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Eastern Washington University Football

Ex-Eastern Washington QB Matt Nichols quietly steps away after 12 CFL seasons: ‘I was lucky to play this game as long as I did’

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

It was perhaps the most impromptu retirement announcement on record.

But 10 months after he last took a snap in the Canadian Football League, former Eastern Washington University quarterback Matt Nichols officially retired in July after playing in eight seasons for three teams over a 12-year span.

For a player who never missed a game or practice for EWU, Nichols’ durability was certainly stretched to the limits in the CFL. After being slowed by injuries and a pandemic, Nichols had decided months ago that it was time to move on.

It wasn’t until a guest appearance on a radio show during a rain and lightning delay at the Calgary versus Edmonton football game on July 7 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton that the question of his continued future in the league came up in a live interview situation. By that time, he had already moved his family from Spokane to the Bay Area to accept a job working in the University of California-Berkeley.

“I’m retired, I’m done playing football,” he announced that day in which another former Eagle, Bo Levi Mitchell, led Calgary to a 49-6 victory over Edmonton in the “Battle of Alberta.”

“The people I love and care about know that I’m done playing, and that I did everything I wanted to accomplish in this game and overcame every injury,” Nichols continued. “I can look my kids in the face when they come against adversity and kind of preach to them what I practiced.”

The two-time Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year and two-time All-American began his CFL career as a practice squad player at Edmonton in 2010. He also played at Ottawa where his career ended, and Winnipeg where it flourished and the Blue Bombers became a CFL powerhouse.

He had hoped to sign a one-day contract with the Blue Bombers before announcing his retirement for good, but that didn’t happen.

“I actually called to retire and tried to make it official, and then kind of nothing took place after that,” Nichols said in the interview. “Enough time passed where I was like, all right, I’m just not going to make an announcement. I think doing some big announcement would be more for me than it would be for anyone else.”

He finished his CFL career (120 games) with 108 touchdowns, 18,907 yards and 63 interceptions on 1,645 completions and 2,469 attempts (66.6 percent). His completion percentage ranks as the seventh-highest in CFL history.

He last played for Winnipeg in 2019, then was released and signed by Toronto. But after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 CFL season, the Argonauts released him on Jan. 31, 2021. Nichols was signed that very day by the Ottawa Redblacks.

In 2021, he played in six games (three as a starter) and completed 66-of-96 passes (69 %) for 544 yards. He suffered a wrist injury on Sept. 22, 2021, versus Hamilton, which proved to be his final game.

Nichols started the first nine games for Winnipeg in 2019 before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the BC Lions. His early season performance and 7-2 start to the season helped the Blue Bombers advance to the 2019 Grey Cup and defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12. Winnipeg not only won the 2019 Grey Cup, but repeated in 2021 after the cancellation of the 2020 season.

“It was an awesome place to play football with passionate people,” Nichols said in April. “They have a great coaching staff and leadership from the team president. It’s a fun place to play football, although I don’t think I’ll miss playing in minus-20 degrees (Celsius) in the playoffs.”

Injuries, including a gruesome dislocated ankle early in his career, were plentiful and cost Nichols three full seasons and parts of several others. Knee, shoulder and wrist injuries also sidelined him.

“I was lucky to play this game as long as I did,” he told the Edmonton radio crew of his health status now. “I played until I was 35 and spent 12 years in this league, and I feel like I overcame some really traumatic injuries and I’m in one piece. My golf game is fully intact, which was always my intent.”

Visiting Edmonton in July came as the result of finally taking a delayed family vacation to Banff National Park. It was a visit that had been scheduled but postponed back in 2015 during the week he was traded from Edmonton to Winnipeg.

Nichols, his wife, Ali, and their two daughters (ages 8 and 4) have settled back in California where Nichols is from. He originally came to EWU from Cottonwood, California, graduating from high school in 2005.

While he was in the CFL, Nichols also dabbled in administration while assisting the EWU athletic department during the offseason. As an Eagles player, he helped in the building of a perennial powerhouse in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. He led the Eagles to the playoffs in 2007 and 2009, and EWU won the national title the year after he left.

“This is my first real taste of it and a good way to get into college athletics,” he says of being at Cal, where his duties include premium seating sales. “I take it one day at a time and learn some new things. It’s pretty fun.”

Following his senior season at Eastern, Nichols played in the East-West Shrine Game and was rated as the sixth-best quarterback available for the 2010 draft. But he was not drafted and began his professional football career with the Dallas Cowboys as a free-agent signee.

His immediate post-collegiate days were similar to those of Eric Barriere, who played for EWU in 2017-2021 and would break Nichols’ EWU and Big Sky passing records last fall. Barriere received a free agent tryout with the Denver Broncos, then played two games in the United States Football League for the Michigan Panthers this summer.

Nichols had a great experience, albeit short, in Dallas. In 2010, he appeared in two preseason games, completing 10-of-16 passes for 81 yards and two interceptions. But it wasn’t enough to stick in the NFL.

“There are things that can go against you,” he explains. “I was the fourth quarterback on a roster at Dallas where they had Tony Romo, Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee, who they had drafted the year before. It’s just unfortunate.”

Nichols played in 45 games at EWU and was 25-20 as a starter. He finished his career with 13,308 yards of total offense and 12,616 passing yards. Because of an extra seven-game season in 2020-21 that didn’t count as a year of eligibility, Barriere finished with 51 games played. He had a 30-12 record as a starter, with totals of 15,394 offensive yards and 13,809 through the air.

So there is no ill will toward the player who broke his records?

“There was a COVID season that counts for him, so they may or may not put an asterisk on those records, I don’t know,” Nichols laughed.

I was lucky to play this game as long as I did.” Matt Nichols Former Eastern Washington quarterback