Basketball: ‘They call me Uncle Nick’ — Douglas grad is 25-year-old freshman standout for Butte College
Nick Lonnegren is a busy guy lately.
The 2004 Douglas High School grad is entering his second season as an assistant coach for the Butte College men’s basketball team in Oroville, Calif., where he oversees strength and conditioning for the team, opponent scouting, recruiting and program fundraising.
He’s due to earn his master’s degree in sports psychology and exercise adherence from Chico State in April.
And, with all that free time that college coaches/graduate students tend to have, he’s become the leading wide receiver for one of the finest junior college football programs in the country.
Due to a loophole in junior college eligibility rules, Lonnegren was able to enroll as a 25-year-old freshman at Butte, take a full freshman course load and try out for the football team.
He’s been a quick read for the sport, tallying a team-leading 23 catches for 501 yards and eight touchdowns for the 9-1 Roadrunners, currently ranked fourth in Northern California. Butte will close its season Saturday at Modesto in the Graffiti Bowl.
“People keep asking me if I’m going to try to catch on with a four-year school,” Lonnegren said recently. “That’s not really an option for me anymore. I kind of just did this as a childhood dream.
“In the outside of my mind, I’m trying to get some film put together and maybe try to play professionally. Maybe.”
Lonnegren graduated from Douglas High as a multi-year letterman for the Tiger basketball team.
“I played freshman football and junior varsity when I was a sophomore,” he said. “I loved football. But I was just too skinny. I quit and I didn’t play again.”
Even in basketball, the market for 6-foot, 135-pound guards at the college level was expectedly slim, but a year later he and long-time friend and teammate Pat Carlson caught on with Butte College for the 2005-06 season.
Lonnegren had a growth spurt after graduation, coming in at 6-4. He also started hitting the weight room.
Upon arriving at Butte at the age of 19, Roadrunner football coaches approached Lonnegren about playing then, but he decided to stick with basketball at the time.
“I really wanted to play football,” he said. “I loved the sport. But I just wasn’t the proper size. I was still pretty skinny.”
Instead, Lonnegren went on to post a two-year all-conference career as a guard/small forward for the Roadrunner basketball team.
His blazing speed also allowed him to run track for Butte in the springs of 2006 and 2007.
Upon graduating from Butte, he signed with Chico State, where he against was a standout player for the Wildcat basketball team.
He kept up with track & field, running a 10.78 in the 100 meters and a 21.76 in the 200 at the 2009 conference championships. He posted a career-best 49.29 in the 400 in 2010.
Upon earning his bachelor’s in kinesiology and exercise physiology along with a certificate in coaching and administration from Chico State in the spring of 2010, Lonnegren hooked back up with Butte basketball coach Russ Critchfield, who hired him on as an assistant.
“He helped me get on at Chico State,” Lonnegren said. “He knew I was trying to get involved in coaching and hired me on.
“I got my feet wet in a hurry and got a lot of experience last season. It was a great experience.”
In the meantime, Butte football coaches saw the now 6-4, 200-pound Lonnegren walking around campus, and they heard about his athletic prowess on the track. As it turned out, a player starting a new sport in junior college athletics gets a reset on the eligibility clock for that sport.
So Lonnegren was able to enroll as a freshman at 25 years old in the same program that produced the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
“I had one more year on my master’s and I started talking to a lot of people about maybe playing football,” Lonnegren said. “I had a chance to talk to a lot of people within the program, and again football had always been something I wanted to do.
“I’d already been a student at Butte in the past, but it meant having to take 9-12 more units along with what I was doing with basketball and with my masters.
“Coach Critchfield was very supportive of what I was thinking of doing so I went for it.”
Lonnegren didn’t have any catches in his first college game, but grabbed four passes for 86 yards, including his first career touchdown – a 50-yard catch – the following week against Feather River.
“It’s funny because guys my size are a dime a dozen in the basketball world,” Lonnegren said. “But I could always run pretty well.
“That translates to something else in football. Guys make fun of me on the team because they’re 18 and I’m 25. They call me Uncle Nick. But I fire right back. I’m still the fastest guy at Butte College.
When they call me out, I say ‘Hey, I can still beat you in the 40.’ It’s all in good fun.”
There are awkward moments. For example, Butte’s starting free safety also plays for Lonnegren in basketball.
“He still calls me coach, which is weird during practice,” Lonnegren said. “But once basketball gets rolling, that’s how it is. It’s just funny.”
And his week’s are understandably crowded.
Outside of his undergraduate courses and daily football practice, he is working on three master’s courses for Chico State.
“I like the master’s program,” he said. “It’s a lot better than undergraduate classes. The first year was mostly in classroom. This year two of my classes are basically online and the other is an independent study.
“That saves me the extra classroom time, but there is still a lot of reading and writing involved.”
Lonnegren said his family, particularly his father, Eddie Lonnegren of Johnson Lane, has been tremendously supportive through his entire career.
“My dad, he’s been at every game, every meet I’ve ever competed in,” Lonnegren said. “He and my brother were so excited I was coming out for football this year. They were some of the people trying to get me to play when I was 19. But when I told them this year they were so supportive.
“But more than that, even being able to do this financially, my family made this a possibility. My dad, my brother, my mom, even my sister-in-law have been there for me every step of the way.”
With his success on the field, and one theoretical year left of eligibility, Butte coaches are already encouraging Lonnegren to return for next season.
“I’d just planned on one year and then being done,” Lonnegren said. “I didn’t expect it to go this well. A lot can happen in the next year. I’m going to get my master’s and I have to start figuring out a career.
“But it’s in the back of my head that I might be able to catch of professionally somewhere or maybe get a tryout.”
Following this weekend’s bowl game, Lonnegren’s immediate attention will turn toward basketball season. One of this year’s Butte guards is 2011 Douglas High grad Chris Downs.
“I always wanted to play college sports,” Lonnegren said with a laugh. “I never really pictured it going like this though.”
Joey Crandall can be reached at (775) 782-5121, ext. 212.