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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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A defensive menace ... Amen
When church ended, football began for USF's Stephen Nicholas.
By GREG AUMAN
Published November 19, 2005
TAMPA - Watch USF linebacker Stephen Nicholas play, and soon enough, you'll hear talk that he'll be playing on Sundays before long.
As it turns out, that's where it all started.
Long before he became a leader of USF's defense (ranked 18th in the nation), Nicholas learned to love the game playing with his seven brothers in their front yard after Sunday services at their father's church in St. Augustine.
"They made sure we didn't have grass in the front yard," said their father, Lebon, bishop and pastor at Victory Tabernacle, a nondenominational church he helped found in 1974. "Their mother would try to plant flowers, but they'd end up making a mess of those, too."
All eight Nicholas children were boys, and all but one played at Jacksonville's Robert E. Lee High, at defensive end or linebacker. Stephen, a junior at USF, was the third-youngest and first to play in college. "If it wasn't football, it was church," said Nicholas, who played drums for the church's gospel choir. "My father raised us to put God first, but after church was over, we'd play sandlot together forever.
"We all pushed each other to be better than the next brother."
The elder Nicholas, 57, was a two-way lineman at Jacksonville's Gilbert High, Class of 1968. But more than athletic genes, he believes he passed on a passion for the game.
"I just enjoyed it so much," said Nicholas, who coached his sons in Pop Warner. He knew Stephen was a talent when in his first year of Junior Midget ball at age 9, he unseated a 12-year-old at cornerback. Then there was his competitiveness. More than coveting victory, he detested losing.
"He was on a basketball team when he was 10, and I believe they only lost one game. But that day, he cried like a baby," his father said. "He's like another person when he loses. Most people don't like to lose, but he truly hates it."
The brothers don't race for the stop sign that served as a goal line anymore, but they still motivate each other. After every game, Stephen calls Antwan, a teammate for three years at Lee and now a junior defensive back at Edward Waters, an NAIA school in Jacksonville.
"We're always positive, always encouraging each other, but it's a rivalry," said Antwan, who had seven interceptions as a sophomore and will cheer for his brother today against Cincinnati. "We've always competed like that. We'll tell each other, "I'm going to have a better game than you this week.' So far, he's done better than I have this season."
Nicholas, 6 feet 3, 225 pounds, has done better than most anyone. The nominee for the Butkus Award (given to the nation's top linebacker) leads the Bulls with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks. His presence has extended beyond statistics to sheer intimidation, as in last week's victory at Syracuse. On one first-quarter play, he broke loose in the backfield and was bearing down on quarterback Joe Fields, who floated a shaky pass that was intercepted to set up the Bulls' first touchdown.
Nicholas just as easily could have been on the other sideline, having chosen the Bulls four years ago over Syracuse, Louisville and Georgia, one of the first major recruits to take a chance on upstart USF instead of more proven national programs.
"He's always been a leader for us," coach Jim Leavitt said. "And he's a good player, but he's a better person. He loves his family, and there's a lot of love there with him and his brothers."
Nicholas played tight end and linebacker at Lee but also was a standout on special teams, never leaving the field. He served as holder on kicks, and Lee coach Randy Glass remembers a botched kick in which Nicholas scrambled, broke tackles and fired a pass for a two-point conversion.
"You just saw kids so frustrated by him. "How do you stop this guy?' " said Glass, who has coached five Nicholas brothers and will coach the youngest, Ivan, as a sophomore next year.
"You could tell he had a good, stable home, a very good upbringing. You saw it in how he carried himself. Today, kids here are always wearing baggy pants to school, but we always said Steve looked like he stepped out of a Sears catalog. Shirt tucked in, very respectful and always quick with a smile."
Nicholas will finish his degree in communications this spring, another reason he might consider entering the NFL draft a season early. For now, he's leading the Bulls' charge for a Big East title, and he'll have his own cheering section of family members traveling across the state to watch him play.
"It's a good time for us to get together and enjoy the game," said Antwan, who expects at least two brothers to join him and his parents in Tampa today. "I don't get to see him play as often, so I'm excited to be there. His work ethic, his dedication, it's what it's all about."