Keith Nichol: A Game-Changing Force
Nov. 8, 2011
By Brittany McCormick, MSU Athletic Communications Student Assistant
He was supposed to begin his collegiate football career at Michigan State in 2007. Instead, he began at Oklahoma before transferring to MSU in 2008.
He was supposed to be the quarterback for his team, just like he had been since he began playing football when he was nine. Instead, he is one of the Spartans' top go-to wide receivers.
He was also supposed to be the tip-man on the "Rocket" play during the end of the game against Wisconsin. Instead, he was the one to score the touchdown that took down the No. 4 Badgers after Kirk Cousins' 44-yard Hail Mary pass ricocheted off of B.J. Cunningham's facemask and into his arms.
"It's crazy how it did work out because we kind of changed things up when we got over to the sidelines right before we executed the play," explained Nichol. "Usually I'm the tip man and Keshawn (Martin) is part of that and B.J. is coming out of nowhere. We kind of switched things up and put B.J. in the center and everyone else around him. As soon as I saw it go up in the air, I said this is mine. We would win the game as long as I put my hands on and caught it."
But when Nichol recalls what exactly happened in arguably one of the greatest pass plays in Michigan State football history, it's not the actual pass that comes to mind first. It's what happened immediately afterwards.
"That's the first thing I'm thinking about, when I'm just staring at the refs trying to read their lips and figure out if they're saying if it's a touchdown or not," he said. "I can see that in my head, just staring at them. After they announced it, I don't really remember much. It was funny watching the footage after they announced it because B.J. Cunningham was on my back and I didn't even know it. I don't
even remember how I got to the student section. I remember bits and parts of it. It's crazy."
In some strange twist of fate, this was not the first time Nichol has had a history-changing play against Wisconsin. The first time was in 2009 during his red-shirt sophomore season when he still played quarterback. Nichol was able to connect with Keshawn Martin on a 91-yard pass that went down in the Spartan record book as the second-longest touchdown pass in MSU history.
"It must be some weird alignment of the stars or something," Nichol said with a laugh. "It's a weird coincidence. It's funny because Keshawn and I will joke about me throwing scrambled plays or throwing big plays. We had that scramble drill against Penn State (71-yard TD in 2009) and then the bomb against Wisconsin. It's just funny how that all worked out."
While Nichol has had some success as a quarterback in the Green and White, he's had an even bigger impact as a wide receiver. The Lowell, Mich., native made the switch in positions at the end of his red-shirt sophomore season prior to the Alamo Bowl. Since then he's had 39 receptions for 516 yards in his new role.
"My initial reaction to playing wide receiver was what did you get yourself into and it's time to show everybody how athletic you really are and what your ability really is," Nichol said. "So I boosted my work ethic even more in the weight room on my own doing explosive movements and working on my cuts, things I never had to think about when I was a quarterback. You're worried about throwing motions and how smooth your rotation is. Now you have to worry about how fast you come out of a break. It's a totally different kind of beast."
"Everywhere he's been, he's had success," commented head coach Mark Dantonio. "But because of the type of person that he is, you look for championship success in that personal endeavor, as well as team wise. He's sacrificed I think incredibly for this football team. He's a tremendous athlete. He's a great wide receiver and catches the ball very well. Obviously he can throw it and run it as a quarterback. I think he's the model for our football team in terms of sacrifice and commitment and trust for our program. He's done a tremendous job."
He was able to adapt to the position change extremely well, which isn't surprising since transitions aren't something that are new to Nichol. Besides switching from the quarterback position to wide receiver, Nichol had to make the transition to MSU in 2008 after transferring from Oklahoma. At the onset, everything was going smoothly for Nichol - that is, until he tried to go to class.
"The hardest part was coming in as a sophomore," Nichol recalled. "It's that freshman year when everybody learns how to interact and the ins and outs of campus, the little things you take for granted like where classes are and when to get to class, how to get rides to class, where to eat at certain times, and where the best cafeteria is. I just had no idea what was going on. When I got here, the guys in my class, that stuff was all old news to them. I don't know how many times I would be walking over the Red Cedar River, just looking at a map."
Nichol has also had a unique opportunity while playing in the Green and White, as his younger brother and one of his best friends, Kyle, joined the team as a walk-on in 2009.
"That's been probably one of the greatest parts about being able to play at Michigan State, is having my brother here," Nichol said. "That's just been the greatest blessing having him here and even in our position meeting room. He's a wide receiver and he's doing the scout team thing every day. I told him in my senior speech, you know Kyle's my motivation. He's my hero here in terms of football. Just the way he carries himself, the way he works, the way he doesn't complain about anything, I mean he's a role model for me. It's just been great to have him here."
It's clear that family means a lot to the Nichol's. Nichol chose to give the game ball from his history-making catch during the Wisconsin game to his mother and his father attends practice every Tuesday to watch his sons play. Nichol even cites an unlikelysource as his greatest influence and motivation in football - his grandmother.
"My grandma, who passed away going into my junior year, she was the one who said you have to work for whatever you get," said Nichol. "It made my touchdown reception against Western Michigan (in 2010) so special because it was right after she passed. She would always say you have to go out there and you can't get pushed around. She had that type of attitude and really pushed me. She was at every single game. I know she was there against Wisconsin. She's a great mentor and I can still hear her in my head, pushing me."
Nichol will graduate in December with a degree in supply chain management. He has set big goals for himself after his football career ends. The 6-2, 220-pound wide receiver envisions himself running a company in that "corporate America setting." And while it's already been such a special senior season for Nichol, he has his sight set on something even greater before his career ends as a Spartan.
"Nothing's going to be able to take away from what we did in primetime here, with ESPN College GameDay here, against Wisconsin," commented Nichol. "Nothing's going to be able to replace that memory. The only other thing would be winning a Big Ten title outright and going to a BCS bowl game and winning. That would probably overtake anything that we did over Wisconsin - and I know we can make it happen."
GETTING TO KNOW Keith Nichol
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: "I love the cookie dough and cookies and cream, but sometimes I get that craving for strawberry ice cream."
One thing he can't live without: "Either my FIFA 2012 game, or my phone. I'm addicted to FIFA. I'll give up a lot of things for FIFA."
Hobbies: "I'm very interested in extreme sports, like watching motocross."
Favorite home-cooked meal: "My mom can cook about anything and make it good. But I would have to say my mom's steak and potato dinner she makes for me every time I go home."
Dream vacation spot: Fiji
Song most played on my iPod: "Watch the Throne" album by Kanye West and Jay-Z
This feature was originally published in the Nov. 5, 2011, edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine. Updates made following the Minnesota game.
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