reilly.
Each was coached by Baldwin, the new leader at Cal Poly after a three-year stint as California’s offensive coordinator.
“Being an EWU and Big Sky guy translates well to the CFL, because you have to have that chip on your shoulder to succeed,” Nichols said. “And you have to stick it out for two to three years to learn the CFL game.
“But having this many (former EWU players) in the pros speaks to the principles they teach you there. It’s a great place and I donate there every year.”
Nichols, EWU’s last four-year starter, likes his alma mater so much, the native of Redding, California, considers the Inland Northwest home.
Marrying Spokane native Ali Nichols (nee Webb) played a major role in spending his offseasons in the city and pursuing a graduate degree at Gonzaga.
Last season, Nichols would often cram in homework during the season for a sports management degree, and interned with Gonzaga’s athletic department.
“I’d wear a suit, go to socials, talk to donors and tell stories about what I was doing,” said Nichols, a father of two. “I picked (Gonzaga athletic director) Mike Roth’s brain.”
He hopes to work in a professional sports front office once he’s done playing – or maybe be an agent. He doesn’t know yet, but playing for the Argonauts, who have the same ownership group as the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, might also provide networking opportunities.
Nichols was scheduled to walk at Gonzaga’s commencement this month, but that was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
His 2020 season is also in limbo.
Before the worldwide coronavirus pandemic began to take its toll on amateur and professional sports in March, CFL players were scheduled to report to camp in May and start the season in June.
But CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced Thursday there will either be a truncated season or “likely no season at all.”
Nichols had been training at U-District Physical Therapy in Spokane before social distancing mandates went into effect. He’s since turned his garage into a personal gym, equipped with resistance bands, balls and a Peloton bike.
He posted a video on Twitter last week throwing deep passes into the pockets of a quarterback net at a local football field, captioning his precision passes with “Kobe!”
“For whatever reason, (Winnipeg) decided to move on, and Toronto believed in me,” Nichols said. “I am looking forward to turning this (team) around, too, when things get going again.”
Winnipeg experienced a string of losing seasons before naming Nichols its starter in 2016. He helped the Blue Bombers to four straight postseason appearances.
He also helped EWU go into the 2010s red-turf era with momentum, splitting his career between former EWU coaches Paul Wulff and Baldwin.
Nichols was a redshirt freshman in 2006 when he took the baton from Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Erik Meyer, suffering a rare 3-8 reason. He went 23-13 as a starter his next three seasons with two FCS playoff appearances (2007 and 2009).
He doubts many on campus still remember those exploits.
“That was right before the social media era,” Nichols said. “I wasn’t as well-known in Cheney as the quarterbacks after me. Back then, people in my classes didn’t even know who I was.”
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