Lockout hits home for Atlanta linebacker

A lot of people are calling the NFL labor situation a battle of billionaires versus millionaires. There’s some truth in that, and it can be hard to feel much sympathy when you’re talking about a league that has made billions of dollars in recent years and many players who have made millions of dollars.

But there are some “little’’ people involved in this and those are the ones who deserve sympathy. With that in mind, I just called Atlanta Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas. As you may recall, he has a unique family situation. His son, Stephen Jr. , had a heart transplant as an infant. Stephen Jr. is 3 now and doing just fine -- I could hear him loud and clear in the background as his father and I talked.

When the league locked out players last week, benefits, including insurance, stopped. That might not be all that big a deal for many players who are young, healthy and single. But think about getting insurance for your family when you have a child who has had major medical issues.

“It’s a challenge,’’ Nicholas said. “But my wife and financial advisor did a good job preparing for this, because we knew for a long time there was the possibility of a lockout. We’ve got insurance. It’s expensive, but it’s not unbearable.’’

Nicholas didn’t want to get into the exact cost of the insurance and said the lockout has yet to fully hit home.

“If you just go by the calendar, there aren’t a lot of big differences right now,’’ Nicholas said. “This is the time of year when you usually work out on your own and spend time with your family. The end of March is when the (organized team activities start), and it will be weird if there still is a lockout. It will be even more weird if they have a draft and there’s still a lockout. How can you draft and not know what you have on your team?’’

Nicholas said he’s optimistic a labor agreement can be reached before long, but he admits he -- and a lot of other players -- are facing uncertain futures. Nicholas has four years of service in the NFL and doesn’t have a contract for 2011. Depending on the structure of any potential labor agreement, Nicholas could be an unrestricted free agent, which would allow him to sign with any team, or a restricted free agent, meaning the Falcons would have a chance to match offers from other teams.

Nicholas said his agent was told the Falcons were placing a restricted tender on him. But it remains to be seen if that tender will be valid in a new labor agreement.

“It’s out of my control,’’ Nicholas said. “All I can do is work out and wait and hope that things get worked out before too long.’’