Sports Editor Justin Kline asked Plant City-area football players what fuels them on and off the field.
Strawberry Crest fullback Mason Nikel is a first-time football player. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in commitment.
Nikel, who was most recently a member of Crest's cheerleading team, uses the sport as a way to bounce back from an injury that killed his original career plans.
Not too many cheerleaders cross over to football. What made you make the jump?
My friend, Noah, told me that we needed new guys, and I always like testing my athletic ability, so, why not give it a shot.
Was football something you’ve wanted to do for a while, or was this a spur-of-the-moment thing?
Growing up, I was actually a really tiny kid. I was short and fat. My dad told me there was no way. “You’re too small.” When I hit high school, I randomly hit a growth spurt. I decided to come out and play.
What was your first impression, after coming out to football practice and getting to work?
The first day, it honestly wasn’t that great. I just stepped out there and didn’t really know what I was doing. But, after I sat down at lunch with my friends and went over the playbook – they helped me out a little bit – Coach Hawn was on my butt the next day at practice, and I was getting it done.
What’s your motivation?
I just want to win. I want to win games for my school, and go out there and have my brothers’ backs.
What does your family think about this?
My family, whatever I do, they’re cool with. They think I’m finally getting out there and doing something I can use all my size in.
Did you spend the past three years on the cheer team?
No. My sophomore year, I had an arm injury and I couldn’t play baseball anymore, so the doctor told me to pick a new sport. They had a cheer meeting, and I got dragged to that. But I made an excuse not to show up, and they saw me walking around at school that day, so they were like, “No, you’re going.” I showed up.
I’m pretty sure that, once other teams read this feature, they’re going to talk some trash about being a cheerleader. What would your response be, should that happen?
Just try to stop me.
What’s the story of your arm injury?
Over-throwing. Growing up, I was playing catcher. I was always trying to get my pop time quicker, so I was always short-arming. From that, I just messed up the bone in my elbow. The ligaments and tendons are wrapped around. Any time I throw, it just rubs off some of the bone. It got swollen one day and I had to quit.
When you quit baseball, did you ever think that anything like this would come out of it?
Honestly, when I quit playing baseball, I thought I was one with sports for good. I was just going to chill out and try to get into college somehow, through education. i thought I was going to be on the Rays organization, playing catcher one day, and then, one day, it all stopped.
What’s been one of the most important moments of your life?
Having to stop playing baseball. I grew up playing all my life and then I had to pick a different sport. I tested out things and it made me a different person. It made me meet new people. It brought me to different people and transformed me into who I am today.