Originally created 11/11/05

Unlike Samson, Nickels' strength comes from heart



WASHINGTON, Ga. - Casey Nickels is pieced together a little differently.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Washington-Wilkes two-way lineman has an athlete's body, a midwestern soul, an Ivy League head and a pure Georgia heart.

On top of all that, however, the first thing you find yourself asking is, "What's with the hair?"

"I'm stuck in the '70s," Nickels said. "I was born in the wrong era."

Aside from a floppy red mop of curly hair and musical tastes that favor Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty and The Who to the relatively monotonous beat of modern hip-hop, Nickels is a throwback in other ways. His focus harkens to an era when young kids didn't wait half their lives to figure out what they wanted to do with themselves.

Nickels has known where he's wanted to go since his age was measured in single digits. A dog biting his lower lip clean off, and the surgeries required to repair it fixated his goals on entering the medical field at age 8.

And the familiar gravelly rant of the long-time voice of the Bulldogs was a siren call to Georgia. Nickels first heard Larry Munson when he was 9 and on his way to a baseball practice. The voice struck a chord and never let go.

"I didn't know who he was, and you know how he freaks out about the games and stuff," Nickels said. "I decided then that I wanted to go to Georgia and be an orthopedic surgeon."

Who knew Munson could have such an effect on aspiring doctors?

DESPITE HIS FARMING family moving from Wilkes County back to Nickels' native South Dakota when he was in the fifth grade, the lure of Georgia remained. It's part of the reason his family decided to come back to Washington two years ago, where his father manages the hog operation at Callaway Farms.

So here Nickels is, standing out a little differently in rural Georgia with his midwestern accent but possessing the quintessential blue-collar ethic.

"I sound a little different, but this is where my heart has been," Nickels said.

And where he plans to stay. The college atmosphere of Athens, less than a hour up the road, has been calling and inspiring Nickels since he was in elementary school. If he has his way, he'll never leave it.

"I want to stay in athletics the rest of my life," he said, hoping to practice in Athens as an orthopedic surgeon repairing various broken limbs or torn ACLs for generations of Bulldogs to come.

That kind of focus is not typical in most teenage athletes, but Nickels isn't your typical teenager. Washington-Wilkes football coach Russell Morgan calls him the best "overall student athlete" he's ever dealt with - both well-rounded and well-grounded.

His rsum reflects that - president of the senior class, president of student government, president of the National Honor Society, member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Future Farmers of America.

In addition, he waits tables at Miller's Bistro on the square in Washington and still has time to excel in athletics and academics.

"I've never been around one quite like him," Morgan said.

NICKELS WAS THE state champion wrestler in the 215-pound weight class, posting a 51-0 match record and pinning his way through the state tournament. He hopes to duplicate that perfection in the heavyweight class this season.

But as much as he enjoys wrestling, he decided football was what he would continue with at the next level.

"I have a passion for it," he said.

While his scholarship options ranged from the studious enclaves of Davidson and Vanderbilt, Nickels didn't hesitate at the chance to accept Georgia's offer of a preferred walk-on spot. He'll get to report with the regular scholarship players during the summer.

"He'd turn down a scholarship most anywhere just for the chance to walk-on at Georgia," Morgan said.

Tuition won't be an issue. Nickels currently ranks atop his senior class at Washington-Wilkes and seems like a shoo-in to finish as valedictorian.

"I'd be very, very disappointed if I didn't," he said of the academic distinction that few other Bulldogs players, other than Herschel Walker, carried with them to Georgia.

As pleased as he is of his athletic achievements, the classroom success is more meaningful.

"I'm more proud of the grades because they will take me further," he said. "Best-case scenario is I play football in college for five years and maybe five years of pro football if I'm lucky. After that, you can't really be a doctor with Cs and Ds."

FOR NOW, NICKELS has his sights set on leading Washington-Wilkes to its first state football championship since 1967. The Tigers (9-2) play host to Temple in the second round tonight.

Nickels was determined to make sure this year's Tigers team didn't fizzle out like others of recent vintage. He is the vocal leader, standing up in the locker room to speak to his teammates to ensure proper attention and respect for everyone from freshmen on up.

"The biggest difference between our football team this year and the last two years is our character," Morgan said. "It's a much tighter bond, and I attribute a lot of that to (Nickels) and Markeith Wylie, our captains."

Nickels demands as much from his teammates as he does from himself, and he tries to spread his work ethic and focus.

"Here we have so much speed and size to go far but we didn't," he said of the 2004 team. "It seemed like when it was inconvenient, we weren't committed for the long run. There's so much that attitude will do for you. A team will follow the seniors, whether we take them down the excuses path or we want more."

For the future surgeon and Georgia Bulldog, don't expect the excuse path to be an option.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.