30 Iowa Conference titles
PELLA—Cory Nikkel’s addiction is taking him to the Australian Outback.
He’s not heading to a remote treatment center. Nikkel, a junior tight end on the Central College football team, is spending three months in Australia this spring through Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and his obsession is one he’s looking to feed rather than fix.
“I have a severe love for people,” Nikkel said. “I just love to help. I look at my life and I’m so blessed. But when I see someone in need, my heart just longs to give them a better life.
“It’s a big pull. A trip like this is something I can’t pass up. It’s addicting to me to go and serve.”
Nikkel’s only 21, but he discovered long ago that service is habit-forming. There was the 10-day trip to San Antonio in high school to work for Habitat for Humanity. And the summer he wandered through the Andes Mountains in Peru with a Des Moines church group, pitching tents in Quechua villages and hauling stones from fields or fixing homes for the locals, while telling them about Jesus. And the regular trips to Des Moines through Central’s rapidly growing service- learning program, where he worked with Iraqi refugees, teaching them English and helping them adjust to life in this strange Midwestern land of cornfields, insurance companies and Casey’s pizza. Not to mention the time he devotes to Central’s Campus Ministries program. Or writing his first book.
That’s what he does with his free time, which is wedged into an already full schedule. He also bears a class overload, yet maintains a 3.76 grade point average while majoring in English and secondary education and holding down a part-time job.
On his Australian adventure, Nikkel will be based in Townsville, Queensland, a city of 180,000 where large numbers of Aborigines are relocating. Most live in slums and few know English, or how to function in an urban culture. He’ll get to know them while filling up their bowls in a soup kitchen. He’ll meet Aborigine youth in Bible school classes.
And for six weeks, Nikkel will leave the city and head deep into the Outback. He’ll move into an Aborigine village in a mountainous area where he and his fellow YWAM team members will build their own huts.
“That’s what I’m really excited about,” he said.
Many of the villagers are farmers, and the AWAM volunteers will assist with whatever needs attention, whether it’s home renovation or working in the fields. They’ll make friends and learn about another way of life, while the natives learn as well.
“I was told they ask a lot of questions,” Nikkel said.
But when he’s serving soup in Australia, Nikkel won’t be learning blocking schemes at Central’s spring football practices. He wasn’t sure how well that would be accepted by a Dutch coaching staff he’s trying to impress as he heads into his senior season with hopes of cracking the starting lineup.
However coach Jeff McMartin was more than tolerant of the notion. Go, he told Nikkel. Go now, when you have the opportunity.
“Coach McMartin and (strength coach Jake) Anderson were very supportive,” he said. “They encouraged me to go.”
McMartin knows that many coaches would frown on a senior-to-be skipping spring drills. But he also knows that those coaches aren’t at Central.
“To me, we’re striving to build men for others,” McMartin said.
Winning football games is secondary, although the Dutch are fairly accomplished at that as well. Central has the second-highest winning percentage of any NCAA college or university since 1960, with 30 Iowa Conference titles and 20 NCAA Division III playoff berths.
“We’re trying to build a team to serve others,” McMartin said. “That’s what we’re put on this earth to do. I think that’s an important component of who we are as a football team. That’s really the truest form of success.”
That’s the kind of coaching philosophy Nikkel was seeking when he was choosing a college, and one he knew was not universally shared by other coaches.
“Before I came to Central, I had different people recruiting me,” said Nikkel, who was a standout running back and outside linebacker at Pella Christian High School. “One of the things Coach Mac stressed was the family-oriented team structure. He talked about it being a brotherhood, working for each other and loving one another. That’s what I wanted. Other teams didn’t talk about that as much.
“I’m very blessed to be at Central. I don’t know what would have happened if I had gone somewhere else.”
Nikkel’s passion for service doesn’t mean his fire for football burns any less. But sitting behind talented senior tight ends Jordan Leuschen, Cody Thie and Steven Johnson this year, playing time was scarce.
“Every player wants to play,” Nikkel said. “My goal is to start someday for the Central Dutch. I hope I will. But I understand my role right now is to be a leader in my class. That’s what Coach McMartin has told me.”
Even with limited playing time, walking away is not an option, he said.
“I get so much out of football,” Nikkel said. “These guys are a family to me.
“I’m not going to lie. Thoughts about maybe not playing have gone through my head. But I would miss my family. I have so much fun playing with these guys every day. I try to carry my passion to the sidelines and also to the JV, and show them some love.”
McMartin values what Nikkel brings to the Dutch.
“Cory is the ultimate team player,” he said. “He’s got a great passion for football. He not only says the right things but, more importantly, he does the right things.
“He’s played multiple positions for the betterment of the team. This year we had a lot of depth at tight end, but next year, Cory Nikkel could be the guy. He still has a lot of football in him.”
Yet even if Nikkel doesn’t crack the lineup, McMartin won’t let him get away.
“Cory is a bright, positive person,” he said. “He always puts the team in front of himself in every way and looks out for others. He’s the type of guy who brightens your day just by being around him.”
Nikkel has an impact on his teammates, even if it’s not immediately felt.
“They see his example,” McMartin said. “He’s going out of his comfort zone. He’s being stretched.
“He may just plant a seed in them, so that in a year, two years or 10 years from now, they get inspired partly because of the way he witnessed.”
Eventually, football for Nikkel will end. His next opportunity to serve will likely be as a teacher.
“That’s a big passion of mine, especially special ed,” he said.
But his long-term goal is becoming a minister and an author. He hopes to publish his first book within a year or two. It’s targeted towards students, reflecting on the transition from life as a confident, successful high school student to starting over in college. Dealing with that identity change can be a challenge, Nikkel said, as can struggles with faith.
“I’m very honest about that,” he said.
Meanwhile there’s always another journey, another chance to learn. And when he returns from Australia in late April, he’ll leave his bags packed. The Central football team leaves May 16 for a nine-day trip to Italy and Nikkel will be on board, looking to feed his addiction.