Nickols was schooled on the playgrounds of Janesville
He returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown his rookie season. He was a reserve running back behind guys like Donny Anderson, Jim Grabowski, Travis Williams and Dave Hampton, and got to run behind an offensive line that featured Gale Gillingham, Ken Bowman and Francis Peay.
Still, Krause gets a kick out of talking about running behind his St. Norbert’s College left tackle Steve Nickols.
“We had this play called the “29 flip,” Krause said. “The left tackle would pull left and the halfback would follow him. That was my favorite play. I made a lot of my yards on that play primarily because of him.”
Nickols was a natural leader of both running backs and teammates. After a solid high school career at Janesville High School and at St. Norbert’s, he returned to Janesville and spent many years coaching and helping Janesville Youth Baseball.
Because of his accomplishments, Nickols will be one of five inductees into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, May 17, at the Rotary Gardens.
Krause was not the first talented athlete that Nickols played with.
Just within his Westside neighborhood, Nickols grew up playing football, basketball and baseball with Jerry Davis (Class of 1992 Janesville Hall of Fame inductee), Gary Gloede (’97), Kent Burdick (’91), Dave Gersmehl (’93) and Bob Strampe (’94).
Nickols did more than hold his own, becoming the first All-Big Eight Conference first-teamer from Janesville in football. His play on the line earned a scholarship to play football at St. Norbert.
Nickols made his biggest mark in football, both in high school and college, although he considered basketball his best sport.
The son of Carl and Jeannette Nickols grew up on Walnut Street and on the playgrounds of Janesville’s west side. At that time, the vast majority of Janesville’s youngsters lived on what is now the Westside of town.
To be able to play, you had to be good and determined, especially if you were younger than most of the other youngsters.
“When we were kids, we had to fight to get onto a baseball diamond or basketball court or whatever,” Nickols said. “We just had a great group of guys who are hall of fame inductees already—Jerry Davis, (Kent) Burdick, Gary Gloede. We just played baseball from sun up to sundown. Our parents would have to come down and pull us off.”
Davis is two years younger than Nickols. The 1992 Janesville Hall of Fame inductee remembers those summer days.
“You would leave for home in the morning and say, ‘Be home for dinner,’ whenever time that was,” Davis said. “You had your bike, and you’d ride everywhere. When there were older guys playing, you had to wait until someone had to leave.”
“You had to sit until they asked you to come on,” Nickols said. “But if you were good enough, they’d always asked you.”
His first competitive action came in the Catholic Grade School League in football and basketball. Nickols played on the St. William’s Crusaders.
“The Mighty Crusaders,” Nickols said.
Schools in the league included schools from Jefferson, Watertown and Beloit along with Janesville’s St. Mary’s, St. John Vianney and St. Patrick and St. William.
St. William had a sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade teams in football and basketball.
“We got a leg up on a lot of people when you get to high school, and you’ve been playing for three or four years and no one else has been playing,” he said. “Just look at the (youth) football league here now, since we got that, how much our teams have improved.
“Just think back then,” Nickols said. “(The high school) really looked forward to us coming up because they knew we had already competed and knew the fundamentals.”
He weighed 185 pounds in sixth grade.
Nickols played his high school football for Coach John Potter.
He started at offensive guard and became the first Janesville player to earn All-Big Eight first-team honors. Nickols also earned honorable mention at linebacker and was the team’s MVP that season. He was selected as the team’s co-captain and was an honorable mention United Press International all-state pick.
In baseball, the 1967 baseball team became the first Janesville High squad to win the Big Eight title. It went on to become the city’s first state tournament qualifier.
“On that team was Bob Strampe, who went on to play in the pros, Kent Burdick, Jerry Davis, Gary Gloede,” Nickols said. “You wonder why we won it? We had a heckuva team.”
If there had been two schools in 1967, Strampe would have played for Craig and the rest of those players, including Nickols, would have played for Parker.
Nickols played third base and some left field on that team.
Nickols was 5-foot-10, and weighed around 215 pounds in high school. He knew how to use it on the baseball field.
“He was very consistent and very solid for us,” said his coach Bob Suter, who was in just his third year of coaching then. “Not very many balls got by him. If nothing else, he would knock them down with his chest. He knew how to stay square on the ball and he was fearless.”
Nickols started at guard on the Janesville High basketball team as a sophomore. A leg injury in his final football as a junior kept him out of basketball his junior year, and he did not go out for the sport his senior year. He did play CYO ball his senior year, helping St. William’s to the Southern Wisconsin CYO championship with an undefeated record.
“Those guys are kind of a forgotten group,” Davis said of the final Janesville High class. “After that, the school split and everything kind of ended. Maybe they are not remembered for their accomplishments, but they were very successful.”
Nickols finished second to Gersmehl for the 1967 American Legion Award after earning two letters each in both football and baseball.
Nickols had scholarship offers from several colleges to play football. He chose St. Norbert’s.
One of the major reasons was his wife. Oh, Ann Dreyer wasn’t his wife at the time, but the two had dated throughout high school. They were the homecoming king and queen for the 1966 event.
Ann was a cheerleader, and Steve didn’t want to go to school too far from Janesville.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” Nickols said. “St. Norbert’s fit me just right. It had great academics, I got my education paid for and it was close to my wife.”
Steve and Ann were married between their junior and senior years of college. The couple has three children, Curt, Ben and Katie.
At St. Norbert, Steve played under the famous coach Howie “Chick” Kolstad.
“He was the best coach I ever played for,” Krause said.
Kolstad didn’t like playing first-year recruits.
“He had a slogan that, ‘You don’t play freshmen until they’re a junior,’” Nickols said. “He would get so upset if you make a mistake.”
But in the first game of Nickols’ freshman season, the starting senior left tackle made a couple of mistakes. Kolstad turned to the Janesville High graduate and pointed to the field. Nickols performed well and was never out of the starting lineup after that.
He was one of the few four-year starters to play for Kolstad. The Green Knights were an NAIA-affiliated school and played an independent schedule. They won consistently.
“We were like UW-Whitewater is now,” Nickols said.
And Nickols was the tough 225-pound left tackle.
“We were probably outweighed every game,” Krause said. “But with Steve’s height, he played at a perfect pad level. He would get into his guy’s number. I remember playing Hillsdale (Mich.), they had guys 280 and 290, and Steve had no trouble with them at all.
“He was one of our best players.”
Going into college, Nickols had plans to become an FBI agent or math teacher and coach. He was told that accounting was a good way to get into the FBI.
But once he got into accounting, he knew he found his vocation. After joining the National Guard with fellow Janesville graduate and St. Norbert teammate Charles Holznecht, Nickols served his six-month basic training requirement. He then enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin.
After one semester he was hired to work at Lions Oil, where he spent 15 years. He started his own accounting firm in 1982.
He also began coaching in the Janesville Youth Baseball program.
“Janesville was awful good to me, so I thought I had to give something back to it,” Nickols said.
He started out on the board of directors, serving as president for five years. When his sons, Curt and Ben, were old enough, he began coaching. He was an assistant to Roy Coyle for two years then took over the team when Coyle retired.
“It was nice being involved with the kids,” Nickols said. “Claude Miller and I coached for about 15 years. He still comes in here about once every two weeks and talk about the kids we had and what they’re doing now.”
Nickols credits the guidance he received from youth coaches Harry West, Bob Giese, William “Concrete” Ryan, Bill Smith and high-school coaches Suter, Ron Cramer and Dick Lambrecht.
They helped set him up for life.
“I think the reason I was successful was these coaches taught me the right fundamentals, and I was smart enough to know that was the way to do it,” Nickols said.