Matt Nickels - USC

Matt Nickels in PracticeNickels' Depth Chart Lists His Family First

DAVID WHARTON , LA Times Staff Writer

Everything was going fine until the phone call.

The cold winters, the many miles from home--Matt Nickels had grown accustomed to all of that. He had settled into classes at Dartmouth and made friends, even joined a fraternity.

It wasn't easy because he left behind a close family, the kind that always ate dinner together and took vacations in summer. His mother and father had not missed a game in any of the three sports he played in high school.

As Nickels says, without a trace of self-consciousness: "I love my parents more than anything in the world."

But he had a plan. He wanted an Ivy League education and wanted to play college football, figuring his best chance would be at the fringes of the big time. For two years, far from home, he pursued those goals.

Then came the call. His father had colon cancer.

There would be surgery, he was told, followed by chemotherapy. His first instinct was to quit school and rush back to Laguna Hills. But part of him wanted to stay at Dartmouth and finish what he had started.

Normally an easygoing young man, with a smile that works its way naturally across his face, Nickels could not help but call home three or four times a day.

"We could hear it in his voice," his mother, Karen, says. "He was so depressed."

He sat in his room, far away, needing to make a choice.

This fall--two years later--Nickels ranks among USC's top receivers with three touchdown catches. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calls him "one of our unsung heroes."

Nickels came from out of nowhere, a slow white guy who started as a walk-on. He earned an athletic scholarship, then worked his way into the lineup by doing the little things like blocking on runs and making tough catches on third downs.

The coaches now trust those hands enough to make him the holder for point-after and field-goal attempts.

"Watching him play, he isn't blessed with a lot of physical skills, but he's a good competitor," says Ron English, secondary coach at Arizona State, whose team played USC last Saturday.

"It all comes down to how much you study and prepare for games," English says. "Obviously, the kid is doing a lot of that."

Even better, Nickels is home and his father, Matt III, has recovered. Every game, sometimes two or three times a game, the son looks up to make eye contact with his parents in the stands.

"That's the most special thing to me," Nickels says. "We get to share this."

It amazes him that life has changed so dramatically since the days after he learned of his father's cancer.

The elder Matt, an executive with a real estate development company who had a previous bout with the disease, was initially scheduled for a brief hospital stay but complications arose and one week stretched into three. His son, taking summer classes in his sophomore year at Dartmouth, called constantly for updates.

"We tried to be upbeat about it," the father says. "But he knew something was amiss."

To make matters worse, Nickels' grandmother went out for a walk and died suddenly of an aneurysm.

Nickels could not stop worrying. Look, he finally told himself, get your priorities straight. Weighing aspirations against family, he recalls: "In my heart, I knew what was important to me."

He went home.

At first, the decision seemed absolutely right. Nickels took his father to chemotherapy on Fridays and helped with chores, clipping ivy along the side of the house, moving boxes in the attic.

"We spent time just sitting around," he says. "Being together."

But, within a few weeks, it became apparent that giving up Dartmouth would not be easy.

There had been such excitement two years earlier, when Nickels left for college. He liked the New Hampshire campus and his parents were proud to have him at a prestigious school. If leaving was tough, well, his sister Kristin had done it, going off to Northwestern.

Now, back home, Nickels wondered if he had let himself down and disappointed his family.

"You haven't let anybody down," his mother recalls telling him. "Wanting to give us more love? How can we be disappointed?"

Less than a month after their son returned, Matt III and Karen persuaded him to enroll at USC, a last-minute effort that required filling out an application until 3 a.m. and calling friends for recommendations. It was the fall of 1998 when Nickels rented a small apartment just south of campus.

A few of his pals from Santa Margarita High attended USC, not the least of whom was quarterback Carson Palmer. But while Palmer--two years younger--became a freshman sensation on the team, Nickels was leaving school every few days, spending free time at home.

This lonely period did not suit him. He had always been the type to hang around with friends and have fun. "He was a lost little kid," his mother says.

As months passed, people urged him to try out for football in spring. He balked, saying, "I had some confidence issues."

His two seasons at Dartmouth had been spent on the bench. There was no reason to believe he had the speed or the hands to succeed in the Pacific 10 Conference. Yet Palmer insisted, telling him it would be fun, just like high school. His father asked him what he had to lose.

Nickels showed up for tryouts in February 1999. It did not hurt that the star quarterback was his friend.

"People always saw me standing next to him," Nickels says. "So they kind of accepted me."

The new guy had none of R. Jay Soward's explosiveness, none of Kareem Kelly's speed or Windrell Hayes' moves. He was about half a mile down the depth chart.

But he was happy.

In the months that followed, Nickels gladly toiled in the background, learning to run precise routes, learning how to position his hands when the ball came at him from different angles.

"The intangibles," Jackson says. "You have to do a little bit more if you're not as fast as the other guys."

Appearing briefly in five games during the 1999 season, Nickels caught no passes. Then, last spring, with a number of USC receivers sitting out practice, he got to work with the starting team.

"I found myself making a play every now and then," he says.

His first catch came in the second game of the season, against Colorado, a five-yard toss in the left flat. His parents watched from the stands.

"It was the biggest dream," Karen Nickels says. "We literally sat there and cried for 10 minutes."

Her son caught his first touchdown in the same game. Then came a touchdown catch at Oregon State as he tiptoed along the side of the end zone. Then came another one against Arizona.

"He's not fast," Kelly says. "But he's got big plays in him."

And with each reception, his quarterback has gained more confidence in him. It gets back to running routes.

"If he's my second or third receiver," Palmer says, "I know exactly where he is going to be."

Not that this season has been a barrel of laughs, not with the Trojans struggling through a five-game losing streak at midseason. But even that has been a little easier to accept for a 22-year-old senior who does not put the game above all else.

"Football is not my life," he says.

His life is about being with family and helping in times of need. His life is about looking up before the game and maybe giving a short wave to his parents in the stands.

Two years ago, Nickels made a decision that might not have been right for everyone, but it was right for him. He has not regretted leaving Dartmouth, not one bit.