Beating the odds: Auburndale football star excels on the field while battling cancer off it
By Paul Lecker
AUBURNDALE – If you watch the Auburndale High School football team, it is hard not to notice No. 5.
And you would never know what he has been going through.
Matt Nikolay flies to the ball from his safety spot on defense, he is usually one of the first defenders to reach the return man on kick coverage, and he lines up at running back, wing back, and receiver on offense, causing nightmares for the opposing defense.
Nikolay, a 17-year-old senior, has been an integral part of the Apaches’ run toward the WIAA playoffs, which begin Friday with a Division 6 Level 1 game against Westby at Viroqua, and he has done it all while battling cancer.
Shortly after school ended last year, Nikolay noticed a small growth on his neck. At first his family thought it was a pimple. A few weeks later, it became noticeably bigger. A trip to the doctor and a series of blood tests proved negative. However, an ENT doctor wanted him to return for another look.
On Aug. 4, a week before the start of football practice, Nikolay was told he had lymphoma. A CT scan and biopsy provided no further information, and within a week Nikolay was having a tumor removed.
The doctors were still stumped, and after the tumor was sent to Harvard University for tests it was confirmed that the otherwise healthy teenager had Non-Hodgkin’s Pediatric Follicular Lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
The cancer is so rare that Nikolay’s tumor was the first of its kind seen at Marshfield Clinic. Less than 100 cases have been documented in the world, and after trips to see specialists in Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., he will now be treated at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He made his first trip there last week.
“They already believe he’s in remission,” Michelle Nikolay, Matt’s mother, said. “He will have another physical in three months and a CAT scan every 3-6 months, and we’ll go from there.”
Initially, Matt told his parents, Michelle and Tom Nikolay, that he was not going to play football this year. He wanted to go through radiation and chemotherapy full throttle and be ready for the basketball season in November.
It did not quite work out that way.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Michelle said. “He missed the scrimmage and the first game because they were concerned about his stitches following his surgery. After having to sit on the sidelines for two weeks, he couldn’t stand it.”
Matt quickly changed course.
“The guys on the team, the seniors, we have 11 … with 10 guys coming at you telling you that you can’t quit,” Matt said. “It’s a great experience. I love the guys, and I wouldn’t want anyone else on my team.”
Matt returned to the practice field and eventually back in the mix on game day all while enduring radiation treatments. For three weeks he went to Marshfield during his lunch hour from school to be treated. He had no side effects and was able to get back onto the field quickly.
In Auburndale’s fourth game, a win over Chequamegon, he caught six passes for 75 yards. A week later, he scored two touchdowns against Fall Creek. He followed that up with 149 yards rushing against Pittsville, including an 87-yard touchdown, and had 12 catches for 114 yards and a score against Stratford.
“I really consider myself really lucky,” Matt said. “I’ve luckily remained to be healthy throughout football. It’s a great passion I have. I’m just more than lucky to be playing football still. That’s all I can ask for.”
While he will not have to go through chemotherapy initially, as there are currently no signs of the cancer having spread before the tumor was removed, treatment is still up in the air.
Because of the rare form of cancer he had, he will be closely monitored and will continue to make trips to Mayo Clinic, but for now he is concentrating on the playoffs.
“I think we need to come in focused and do what we did (last Friday in a 10-0 win over Marathon): fill in hard (defensively),” Matt said. “We have a great group of guys, and I know we can do it.”
Michelle said she had no reservations about having Matt continue to play football.
“He knows his body more than anyone,” Michelle said. “I wasn’t about to take away things that are important. You have to go on with life as long as he was able and he appreciates everything he has.
“His friends have been amazing how they all rallied around him. After he came home that day, there was a parade of cars coming to the house to visit with him and see him.”
Teammate and fellow senior Cooper Krings has been one of Matt’s many classmates that has been by his side since he found out the news.
“He’s crazy strong,” Krings said. “He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve met in my life.
“I said we’d get through it together. We’re a pretty tight-knit group, our seniors. We’ll all fight it together. We all love each other.”
Head coach Josh Nagel said he is impressed with Matt’s fight and attitude.
“I don’t know how a kid like that does it,” Nagel said. “A 17-year-old kid diagnosed with one of rarest cancers in the world, he hasn’t missed a practice. He doesn’t complain about it. He doesn’t get down about anything. He’s a truly a special kid. He’s got a long road ahead of him, but I am happy for him. (Last Friday) on Senior Night, his final home game, to go out with a win, good for him.”
How you can help
There will be two fundraisers to help the Nikolay family offset medical costs for Matt’s treatment.
*Saturday, Oct. 25, a benefit will be held at the Marshfield Fairgrounds Junior Fair Expo Building from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The day will include food, beverages, entertainment, a Baggo Tournament, and raffles.
*Run For Rags (Matt’s nickname) will be held Saturday, Nov. 15. There will be a 5K walk/run and a one-mile fun run for children. Call Auburndale High School at 715-652-2115 for more information.
(Hub City Times Sports Reporter Paul Lecker is also the publisher of MarshfieldAreaSports.com).