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From Hodgson to the Chicago Bears: Bilal Nichols' career still on the rise

Brad Myers
The News Journal

GLASGOW – Just a month after turning 23 years old, Bilal Nichols had a number retired.

Not bad for a late bloomer.

The Chicago Bears defensive tackle was the guest of honor as Hodgson Vo-Tech hosted Howard last Friday. At halftime, Nichols received a framed No. 42 Silver Eagles jersey, a number that will never be worn by a Hodgson player again.

Chicago Bears defensive end Bilal Nichols speaks to a packed stadium at halftime after his high school jersey was retired at Hodgson Vo-Tech School Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 in Bear.

“I tried to get off the mic quick, because I didn’t want to get choked up,” Nichols said. “Just coming back here, seeing all of my old teachers and all of the people who helped me get this thing started, it was an amazing feeling.

“I couldn’t find the words to truly tell everybody thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”

Nichols played sparingly on the offensive line at Hodgson as a freshman. Then he missed his entire sophomore season with an injury.

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Since then, his career has been on a steep upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing down.

“He had such a football body,” Hodgson coach Frank Moffett said. “His junior and senior years, he became such a dominant, physical player. He made a commitment in the weight room so he got stronger, and he played with a real nasty attitude.”

As a Silver Eagles junior, Nichols moved to linebacker and made 69 tackles — 13 for losses.

Then as a senior, he blossomed as a two-way star, a 2013 first-team All-State selection at tight end and third-team All-Stater at defensive end. Seven of his 13 catches went for touchdowns, and a devastating 26 of his 57 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage.

His high school career was capped by a 38-0 victory over archrival St. Georges at Delaware Stadium, the first of two straight DIAA Division II titles for Hodgson.

“Definitely my senior year, when we beat St. Georges for the championship at UD,” Nichols said of his biggest highlight. “… That was like my proudest moment as an athlete.”

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It kept getting better. After receiving offers from several colleges, the Newark resident signed with the college he was seeking all along – right up Del. 896 at the University of Delaware.

The first time Moffett saw him at UD, as a freshman, Nichols looked slimmer despite adding more than 40 pounds.

“I couldn’t believe how big he got in that amount of time,” Moffett said. “He told me, ‘Coach, I’m losing body fat. I’m getting my body NFL ready.’”

He played in 44 games over four years with the Blue Hens, becoming a three-time All-Colonial Athletic Association pick as a defensive tackle. Going into his senior year, the NFL started taking notice.

Chicago Bears defensive end Bilal Nichols' jersey from his time at Hodgson Vo-Tech sits framed during a jersey retirement ceremony for Nichols Friday at halftime of last week's Howard versus Hodgson football game.

“I started to see all the scouts come,” Nichols said. “They started to talk to me, ask questions, and they would talk to my coach about me. That’s when I started to realize maybe I had a future at the next level.”

After an impressive showing at the NFL Combine, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Nichols was chosen in the fifth round — 145th overall — by the Bears in 2018.

The first start of his pro career came in Week 10 last year against the Detroit Lions, when he nabbed Matthew Stafford for his first NFL sack. He finished the season with 20 solo tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a recovered fumble — and made the ESPN.com All-Rookie team.

Nichols had one tackle in the Bears’ first two games this year, but suffered a broken right hand against the Denver Broncos in Week 2. He missed the last three games, but returned to practice on Monday following Chicago’s bye week and expects to be back in action Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

“I love it. It’s perfect out there,” Nichols said of Chicago. “I feel like I fell into the perfect situation. My teammates are so helpful and knowledgeable. They have no problems showing me where I can get better, just sharing information.

“It’s been an amazing journey so far.”

But even after a brutal battle in the NFL trenches, he thinks of his friends back in Delaware.

“A lot of the staff here at Hodgson, they hit me up after every game, checking on me, making sure I’m OK,” Nichols said. “They just tell me they’re so proud of me and they support me all the way. To me, that means the world.”

That’s why coming back for his jersey retirement on Friday was so special.

“Coming out here just brought back so many memories,” Nichols said. “I remember all of the practices and getting ready for the state championship game. It just felt like it was forever ago.”

But it wasn’t. Just six years ago, Nichols was starring for the Silver Eagles. Now, he’s playing an increasingly important role for the Chicago Bears.

Moffett hasn’t made it out to Chicago for a game yet. But Hodgson’s coach is a Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder, and the Bears will be paying a visit to Lincoln Financial Field on Nov. 3.

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On that day, Moffett plans to risk the wrath of Eagles fans by donning his No. 98 Bears jersey, with “NICHOLS” stitched across the back.

“I’m gonna wear my Bears jersey and my Philadelphia hat,” Moffett said. “If anybody asks me anything, I’m gonna say, ‘You see No. 98 on that field? He played for me.’

“So I’m supporting him. I’m cheering for the Eagles, but I’m supporting him. I hope he gets 10 sacks.”

Contact Brad Myers at bmyers@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ