Amputee, DHS senior finds new competitive venue

Tony Nicholson considers himself blessed. A year ago, Nicholson – then an offensive lineman for the Demopolis High School football team – was readying for his senior season. He hoped it would bring both a state championship and a collegiate football scholarship offer.

In preparation for reaching his goals, Nicholson began attending football camps where, at one such event, he was named the top lineman in attendance. Nicholson also began training with Ross Martial Arts where DHS English teacher Jay Russell and his wife, Ronda, offer a variety of programs.

For Nicholson, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu held the most appeal as Russell has long professed that the techniques used in the grappling art would prove beneficial on the gridiron, especially to those whose job it is to own the proverbial trenches.

But Nicholson’s dreams took a hard redirect over the summer during an incident in Moundville. While the details are still foggy, what is clear is that a number of local students were in attendance at a gathering in the Hale County city. Shots were fired. Nicholson’s dreams suddenly became the least of his worries as he took a bullet to the leg that would leave him hospitalized for months.

“I feel more humble. You can’t take life for granted at all,” Nicholson said, balancing himself on the prosthesis that now fills the void where his leg used to be. “God blessed me to live another day. Most folks that get shot in the artery, they don’t survive. They just go on and have a funeral. It would have been worse if I had died that day.”

With his leg amputated from the knee down, Nicholson was eager to return to some sense of normalcy. As soon as he received the prosthetic and his release from the hospital, Nicholson forewent rehab and opted to return to school. But normal for Tony Nicholson also entailed activity and competition.Nicholson-3446

“I wanted it as bad as I wanted to breathe,” Nicholson said of his desire to get back into the routine of school and the comfort of competition. “That’s how bad it was for me. I didn’t do any rehab when I got my leg. I just hopped right into it and the next day I was back in school.”

So he turned back to the martial art that had previously been intended to help his football career, this time hoping it would fill a void in his competitive life much the same way his new prosthesis was in his day-to-day life.

Saturday, in the same gymnasium where Nicholson had received his state championship ring as a member of the 2009 Demopolis High football team and on the same floor where he had previously competed as part of the DHS basketball team, Nicholson got his opportunity to return to competition.

With several dozen martial arts enthusiasts from Demopolis, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Mississippi and points in between gathered for the annual Ross Martial Arts seminar and competition, Nicholson walked to the scorer’s table, removed his prosthetic leg and used his hands to negotiate his way to the center of the mat.

“He worked with us after last football season for about two months and now he has been at it about three months. He has trained really hard. He has put his heart into it,” Jay Russell said of the hard work that led Nicholson to that moment. “It was tough on him missing football season. He has such a competitive spirit. He wanted to get in there and fight. This is his outlet now. He is an inspiration for everybody that comes into the gym and everybody that sees him compete.”

Once the buzzer sounded for the contest to begin, Nicholson proved he was not satisfied to just participate. Having to begin the match from the mat meant Nicholson started with a one point disadvantage in addition to having already been in a prone state against his opponent.

Seconds after the buzzer sounded, Nicholson took that advantage back as he pulled his opponent suddenly to the mat and cinched in a submission hold that led to the quick tap out.Nicholson-3351

“What we’ve found is that, you think of somebody who lost a leg as being at a disadvantage. It means nothing to Tony. In a lot of ways with Jiu-Jitsu, it gives him an advantage. Having to start with his opponent having one point because he is on the ground, you’d think it is not going to help him. But that doesn’t stop him at all,” Russell said. “He is aggressive. He has a heart that just goes on and on and on. This is just the start. (Saturday was) a warmup for a lot of our guys to get ready to go to Atlanta next month to compete at NAGA (North American Grappling Association). That’s his next step is we are going to take him to NAGA next month and see how he does there. it’s an inspiration watching him because he gets in there and digs.”

Nicholson dug his way to a runner-up spot in his weight class in Saturday’s No-Gi grappling competition. Then, Nicholson went on to win Beginner Men’s Division, a competition that pitted him against five other opponents across a variety of weight classes. His win in the largest division of the day resulted in the awarding of a championship belt, a trophy that will serve as a nice complement to the state championship ring he still cherishes.

In the Jiu-Jitsu realm, much like the rest of his life, Nicholson’s circumstances dictated a change in strategy and approach. Russell explained the shift in strategy that helped Nicholson find success in his first outing last weekend.

“Tony was always into using little man Jiu-Jitsu as a big guy. He liked pulling guard. As a small guy, that’s what we do against bigger people. But, he likes doing that,” Russell said. “We started working with him when he came in on ways that he could pull people down because he has to start from the ground. He can’t get the takedown, but ways to hook the legs and pull them in and get a sweep.”

Nicholson also got a little bonus training in the days leading up to the competition when he met Joe Cunningham, of the Woodbridge, Va. based Yamasaki Academy. Cunningham, who serves as the instructor for the Russells and attends the Ross MA seminar each year, brought with him extensive knowledge of working with individuals whose circumstances are very similar to those faced by Nicholson.

“Our instructor Joe Cunningham worked with him extensively the last couple of days because they actually run the Wounded Warrior program out in Washington D.C. for wounded vets to do Jiu-Jitsu,” Russell said.

As he continues his training for the North American Grappling Association championships in Atlanta, Nicholson still points to the reason he initially became interested in Jiu-Jitsu and hopes his former teammates will follow in his path both in terms of utilizing the art and adopting a consistent refusal to relent.

“It was helping me not to use just power but to use their weight and their momentum against them,” Nicholson said of the cross-sport applications of the martial art. “If the football players this year take it, I promise from my heart, they will get another ring if they just stick to it and just don’t quit.”