Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Nicholas Counting His Blessings; Jacksonville Native Has a New Contract and a 3-Year-Old Son with a Healthy Heart

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Nicholas Counting His Blessings; Jacksonville Native Has a New Contract and a 3-Year-Old Son with a Healthy Heart

Article excerpt

Byline: Vito Stellino

Stephen Nicholas' life is filled with blessings these days.

The Atlanta linebacker, who will be playing in his hometown when his Atlanta Falcons play the Jaguars tonight, has a starting job and a new five-year, $17.5 million deal he signed when the lockout ended.

A fourth-round pick out of South Florida in 2007 and the sixth brother in a family of eight boys, the former Robert E. Lee High School standout has started 25 games over the past two years and played in 65 games in his career. One of his brothers, Ivan, is a safety at Ole Miss.

But the best thing in Stephen's life now is watching his 3-year-old son running around like a typical toddler.

Stephen Nicholas Jr. was born on Jan. 6, 2008, and it quickly became apparent he was suffering from some type of illness. He didn't eat much and slept all the time.

"Holding him in my arms, I knew he wasn't functioning like a regular little baby," said Stephen's father Lebon Nicholas, a bishop at Victory Tabernacle Church in Jacksonville.

Doctors determined that Stephen Jr. had a heart problem, and he was airlifted to Atlanta with the help of Stephanie Blank, the wife of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who is on the board of Children's Hospital in Atlanta.

The diagnosis was that Stephen Jr. had cardiomyopathy, a condition that keeps the heart from being able to pump blood throughout the body. The only solution was a heart transplant.

The baby and Nicholas' wife, Irene, went to Children's Hospital in Boston to wait and see if a heart transplant would become available. Meanwhile, Stephen Nicholas went to training camp.

"There was a lot of prayer, man," Nicholas said. "My wife was very strong during the situation and held it down while I was practicing two-a-days. It was very tough, a hard time."

His father said he even called on affiliated churches to join in the prayers.

"We did a lot of praying, asking God to help us," Lebon Nicholas said.

Mike Smith, the former Jaguars defensive coordinator who was in his first season as the Falcons' coach, allowed Nicholas to fly to Boston each Sunday night after the Falcons played. …

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