When Sidwell Friends senior tight end-defensive end Jerome Nichols unofficially committed to attend Wake Forest two weeks ago, he became the first football player from the upper Northwest Washington private school to make such a commitment to a Division I-A program since the 1970s. Hours after Nichols committed, Sidwell Principal Bruce Stewart wrote a congratulatory note to Nichols's parents, Alvin and Denise.
They, in turn, were busy taking happy phone calls from friends and calling newspapers to let them know about the achievement. Nichols's classmates smiled and high-fived each other as they walked the hallways.
But where was Nichols?
"It seemed like a big deal to everyone but Jerome," Sidwell Coach John Simon said with a smile. "He walked around like nothing much had happened. He did not even tell his guidance counselor about it."
It is not that Nichols was not excited about getting a scholarship to play Division I football. It is just that the person teammate Brookes Gore calls "the quietest of our four team captains" has a humble take on his role in the school's athletic history.
"Sidwell is different from most places," Nichols said, with a bit of understatement (another of Nichols's teammates is linebacker Al Gore III--no relation to Brookes--but the son of Vice President Gore). The school, which charges $16,200 for tuition annually, is based on Quaker traditions. It does not have an academic "class rank" for students and does not compute grade-point averages because they are considered against the Quaker philosophy of playing down competition.
Instead, the school focuses on building individual students and having them meet individual goals.
Or, as Nichols put it: "Here, the kid who wins a football game is not different from the kid who gets an 'A' on a math test. There are no big-time stars here. I am not a big man on campus."
Modesty aside, there is no masking that he is a big man on Sidwell's campus--at least physically. Nichols is a 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end, defensive end and punter for the Quakers and has helped the team to a 3-1 record entering their Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference game at Mercersburg (Pa.) on Saturday.
That size and speed (he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds), coupled with his Scholastic Assessment Test score of more than 1,300, helped him draw the attention of schools like Nebraska, Michigan, Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina and Wake Forest as well as several Ivy League schools.
But it could not stop recruiters from having confused looks on their faces both before and after meeting with Nichols, according to Simon.
"Most of those recruiters who come to the District usually go to Carroll or Dunbar," Simon said. "A lot of them had trouble finding Sidwell and showed up kind of confused. Then they were surprised that we could not just pull a kid out of class to meet with them. When they finally met Jerome, they walked out of the meeting with even more confused looks on their faces. They would ask me, 'Are you sure he can play Division I football? He is so quiet he hardly said a word in there.' "
But his play speaks volumes. As a sophomore tight end, he caught five passes--with all five going for touchdowns, at an average of 50 yards per reception. He also averaged more than 40 yards per punt. Last season he caught 20 passes for 390 yards and six touchdowns.
But letters from Florida State and Nebraska were followed by letters from MIT and Cal Tech. While MIT and Cal Tech may not have big-time football programs, they were interested in Nichols because of his high SAT scores and his interest in pursuing a degree in chemistry, physics, biology or business.
The mail became so much that the family turned the dining room of their Glenn Dale home into, essentially, a mail room. Denise Nichols said the family cut vacations short to take Jerome to football camps at Stanford and North Carolina.
"We had no idea what we were getting into with the recruiting process," Alvin Nichols said. "I am only 5-10 and I played in the band instead of playing sports. This was uncharted waters for us."
But Nichols's teammates said the attention never seemed to bother him.
"Jerome was very humble and low-key about the recruiting," Brookes Gore said. "We never heard him mention the letters he would get from Nebraska and Michigan. He would never talk about when scouts would come to watch him play. When he told us about his decision to sign with Wake Forest, he said it really casually."
Nichols may not be so casual about leaving Sidwell. He has attended the school since he was in kindergarten. Even now, Denise and Alvin said Jerome's weekends are spent at slumber parties with several of the friends he has known since he first began at the school.
And in at least one sense, Nichols's brothers have followed in his footsteps in that they both have attended Sidwell since they were in kindergarten as well. Now, Jason is a freshman at Sidwell while Jordan is a seventh-grader in the middle school. The family carpools to the school with Alvin, a director at Fannie Mae, located across Wisconsin Avenue from the school.
"It is a real blessing to ride in with the three boys," Alvin Nichols said. "For one thing, they have to be at school by 8 a.m. so I am always at work early. But it also means they are able to participate in after-school activities and I am able to sneak away at lunch and watch their games or practices. Our children are the most important things in our lives and to see them live their dreams and do so well is what we work for."
Jerome Nichols's work on the football field could help future Sidwell players. Simon said several schools who recruited Nichols are now interested in players like junior running back Adam Wood, who has rushed for 365 yards and six touchdowns this season.
He also said college recruiters told him they would follow up on Jason and Jordan Nichols, who play on the junior varsity and middle school teams. When recruiters say those things, they are not always joking: Wake Forest has offered a scholarship to the younger brother of freshman quarterback C.J. Leek, a prized recruit. Leek's brother is a high school freshman.
Jerome Nichols said all the attention from colleges was a bit overwhelming--partly because he had not seen any older Sidwell players go through it. The most heavily recruited male athletes at the school were current tennis pro Paul Goldstein and former Olympic gymnast Jair Lynch, both of whom went to Stanford after leaving Sidwell earlier this decade.
Still, should other Sidwell football players get recruited in the future, Nichols left a fairly good model on how to make the decision.
"I chose Wake because it was a good school, a small school and they were one of the only schools that wanted me as a tight end, which is where I wanted to play," Nichols said. "But when I went to visit they also had a couple fifth-year seniors who were still on scholarship and were studying for their master's degrees. I really liked that as well."
CAPTION: Jerome Nichols chooses to attend Wake Forest, after drawing the attention of schools such as Nebraska, Michigan, Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina and several Ivy League schools.