The Brothers Nicholls — Alex and Jack: Teammates, roommates, friends ... and national champions
By JON KLEINKNECHT
Inquirer Sports Editor
Losing wasn’t an option for the Nicholls brothers.
Just six days ago, Alex and Jack — the sons of Mike and Melinda Nicholls of Galion — were on the field with their Mount Union football teammates celebrating a 28–10 win over St. Thomas in the Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship game.
For Alex — a senior defensive back for the Purple Raiders — it was the final chance to win a national title. Each of the three previous seasons ended with disappointing losses at the hands of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl. Had the Purple Raiders not won last week, Alex would have been part of the only senior class in 20-plus years to have not claimed a national championship.
“There was a lot of pressure on us, but it added a little more fuel,” said Alex, a 2009 graduate of Galion High School. “We didn’t want to be the first class to not win one. We knew how good we were, and we did everything we could in the weight room and the film room to get us what we wanted.”
Losing three national title games in a row was a hard pill to swallow, especially when those were the only three games the Purple Raiders lost from 2009–2011.
The wait for the hopes of the next season being “the one” seemed to get longer following each defeat.
“We went out with a bitter taste and we just wanted to get started up again,” the former GHS star athlete said. “We stayed focused and kept putting in the time. Losing again wasn’t even considered.”
Mount Union is the most storied NCAA Division III football program in the nation.
In 27 years with Larry Kehres as the head coach, the Purple Raiders have won 11 national championships and played in 16 Stagg Bowls. Kehres’ record at the Alliance university is eye-popping. The Purple Raiders have gone 332–24-3 under his leadership, a phenomenal winning percentage of .929, easily the best in all of college football, regardless of the division. Only 24 losses in 27 seasons. Think about that for a moment and try not shaking your head in astonishment.
Members of the 10-school Ohio Athletic Conference, Mount Union has claimed 18 consecutive OAC football championships. This season’s team was #1-ranked entering the campaign. The Purple Raiders crushed opponent after opponent, going 15–0, averaging 52.8 points and 544 yards of total offense a game while yielding a norm of just 8.9 points and 182 yards.
This year’s scores read like something a video games expert would rack up. The regular season was 45–7, 57–0, 52–0, 54–0, 66–0, 62–0, 51–0, 33–14, 38–7 and 59–17. Playoff games were 72–14, 55–13, 72–17, 48–35 and 28–10. In a 48–35 win over Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals, the Purple Raiders trailed 28–14 going into the fourth quarter. They blasted their foe 34–7 in the final 15 minutes to pull out a stunning victory.
“That one was great,” Alex chuckled. “We were behind by 14 points and was on a mission in the fourth quarter.”
Majoring in exercise science with aspirations of becoming a physical therapist, Alex was asked why he chose to attend Mount Union.
“My cousin (Robert McDavid) played for them and graduated in ‘05,” he responded. “I had been to some of his games and witnessed the winning tradition. They were contacting me in high school. I couldn’t have made a better choice.”
In talking about Larry Kehres, Alex said, “I think the world of him as a person and as a coach. He is a great mentor. You can talk to him about anything. He’s really a humble guy. He’s a wise person who gets players who want to play.”
Something else about the legendary coach is he does not cut players from the program. Regardless of talent level, if a student wants to be on the team and is willing to put in the time required, he will be issued a uniform.
“His thought is everybody deserves to play football if they want to,” said Alex. “It’s not just about football with him. It’s about life lessons. I have so much respect for him.”
What was it like playing on the same team with his younger brother, Jack?
“We have a really good relationship,” Alex answered. “It was such a blessing. We roomed together every year. He’s not just my brother, he’s my friend.”
Jack — a 2010 GHS graduate — was a junior wide receiver on this season’s squad. He caught 23 passes for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns. Like his older brother, Jack mentioned watching his cousin play at Mount Union as being a contributing factor in his decision to attend school and play football there. “I went to my cousin’s games and I really liked the atmosphere,” Jack said. “It came down to between Mount Union and Heidelberg.”
As was Alex, Jack was a quarterback in high school. “I played some wide receiver when Alex was there, so I had a little bit of experience there,” he responded when asked if the transition from high school quarterback to college wide receiver was a difficult move.
A biology major who wants to go on to a post-graduate advanced nursing program, Jack talked about being on the same team as his brother.
“It was really fun,” he stated. “In practice, we got to go against each other and that was always fun,” adding that there was some trash-talking going on between the siblings.
As did Alex, Jack spoke highly of Larry Kehres.
“He’s a really good coach. Anytime, you can call him and talk to him about things. He’s really personable and his focus is on Mount Union. Comin’ into the program, there might be a couple of guys who are cocky. If they score a touchdown and celebrate too much, he gets right in their face and tells them that’s not what Mount Union is about.”
In talking about winning the national championship game, they both recalled what it was like when they realized the title was going to be theirs.
“I started to get excited toward the end of the game as we started to take a knee on offense,” said Alex. “I looked at the crowd and they were going crazy. It was almost like a dream. I was on cloud nine. After the game, Jack and I gave each other a big hug. I think I picked him up. How many people can win a national championship and play with their brother?”
Jack said, “The point in the game for me was there were about two minutes left, we were up by 18, they had the ball at about the 50 on fourth down and punted. I was really happy for our seniors. This group of seniors is a really great group of guys. We were a senior dominated team, and they provided great leadership. We really wanted to win for them.”
The brothers also mentioned the support they received from family members as well as the Galion community.
“Our parents and grandparents went to every game and that meant a lot,” Alex stated. “A lot of friends from Galion came up and supported the team, too. That shows how much love they have for you.”
Jack said, “That meant a lot to have family members there and it was nice to be able to talk to them after the games. It was nice knowing all the Galion people were behind us, too.”
Again talking about the championship game, Alex did some reflecting. “That was the last time Jack and I will ever play together. We’ve been teammates since we were kids. It was a great way to go out.”