OU’s Nichol learned QB skills throwing to buddies in a horse barn during snowy Michigan winters

 Originally appeared on http://newsok.com/article/3086528 

OU’s Nichol learned QB skills throwing to buddies in a horse barn during snowy Michigan winters
By Blake Jackson
Staff Writer

When Gary Nichol first pried open the great, aluminum doors, he didn’t know his sons would return with the frost each winter to hone their skills in the dust.

After all, the building across the street wasn’t intended for playing quarterback. It was built for riding.


Under the fluorescent light of the arena, words like “juke” and “footwork” carried an entirely different meaning. Saddles and stirrups littered the edges of the pen.

Not a pigskin in sight — save the swine themselves — until Gary Nichol arrived with his boys.

“There is not a whole lot you can do outside during the winter in Michigan,” said Nichol. “When Kyle and Keith started getting into football, they needed some place to play when the weather got bad.

“We didn’t realize what it would turn into.”

A warm haven in the dead of winter. A proving ground for a group of future state football champions. The stage where young Keith Nichol — currently prohibited from speaking with the media — fashioned a skill set that has led the true freshman to the center of the quarterback competition at the University of Oklahoma.

Nichol family values
Gary Nichol began bringing his sons to the barn when Keith was in seventh grade.
The boys had taken an interest in football, and Gary felt obliged to cultivate that interest as best he could.

The Nichol family always worked that way.

When Keith and Kyle got into fishing at an early age, Gary and Patrice (Keith’s mother) bought fishing equipment for family outings at the lake.

Soon after the boys became interested in motocross, the family outfitted itself with dirt bikes.

Later, the Nichols did the same with four-wheelers.

“Our family, the four of us, we just kind of migrate through things together,” Gary said.

So it seemed entirely natural for Gary — who oversees delivery and transportation for Steelcase, one of the nation’s largest office furniture manufacturers — to approach the owner of a neighboring indoor riding arena with somewhat of an odd request.

He needed a place to play catch with his sons when the bitter winter invariably shut down football in the Great Lake State.

“There wasn’t any heat or anything,” Gary said. “But in Michigan, if you can get out of the wind and the weather, you’re much better off.”

Learning the system
At first, it was just the Nichols, their camcorder and a football.
Keith and Kyle would throw. Gary would coach. And Patrice would alternate between videographer and ball girl.

Soon, came a stereo. Then, a “game” clock.

Gary grew in his understanding of quarterbacking technique.

He began fashioning targets out of cardboard. He rigged a pulley system from one end of the barn to the other.

At the pull of a rope, the cardboard target would race down the zip line away from whichever Nichol boy was playing quarterback at the time.

Somehow, Gary thought, Keith and Kyle were going to learn to throw to moving targets.

“I couldn’t run fast enough, so I figured the targets would help,” he said. “But Keith and Kyle threw so hard it would just destroy them.”

Nothing would substitute for a true wide receiver. For a route-runner. For flesh and blood.

Fortunately, Keith knew just how to find it.

Building ‘the Barn Boys’
It only took a couple of phone calls.
Turns out, Keith and Kyle Nichol weren’t the only Lowell youngsters looking for a semi-warm place to feed their football fix during the offseason.

Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings were reserved for barn football. The first year, a solid six players showed up every session. Most of them were receivers.

Only Keith and Kyle were allowed to throw the ball.

“The ceiling in the barn was only 14- or 16-feet high, and there were lights hanging down,” Gary said. “Not everyone is a quarterback. We didn’t want to break anything.”

Numbers grew steadily through the second year. Soon, more than 15 players regularly attended the 2-hour sessions.

Gary began calling the troupe “The Barn Boys.” The other players became like extended family to the Nichols.

Patrice even planned to make T-shirts.

But there was a problem.

“The Barn Boys” were out-growing their barn.

“We’d never done anything with the football kids before,” said Phil Nauta, owner of a larger, second barn where Keith Nichol and the Lowell kids began to practice.

Nauta and his wife participated by shagging balls and making cookies for the players.

“Gary approached me, and I liked the idea,” Nauta said. “We’d let horse-riding kids use it, so why not let these kids use it? It was unique.”

Stable births a stallion
After the first few weeks at the new arena, “The Barn Boys” no longer worried about who would show up.
It was a given.

The players would meet and throw and build chemistry with their young quarterback. And when the time was right, Keith Nichol would lead them out of the barn and onto the field of play.

“Keith had no greater growth than between his freshman and sophomore year,” said Lowell High coach Noel Dean. “They did a lot of things out of season, even in spite of the weather. The great thing about Keith was, he wasn’t allergic to hard work.”

In August 2004, the countless hours spent “playing catch” in the barn began to pay off.

Keith was rewarded with Lowell’s starting quarterback job as a sophomore.

He began his record-setting career by leading the Red Arrows to a blowout upset of nationally ranked Grandville High.

Three months later, “The Barn Boys” were state champions.

Dean maintains Keith’s greatest mental strength — reading defenses — was learned away from the riding arena where the young quarterback cut his teeth. But years of playing in the barn left a permanent, physical impression on his game.

The low-arch, bullet passes Keith displayed throughout this spring’s OU scrimmages is a byproduct of forcing thousands of throws just under the barn’s flat, low ceiling.

Normally, aspiring passers attend expensive quarterback clinics to learn how to keep their throws down. But mastering one of the position’s most important techniques didn’t cost the Nichols a dime.

“No one asked for payment,” Gary Nichol said of the barn owners.

“I think they saw what was going on. A father trying whatever he can to help his sons accomplish their dreams.”