TAMPA — Ask Destin Nichols about his game-day rituals, and a reticent grin spreads across his face, as if he was just asked to recite an entire work of Shakespeare.
“There’s way too many to list,” the Berkeley Prep junior says.
From the minute he rises (6:37 a.m.) to where he sits for lunch (an outdoor picnic table) to his pregame shoes (a dirty pair of white, Kobe Bryant Nikes), Nichols’ day is steeped in superstitious observances. He even insisted on wearing the same mouthpiece until it finally eroded into “a string of rubber.”
“And if we lose a game,” Nichols said, “I change everything.”
Hence the reason Nichols might be mixing up his routine this week. Last Thursday’s 28-21 loss at Orlando Lake Highland Prep likely will prompt the Bucs junior to rise a minute earlier, opt for a new breakfast cereal and slip on a fresh undershirt.
His team, by contrast, isn’t bowing to bad luck that feebly. For Friday’s district showdown against Clearwater Central Catholic, the Buccaneers will stick with the same guy who has started for them behind center since his freshman year — that would be Nichols, arguably the most underrated quarterback in Hillsborough County.
“He approaches football like it’s a job and he’s a tough kid,” said Bucs quarterbacks coach Gary Godsey, a former Guy Toph Award winner at Jesuit who went on to play tight end at Notre Dame. “He’s been there now for three years and every year he’s gotten better.”
Compare Nichols’ numbers (21-for-43, 504 yards, three TDs) to those of the county’s more prominent quarterbacks, and they appear downright pedestrian. Rather, it’s the diminutive number on his stat sheet — interception total — that may be the most telling.
In his past 13 games, a span of 142 pass attempts, Nichols (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) has thrown only three picks. And the Buccaneers are 9-4.
“He just has tremendous arm strength and accuracy,” veteran Bucs coach Dominick Ciao said.
“He just puts a lot of work into playing quarterback and I think it’s showed off,” Godsey added. “I think he’s proven he’s one of the best quarterbacks around.”
Nichols, who turned 17 Tuesday, has been playing football since age 4, when he still lived in the north Florida town of Niceville. Contrary to common presumption, he wasn’t named after the Panhandle beachfront town. Instead, it’s a nod to how his birth seemed “destined.”
His dad, Les, was 46 and raising two girls when Destin was born.
“I had given up on having another football player,” said Les, who played at tiny Port St. Joe High. “But God blessed me.”
Throughout his football odyssey, from Niceville to north Tampa to Westchase, Destin and his dad recall having more than one coach suggest he’d never flourish at quarterback. Only in his seventh-grade year, when he joined the Westchase Colts youth team, did Destin finally entrench himself as a full-time starter.
Two years later, he completed his first varsity pass, a 22-yard quick slant to Nick Orobello, in a preseason win against Northside Christian. Perhaps sparked by that early success, or driven by the skeptics of his prepubescence, Destin became a weight room staple and film-room junkie.
To this day, he wakes at 5 a.m. two or three times a week for a pre-dawn weight workout at Berkeley. His cumulative GPA, meantime, remains just a shade below 4.0.
“I’m only there for a couple of hours a day, but he spends a lot of time watching film,” said Godsey, who characterizes Nichols as a pocket passer with deceptive mobility.
“Obviously his arm strength is superior. He gets there early in the morning I think, and works out. He spends a lot of time with his receivers after practice. …He’s just a very committed kid.”
And a mildly obsessive one. Say what you will about Nichols’ rites of superstition, they coincide with one glaring fact.
Berkeley hasn’t lost two games in a row since his freshman year.