Elbie Nickel Named to Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022

Elbie Nickel – a University of Cincinnati man of letters in football, baseball and basketball in the 1940s – was announced today as a Class of 2022 inductee into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. A native of Fullerton, Kentucky and a 1982 inductee into the James P. Kelly UC Athletics Hall of Fame, Nickel’s athletic career in Cincinnati was put on hold for three years while serving in the United States Armed Forces during the Second World War. After completing his military duties, he returned to school where he led one of the Bearcats’ greatest football seasons in 1946 before enjoying an eleven-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When you think of legendary University of Cincinnati athletes throughout history, a few names come to mind: Oscar Robertson. Sandy Koufax. Greg Cook. Maybe even Jack Twyman or Brig Owens. A name you probably won’t hear? Elbie Nickel. Before Nick Van Exel was Nick The Quick, Elbie Nickel was Nick The Slick.

Nickel was a three-sport athlete at Clifton in the 1940s. He played on the football team, pitcher and outfielder on the baseball team, and played on the basketball team. Read the history of UC athletics and you’ll learn that things were up in the 1940s for Bearcats football and basketball. Nickel had a hand in each of these teams.

From 1925 to 1935, the Bearcats participated in the Buckeye Conference. They ended their tenure in the league with records of 7-2, 6-3-1, 7-2 and 7-2 before opting to go independent. In their first two non-conference seasons, they won just one game in two full campaigns, going 1-15-3. They went 0-10 clear in 1937, being shut out seven times and scoring a total of 18 points on the year. In a 35-0 thrashing at the hands of Dayton, the yearbook colorfully describes a silly penalty: “At the start of the second half, Cincy decided 12 headers better than 11 any day, but being bad sellers, the referee couldn’t see this.”

A program that had just experienced its first period of sustained success suddenly found itself in a tailspin.

Enter Elbie Nickel.

In Nickel’s first season as a college football player in 1941, the team reached a 6-3 record with wins over rivals Louisville and Miami. It was their most successful campaign since the days of the Buckeye Conference. On the hardwood, the Bearcats rallied to .500 for the first time in two years. Nickel, who was just a sophomore, was the team’s second leading scorer.

The following year, Nickel took a break from basketball but continued his rise on the gridiron, helping the Bearcats to an 8-2 record – their most wins since 1897. Their two losses came against No. 2 Georgia and No. 13 Tennessee. Bearcats football was back, but war was coming. Nickel’s athletic career was cut short in early 1943 when he was drafted into the United States Army. College football has also been suspended. Many college programs, including the Bearcats, did not field a team in 1943 or 1944 due to roster attrition.

The war ended in time for the 1945 football season, so the Bearcats returned to the field. However, many of their stars, including Nickel, still had military obligations. The shorthanded Bearcats played just eight games that season and fell to a 4-4 record, their worst winning percentage since 1938.

By 1946, the Bearcats were back in full force. With the war in the rear and America on the rise, the appetite for college football had never been greater.

The Bearcats were back and so was Elbie Nickel.

Nickel, now a senior, was named team captain. He and his Bearcats made their mark early. The season opener was a trip to Bloomington to take on defending Big Ten champion Indiana. In front of 15,000 Hoosiers, Nickel scored a touchdown in the second quarter and scored a field goal in the third. The Bearcats pulled off a 15-6 upset for what was arguably the program’s first game-defining win in Cincinnati football history.

The Bearcats proved the stunner was no fluke by finishing the season 9-2 – the second nine-win season in the program’s 59-season history – scoring wins over regional teams Dayton and Ohio as well than on their rivals Xavier and Miami. To close out the campaign, the Bearcats traveled to El Paso for the Sun Bowl – the first bowling game in program history – where they defeated Virginia Tech 18-6. “Nickel got what he always wanted,” wrote The Enquirer. “The winning football of a bowling match.”

Nickel was selected in the 17th round of the 1947 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. As you can guess by this slot, he wasn’t expected to be a star, and he wasn’t for those early years.

But in 1952, everything changed. The Steelers switched to the T formation and Nickell started playing what we would now call the tight end. Immediately, his career took a second wind. In his first season in the new role, he set Pittsburgh records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. In the final game of the season – on the road against the first-place Los Angeles Rams – he exploded for 10 catches, a touchdown and 202 receiving yards – just a yard short of the league’s best single-game performance. NFL which year.

In 1953, Nickel completed 62 passes, a Steelers record that stood for 16 seasons. In his first five seasons in the league, he caught a total of eleven touchdowns. In the next five seasons? Twenty five. In his first five seasons, he didn’t make a Pro Bowl. In the next five, he made three. So decades before Brent Celek or Travis Kelce, the Bearcats were already producing star NFL tight ends.

All this at a time when the Steelers weren’t very good. Pittsburgh has only one winning record in the last ten seasons of Nickel’s eleven-year career. He was a fan favorite at a time when the franchise needed him, and he’s carried his legacy to Pittsburgh ever since. The 2020 Steelers Hall of Honor class included names like Bill Cowher and Hines Ward. It also included Elbie Nickel.

The Fullerton, Ky., tri-sport star was inducted into the UC Athletics Hall of Fame in 1982.

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