by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's an election year, which may help explain why Harrison Nikolao changes positions more often than a politician. Nikolao, the Spokane Shock rookie out of Eastern Washington University, is a regular starter at defensive tackle. However, the massive Nikolao has also seen time on offense at fullback, guard, tight end and (in an exhibition game and practices) center.
"He does everything we ask him to do," Shock coach Adam Shackleford says, "and he has a 'motor' like no other."
Nikolao (pronounced NICK-uh-lau) is every bit as energetic and enthusiastic off the field as on. His 6-foot-3, 330-pound body frequently shakes with laughter, but he's responsible enough to work full-time as an officer at a juvenile corrections center, and he married a fellow EWU grad in March.
"He's very intelligent," Shackleford said. "He's a great character guy, a great family guy."
Most arenafootball2 players hope to move up to the parent Arena Football League, and some still dream of reaching the National Football League. The latter goal has rarely been achieved by af2 alumni, but Nikolao was one of the final cuts of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals last year.
"I really believe I can play the defensive tackle position in the NFL," Nikolao says.
Nikolao spent most of his college career at defensive tackle, but he saw action at offensive guard and defensive tackle as a sophomore, and he started at offensive guard as a senior in 2006. The Bengals tried him at guard, but Nikolao and Shackleford say his future lies primarily on the defensive line.
"My heart is with defensive tackle," Nikolao says. "I have this 'attack' personality, whereas on offense, you have to think more and can't always attack."
"He's going to get an AFL contract next year," Shackleford says. "I think he'll be one of the first guys to sign."
Despite his brush with the NFL, Nikolao makes it clear he considers it a privilege to play for the standard af2 salary of $200 a game ($250 for a win) -- plus housing and some meals -- in Spokane. The Shock is 15-1 and ranked No. 1 heading into the playoffs this weekend, and raucous, sellout crowds of 10,000-plus are the norm at the Spokane Arena.
"You're in awe [of the game atmosphere]," says Nikolao, whose college games usually drew smaller crowds outdoors. "It's one of those feelings you can't explain when you're out there and just being part of the whole atmosphere and part of the Shock family.
"It's provided a lot of opportunity to play for something bigger than yourself."
Nikolao says he finds arena football "a lot more fun" than the outdoor game. However, he admits to struggling with the quickness of the high-scoring indoor game when he tried out for the AFL's Philadelphia Soul earlier this year. He was cut after trying out on both lines, and the Soul (owned in part by rock star Jon Bon Jovi and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski) wound up winning the AFL championship last Sunday.
Now Nikolao finds himself four wins away from an af2 championship.
"It's a new season," Nikolao says, "but I believe we're the best team in the playoffs."
Nikolao might savor a title in his first pro season just a little bit more than the next fellow, since his last college team struggled through a 3-8 season. Also, he played his last two prep seasons on weak teams at Lincoln High School in Tacoma after moving from suburban Lakewood, where he played at powerful Lakes.
Shackleford says Nikolao figures to start at fullback and see limited action at defensive tackle in Saturday's playoff opener, since regular fullback Katon Bethay re-injured a knee last Saturday in the final regular season game. Nikolao has carried the ball just three times for 9 yards this season, but he scored the only touchdown of his life on a 1-yard plunge last month at Tri-Cities.
"I didn't know what to do," he admits. "I handed the ball to the ref. Everyone knows, 10 out of 10, you keep the ball after you score your first touchdown. I acted like I'd scored a hundred times."
Nikolao was born in Salinas, Calif., but left as an infant and spent much of his youth in American Samoa and Western Samoa [now, just Samoa] in the South Pacific. The youngest of six children ("Education was huge ... it was second to family"), he moved to Lakewood with his family when he was 8.
"It was weird when I first came [back] to the States," Nikolao says with a smile. "I was like that small-town guy. I'd never seen so many lights!"
Nikolao says he felt like he was back home in the South Pacific when he married wife LeeAnne in her hometown of Odessa, a small town in Eastern Washington. Shackleford says Nikolao will have to grow accustomed to the bright lights of big cities next year in the AFL, but Nikolao says he'll take part of Spokane and the Shock with him wherever he goes.
"I'll never forget this experience," he says. "It'll be part of me forever."
The top-seeded Spokane Shock (15-1) opens the arenafootball2 playoffs on Saturday, Aug. 2, at 7 pm versus the eighth-seeded Austin Wranglers (8-8) at the Spokane Arena. Tickets: $9-$55. Call 325-SEAT.
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