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FSU'S NICHOLSON BACK FROM INJURY - NO FOOLING

The linebacker pushed his recovery in sneaky solitude, knowing he was risking a relapse.

Florida State junior Derek Nicholson didn't want anyone to know.

Not teammates Marcus Ball or Paul Griffin, who like him were recovering from knee surgery. Not his coaches. Especially not Randy Oravetz, the team's director of sports medicine.

"I was doing a whole lot of extra stuff behind closed doors so people wouldn't see," Nicholson said. "I had my surgery in November, so I really only had 8-1/2 or 9 months until we started camp. Usually they say it takes a year, so I was trying to work it, work it, work it. You could say I was pushing it a bit."

A bit? A bit?

Even after his scheduled rehab, he'd retire to the sanctuary of his room and stretch his reconstructed right knee more. At night, he'd go to the track stadium and walk up and down the stairs and, far sooner than he should have, he was jogging up and down those stairs.

If anyone saw him, he knew he'd be chastised for taking what he admits was a "risk" - sometimes more is not better - or worse, told to ease up, something that's foreign to his nature.

"I didn't want Randy to be like, 'No. You can't do that,'" Nicholson said.

Not that his covert workouts fooled anyone.

Results don't lie.

"You could tell," Oravetz said, smiling. "You could tell. He was a guy you didn't have to make come to the training room. He worked hard and that's why he's playing now."

And playing like a star. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Nicholson, a Winston-Salem native, has started at middle linebacker all season and leads the team with 38 tackles. The No. 21-ranked Seminoles (4-1, 1-1) bring one of the nation's stingiest defenses here for tonight's game against defending ACC champ Wake Forest (3-2, 2-1).

"We've had so many good middle linebackers, like Buster (Davis), and all of a sudden Buster's gone after three years," coach Bobby Bowden said. "But here comes Derek."

Late in the first quarter at North Carolina State on Oct. 5, 2006, Nicholson, a backup who was the fourth linebacker when FSU went to a 3-4 alignment, rushed from the outside on a blitz. He planted his right leg to cut inside, a move he'd made seamlessly a thousand times.

This time, the knee buckled with devastating results.

"I told him that it wasn't the end of the world, but you're going to have to put in the work," said his father, Darrell, who played linebacker at North Carolina and in the NFL and the CFL. "But Derek has always been a hard worker. In the classroom. In athletics. That's what he does."

Griffin and then Ball were lost to similar injuries weeks earlier. That meant they all would be going through the same grueling rehab.

"If you're a competitor, you want to compete and you want to outwork them," Nicholson said, adding that mind-set inspired him to push on through the slow, sometimes frustrating comeback.

"We're all born with that (competitive drive) inside of us," Ball said. "We worked real hard because the injury was taking us away from what we've been doing our whole life."

Sometimes, Nicholson can tell you, other things do that.

Something else that's unacceptable.

During Nicholson's freshman season in 2005, his brother A.J., was a senior outside linebacker and the Seminoles' top tackler for a second straight year. Derek beams when recalling the first time they were on the field together that season. A.J. blitzed and flushed Syracuse quarterback Perry Patterson toward an oncoming Derek for a sack.

"We're always reminiscing about that," he said.

But just days before the Orange Bowl, A.J. was dismissed from the team amid a police investigation into a sexual assault. It was A.J.'s third run-in with police in less than a year. Although no charges were ever filed, the rash of off-the-field issues hurt his NFL draft stock. After his rookie season with Cincinnati, a couple more well-publicized incidents, including breaking into the home of former teammate Lorenzo Booker with Fred Rouse, prompted the Bengals to cut him.

Derek, 18, the youngest of three boys, said he's always been determined to take advantage of his position, see what his brothers did, both good and bad, and either choose to emulate them or not.

"It has benefited him," his father said of A.J.'s problems. "He's been able to learn from them and hold his head up even though people were talking about his brother, talking about him being a thug."

For the record, A.J. Nicholson is back at home, working out and fielding some calls from NFL teams while taking the time to visit schools and talk to kids about making the right decisions.

"I'm not surprised by how Derek is conducting his business," A.J. said proudly. "My brother stands for character and integrity. Derek is doing what the Nicholson tradition is truly all about, he's representing on and off the field."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

FAST FACTS

Missed practice won't affect Lee's status

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Florida State quarterback Xavier Lee, despite missing Tuesday's practice while tending to some academic work, will start his second straight game, coach Bobby Bowden said.

Some media outlets hinted that Lee had been unexcused from practice and might not start tonight against Wake Forest.

"There's no change in his situation," Bowden said Wednesday. "It's just he had an appointment at about 2 o'clock with a professor to make up some work. We were hoping and praying he'd get out early, but he didn't. There's no issue there."

Bowden said that missing a practice "scares you" when it's a short week to prepare, but said Lee would take most of the snaps at the team's walk-through Wednesday "to make sure he knows what he's doing."

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