The football gods, at their best, are unpredictable. But in Edmonton, they're just down right nasty. Especially with young quarterbacks who throw interceptions instead of touchdowns. Perhaps they're still upset and haven't fully recovered from the Ricky Ray trade. And if that's the case, why can't they take it out on Eric Tillman and leave poor Matt Nichols alone?
The last time CFL fans saw Nichols in a game, he was lying on the Rogers Centre turf, screaming in agony, his left foot bent in an awkward, sickening direction. It was the kind of injury you talk about around the water cooler at work the next day. The kind you upload and watch over and over on YouTube. Not quite Joe Theismann-like, but stomach turning none the less.
A fractured ankle suffered in the 2012 East Division semi-final and the player head coach Kavis Reed had identified as "the next franchise quarterback of the Edmonton Eskimos," all of a sudden held more questions than answers.
Fast forward to the Eskimos first preseason game of 2013. Some of those questions seemed to be answered. A healthy Nichols had earned the start for that first game. Not definitive proof of Reed's prophetic statement a year earlier, but a good start considering the battle that was unfolding between newly acquired Mike Reilly. Just 12 offensive plays into the game, fate, whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, had other plans.
And after two horrific sports injuries in consecutive games, separated only by a long off season of rehabilitation, maybe the idea that fate exists, and could be so cruel to a 26-year-old quarterback, is attracting converts. Especially in Edmonton with a fan base spoiled with the likes of Moon, Dunnigan, Allen and Ray.
I'm always saddened when I hear about football players who've suffered season-ending injuries. Knowing how hard you have to work in order to come back, makes the latest injury to Nichols that much more gut wrenching. Finding yourself right back where you started, only this time with a new ailment, a torn ACL in your right knee, has to be a bitter pill to swallow, along with all the other prescription pain killers he has no doubt become familiar with.
But I'm convinced we haven't seen the last of Nichols. We may have to wait another season but after seeing how he responded from last year's injury and the outwardly upbeat attitude displayed this time around, it will be worth the wait. The hard part for Nichols won't be the physical rehabilitation. Nichols has been there before and knows how to come back. No doubt it will be the mental part, sitting on the sidelines, watching Reilly perhaps solidify his role as the next franchise QB for the Eskimos. And in that case perhaps a psycho-therapist instead. One that can help convince the young QB to keep getting back up after getting knocked down so often.
Nichols' time will come but in the mean time his injury, whether he likes it or not, will define his role within the team. Holding a clip board on the sideline in civilian clothing on game day is not the way he envisioned his 2013 season unfolding. Without question there will exist an internal conflict like with most players sidelined with injuries. Helping your understudy succeed in a position most recently held by you is a risky proposition that will test even the most committed team player. But if Nichols can overcome the very unnatural act of helping his training-camp rival gain success despite the possible collateral damage it may cause him, perhaps it will appease the football gods in Edmonton. The alternative, it would seem, is more interceptions than touchdowns. And we already know how the football gods feel about that.
Sandy Annunziata is a two-time Grey Cup champion who battled in the trenches along CFL offensive-lines for 11 seasons. Hard hitting and thought provoking, he takes you beyond the field and inside the locker room as he delivers a candid view of the game, the health of the league, the business of sport and the sometimes fragile psyche of pro athletes.