One look at Donovan Nichols’ Rocket Room and it’s clear: He’s got spirit; yes, he does.
The assistant dean for student involvement and leadership exudes enthusiasm explaining how he put together the ultimate UT fan zone.“The whole idea has been 14 years in the making,” he said looking around his basement walls emblazoned with UT jerseys, ticket stubs, posters, stories and more. “But actually putting this together took about five months.”
He pointed to a wooden sign featuring old Rocket and UT logos that bookend the stenciled name “Rocket Room.”
“That sign is actually what started the whole idea. When I was a student, I was walking around with Tom Trimble [then associate director of the Student Union] in Rocky’s Attic, and this sign was sitting in a corner,” Nichols recalled. “Tom said it was a sign that was hanging in Rocky’s Attic in the 1980s, and he said, ‘We’re probably going to throw it out.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not.’”It was 2002 when Nichols rescued the relic and stored it at his parents’ house until now.
“Back then, I said, ‘When I have my own house, I’m going to create a Rocket Room. I’m going to carpet it with field turf and put that sign in it.’”
With a head’s up and permission from Athletics, Nichols snagged pieces of turf in April during the Glass Bowl renovations. Prepping it for installation took most of the summer.
“The turf fibers are about an inch long with about a half inch of infill — sand granules and rubber pellets to make it feel more like real grass — so I had to get all of that infill out,” he said.After power-washing and scrubbing the turf, Nichols cut and put pieces together to resemble a field with help from his girlfriend, Alycia Demey; friend and UT alumnus, Rob Bleile; and father, Tom Nichols.
The bar features a piece of the blue rocket from the center of the field. “I was lucky enough to get that piece, so I wanted to showcase it,” Nichols said.
Collecting UT memorabilia started during his undergraduate days when he helped establish a tradition. The year was 2000, and Nichols and his friend, Jason Rodriguez, created Blue Crew.“Blue Crew’s first game ever was traveling to Penn State. There were four of us that went. About 92,000 people were in the stadium, and only about 2,000 of which were Toledo fans, but we were louder the entire game,” Nichols said pointing to a story about UT’s upset of the Nittany Lions, 24-6. “That was a really cool experience for me because that was the founding of Blue Crew.”
It was the Rocket Fanatic group from the 1990s that inspired Nichols and Rodriguez to start the masked spirited squad.
“We wanted to create something that emulated the Rocket Fanatic group, but do something that would continue the spirit even after we graduated,” Nichols explained. “So we decided to wear the masks and wigs so we would cloak our identities because it wasn’t about us being the spirited students, it was about having the positive energy and the positive spirit always represented at the University.”
He still radiates that energy and excitement for the Rockets and his alma mater. Standing by his Blue Crew uniform, he said, “My mask is signed by Chester Taylor, who was one of the great UT football players. I have a poster of him and a jersey. He was a running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a couple other NFL teams. I try to pay tribute to some of the players who were around when I was a student because I knew some of them. In the stairwell, there’s a poster of [quarterback] Bruce Gradkowski and [wide receiver] Lance Moore, both who were students when I was around, and I have pictures of them in the NFL as well to display their success.”Then there’s a white football shirt with a midnight blue No. 16, which was worn by the quarterback known as the “Wizard of Oohs and Aahs.”
“I wanted to highlight Chuck Ealey because it’s incredible the accomplishment that he had; he’s the only collegiate quarterback in history to go undefeated. From 1969 to 1971, the Rockets went 35-0,” Nichols said. “And he was undefeated in high school, too.”
That sense of history is everywhere in the Rocket Room — the sheet music for “Fair Toledo,” the alma mater, is framed, along with “U of Toledo,” the fight song. Also under glass is the UT Traditions brochure Nichols created after more than 500 hours of research on the school’s history.
“I wanted to walk down memory lane and teach some UT history, and display why people should be proud of The University of Toledo,” he said. “Hopefully, the Rocket Room will inspire more people to show their pride in the institution.”
After graduating with honors with a bachelor of arts degree in communications in 2004 and a master of education degree in higher education in 2006, Nichols stopped to say goodbye to Dr. Kaye M. Patten, senior vice president of student affairs.“She went over and took this [2005 GMAC Bowl Championship poster] off her office wall and gave it to me and said she appreciated everything I had done for the University. I was moving to Las Vegas, so it was a piece I took with me. And when I worked in Georgia, it was with me there, and now it’s back with me at home.”
“Donovan was one of the most passionate UT students. He started Blue Crew, created the Rocky doll, was Student Government president,” Patten said. “It’s so nice to have him back where he belongs to inspire that same love for the University in our students.”
“I always thought it would be fun to come back to UT to work, but I didn’t necessarily have a plan to come back. I knew I could show my Rocket pride wherever I went. When I worked in Las Vegas, I created an alumni chapter out there,” he said. “But it feels comfortable in Toledo; I’m home.
“I think if I had a Rocket Room like this in any other city, it wouldn’t be as cool,” he added and laughed. “At least here, a lot of people can come over and see it and appreciate it. Go Rockets!”