An excellent high school player at West Fairmont, even facing the likes of a certain North Marion Husky named Rich Rodriguez, Nickolich was a diehard Mountaineer fan who was able to live his dream when he got a chance to walk-on to the football team in the fall of 1979.
Though he had more heart and hustle than size and skill, the 5- 10, 190-pound Nickolich saw a little game action as a defensive back and on special teams over the next few years.
Though he was never a star of those teams that formed the foundation that Don Nehlen built his successful program on, Nickolich was one of those invaluable role players that every team needs and everyone loves. His passing in 1983 touched many and left a big hole in my heart.
Not long after we started the Blue & Gold in 1988, I decided upon a way to honor Tommy. The Award in his memory is presented each spring to the walk-on play who, like Nickolich, has distinguished himself with his attitude and work ethic.
The first award in 1991 went to Keith Taparausky, a running back and defensive back. From there the lineage was Ray Wilcox, Matt McCulty, Randy Fulmore, Rob Keys, Matt Ceresa, David Lightcap, Mark Corman, Bryan Lorenz, Ben Collins and Jeremy Knapp.
This spring we presented the 12th annual award to fullback Moe Fofana.
The 5-10, 235-pound junior from Silver Spring, Md., has been patiently working and waiting his turn while with the Mountaineers. His patience seems to have been rewarded on many fronts.
When Moe arrived at WVU from Sherwood High three years ago, Don Nehlen was the Mountaineers' head coach, the I formation was the standard West Virginia offense, and a good fullback was very important. But a short time later, Rodriguez had taken over at WVU, bringing with him a spread offense that rarely uses a fullback.
Fofana's playing opportunities didn't seem good. He moved to tight end along with the rest of the former Nehlen fullbacks, but 5-10 tight ends aren't exactly viewed as a commodity.
But in the darkest hours, things started to brighten for Moe. This spring Rodriguez, wanting to take advantage of his best offensive weapon, running back Avon Cobourne, began using more and more I formations. That meant more and more playing time for Fofana, who was now the number one fullback. Heck, there were even a couple of plays designed for the fullback to carry the ball, something that didn't happen once all last season.
Things kept getting even better for Fofana. He was presented the Nickolich Award at the spring game a contest in which he had a "incredible" five carries for 16 yards and a touchdown.
A few days after the game, he got even better news. The Nickolich Award comes with a simple plaque. There's no promise of a scholarship or any financial aid for the recipient. (The Blue & Gold News is going to have to get a whole lot more subscribers to fund that.)
But shortly after the spring game, Fofana found out that his days as a walk-on were over. He was called into Rodriguez's office and told he would be put on scholarship starting next season. Obviously Moe was happy, and considering the role Fofana will play next season in opening holes for Cobourne and company, it seemed like a wise move by the Mountaineers as well.
"The spring game felt great," noted Fofana after the contest. "Everything was running right for the offense. I scored first, and that felt good. I just always make sure I get in and do what I have to do.
"The coaches are asking for fullback to play a power game. They may ask us to run the ball a little, but our main job is to open holes. With Avon, Quincy (Wilson) and Hikee (Johnson), we've got great running backs who can get big yards if we open holes for them. We have to do our job, so they can do their job."
As I've done with the other 11 recipients, I sat down with Moe after the spring game and told him about the award, and told him about Tommy. He was touched by both stories.
"I appreciate this award," said Fofana. "This means I'm really part of the team, and I'll give everything I've got for this team. I really appreciate this award."
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