Local athletes reflect on opportunity to play college football

By: Mark Vest | C&G Newspapers | Published October 13, 2017

 Wayne State University running back Deiontae Nicholas is pictured wearing a uniform the program unveiled to recognize Medal of Honor recipients. The Macomb L’Anse Creuse North graduate is in his redshirt junior season with the Warriors.

Wayne State University running back Deiontae Nicholas is pictured wearing a uniform the program unveiled to recognize Medal of Honor recipients. The Macomb L’Anse Creuse North graduate is in his redshirt junior season with the Warriors.

Photo provided by Jeff Weiss

METRO DETROIT — For many football players across the country, their last high school game can be an emotional experience.

Although there may be opportunities to play occasional pickup games afterward, most aren’t likely to play at an organized level again, and do so with a group of teammates that can become like family.

While that reality is tough for some to take, others get to delay it for a while.

Manny Mendoza and Deiontae Nicholas are a couple of such players.

Following their high school playing days, both Nicholas and Mendoza earned the opportunity to suit up for Wayne State University, which competes at the NCAA Division II level.

Mendoza, a wide receiver, is a 2013 Rochester High graduate, and is currently in his redshirt senior season with the Warriors.

“I’m such a blessed individual to be able to play this game still,” Mendoza said. “It’s crazy how fast time flies. … This is my last go-around. I’m trying to give it my best shot. … My dream in my life was to play college football.”

Nicholas has an older brother who is in the Air Force, and after graduating from Macomb L’Anse Creuse North in 2014, joining the service was also an option for him. Instead, he chose to take advantage of the opportunity to play college football.

“I think it gave me an experience that I’ll never forget,” said Nicholas, who is in his redshirt junior season and plays as a running back and returns kicks. “I strive to go beyond college football, but being in it right now is something that I don’t take for granted. Each day is an experience, playing with these guys who are high-level athletes.”

Along with being Wayne State’s coach since 2004, Paul Winters is a former collegiate player himself. That can put him in a good position to help remind players about the special opportunity they have been granted.

At press time, the Warriors were 2-4 overall.

“We try to promote an attitude of gratitude,” Winters said. “There’s so many opportunities that they’re given because of their football participation, and we want them to understand it and to appreciate it.”

Playing for Wayne State is kind of a family affair for both Mendoza and Nicholas.

Mendoza’s dad, Ruben, is Wayne State’s strength and conditioning coach, along with being an associate athletic director at the school, while Nicholas gets to play with his younger brother, Myke Ford, who is a freshman on the team.

“It’s mind-boggling sometimes,” Nicholas said. “This is my fourth year now, and then to have my brother on the team, it’s a special experience. … It’s great to know that my mom’s (a) little more stress-free knowing that I’m watching over my brother.”

Mendoza likes that if he has something personal he wants to discuss, his dad isn’t far away.

“It’s convenient in a sense, but it’s also reassuring,” Mendoza said. “I get to see him every day. … It’s awesome having him here as a coach.”

While there can be a lot of perks being around the game of college football, the lifestyle is not always an easy one for coaches and players alike.

Since graduating from the University of Akron — where he played running back — Winters has spent more than 30 years in coaching.

And although it is a profession he has given much of his life to, it isn’t one he would necessarily recommend to others.

“I’d say don’t do it,” Winters said. “I think there’s sacrifices you have to make with your family, with the time you spend as a husband and a father. For the majority of people who are in this profession, the pay is not real good.”

There is also another aspect of the job that can be tough on coaches.

“You don’t ever get over any loss,” Winters said. “The wins leave you pretty quick, but the losses — you’re supposed to forget (them) after 24 hours — I don’t know anybody that’s ever forgotten.”