For 16 seasons, Hardy Nickerson was one of the National Football League’s premier linebackers. He was a major part of some of the best defensive teams the league boasted, during an era when defense was seen as a higher priority.
He was not only a star on the front sevens of multiple teams, but he also helped evolve the way that NFL teams would play defense in the years to come.
Since retiring, Nickerson has done plenty to give back to the sport that gave him so much throughout his career.
Early Stardom In Los Angeles
Hardy Otto Nickerson was born on Sept. 1, 1965 in Compton, Calif., a gritty community located in what is known as South Central Los Angeles.
Compton and its neighboring communities are not exactly where one would choose to grow up, as it is home to a lack of economic opportunity, broken homes, gangs, violent crimes and dangerous drugs. Many end up falling prey to these challenges and temptations instead of making something positive of their lives.
But Nickerson was able to avoid all those negatives, and the chief reason why was the game of football.
He went to Verbum Dei High School, an all-male private Catholic school in nearby Watts and lettered in both football and track and field. On the gridiron, he played linebacker, as well as center, and it quickly became clear that he had a knack for the defensive side of the ball.
With the help of Nickerson, Verbum Dei won back-to-back CIF Section Championships, and it reeled off a 25-game winning streak while shutting out 13 opponents.
Many successful athletes can point to a coach or mentor who helped lead them on the right path early in their lives, and for Nickerson, it was Verbum Dei head coach Lalo Mendoza.
Mendoza had a sterling reputation in South Central Los Angeles for not only coaching championship teams but for also helping his players overcome adversity and help them become well-rounded, community-oriented men.
In addition to Nickerson, Verbum Dei would produce other athletes who would go pro, such as fellow NFL linebacker Vernon Maxwell and NBA player Andre Miller.
Years later, Nickerson didn’t forget who helped establish a strong foundation for him.
“Coach Mendoza is my mentor and responsible for much of the success that I had in life,” Nickerson told the Los Angeles Sentinel years after retiring from football. “I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done and I speak to him regularly now.”
Nickerson would eventually be named to the Verbum Dei High School Hall of Fame.
Blossoming in NorCal
Nickerson decided to head north for college and play for the University of California, Berkeley. The Cal Golden Bears were not known as a prominent or winning football program, but the team would serve as a springboard for him and his nascent career.
With the Bears, the Compton native quickly emerged into a defensive menace. He led the team in tackles and was voted the squad’s Most Valuable Player in each of his first three seasons in Berkeley.
As a sophomore, he started to rack up some impressive numbers as a linebacker. He had 141 tackles in the 1984 season, then improved to 167 stops in 1985, which was one of the highest single-season marks in Golden Bears history.
In a big contest against the University of Southern California, Nickerson tallied an amazing 17 tackles in a 14-6 win that ended the Trojan’s seven-game winning streak over the Bears. His dominant performance earned him Sports Illustrated’s defensive player of the week honor.
In 1986, Nickerson started to get some serious recognition, not for one spectacular game, but for playing consistently well. Recording 132 tackles, he got selected to the All-Pac-10 first-team, making it the second straight season he made it onto an All-Pac-10 squad.
He finished his career with the Golden Bears with 501 tackles, which set a new school record. Not long after entering the NFL draft, he would satisfy his remaining academic credits and receive his degree in sociology.
On The Prowl In Pittsburgh
Nickerson wasn’t one of the most sought-after prospects in the 1987 NFL Draft. He wasn’t selected until the fifth round, when the Pittsburgh Steelers took him with the 122nd overall pick.
The Steelers had once been the NFL’s resident dynasty, having won four Super Bowls in the 1970s with the help of the “Steel Curtain” defense, which was one of the best the game ever saw.
All of the key players from those squads were long gone, but head coach Chuck Noll was still around, and he would be one of Nickerson’s first mentors.
I find myself regurgitating so much from what Coach Noll said,” Nickerson said later. “The fundamentals…how to tackle… same foot and shoulder… they fly off my tongue now and I learned them as a rookie.”
Noll apparently wanted to improve on a defense that Dwight White, who had played defensive end for the Steelers during their glory years, had recently called “soft and cheesy.”
Nickerson was the opposite of soft, and it ruffled the feathers of his new teammates.
A very aggressive 6-foot-2, 230-pound specimen who loved to hit people, he found himself getting into fights with teammates during his early days in Pittsburgh, and he didn’t exactly apologize for his hard-hitting style.
“Each day, I go out to play as aggressive and as hard as I possibly can,” he said early in his rookie season. “As a result, there have been a few skirmishes. That’s the way I play. … Whenever there’s a skirmish, there’s a point to be made. And I’m never going to back down from anyone.”
At first, Nickerson was mostly used on special teams, but he quickly found a home as a linebacker, and Noll and linebacker coach Jed Hughes loved his menacing style and saw potential in him.
The former Golden Bear didn’t get a ton of playing time as a rookie, but in 1988 he appeared in 15 games, starting 10 of them, and he finished second on the Steelers in tackles with 99 and third in sacks with 3.5.
He had 35 tackles in the first 10 games of the 1989 campaign before a broken ankle prematurely ended his season.
By 1990 things were turning around in Pittsburgh. Their defense, which had ranked 17th and 18th in points and yards allowed respectively, rocketed to third in points allowed and tops in yards allowed. Nickerson was a pivotal reason why, as he notched 67 tackles on the season.
Happy birthday, Hardy Nickerson!@hardynickerson and David Little were dominant inside linebackers on the league’s #1 defense of 1990, both finishing as 2 of the top 3 tacklers on the team.pic.twitter.com/WQz2rSYIh4
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) September 1, 2021
The Steelers employed a 3-4 defensive front in those years, and Nickerson spent his first few seasons as the team’s right inside linebacker before being moved left one spot for the 1990 season.
Prior to the 1992 season, Noll retired and was replaced by Bill Cowher, and the Steelers continued to improve under his leadership. With Nickerson tallying 114 tackles, Pittsburgh finished 11-5, its best record since the 1979 season, which was also the last time it won the Super Bowl.
After a crushing 24-3 defeat in the divisional round to the Buffalo Bills, Nickerson was unhappy with his contract. Despite being one of the NFL’s rising young linebackers, he made just $263,000, making him the lowest-paid linebacker in the league.
A historic court case, White v NFL, had just resulted in a settlement that, for the first time, created free agency in the NFL. Nickerson happened to be one of the biggest plaintiffs in that case.
A flurry of moves soon followed, and one of them was Nickerson signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for $5.1 million over three years.
Tampa Bay’s New Terror
In 1993, the Buccaneers were an NFL afterthought. Since starting play in 1976, they had made the playoffs only three times and had won more than six games only twice, making them a living joke throughout the sports world.
But head coach Sam Wyche, who had been hired just a year ago, felt that Nickerson could help him build a competitive team in Tampa Bay.
“Around the league, I’d say at linebacker he was the plum,” Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. “I don’t think you’d get an argument from anybody. I don’t think there was a middle linebacker out there more sought-after.”
Wyche employed a 4-3 defense, giving Nickerson greater responsibilities as a middle linebacker, and he would prove to be worthy of those added responsibilities.
He had a whale of a season in 1993, recording a league-high 214 tackles and being named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team for his first time. He was only the second Buccaneer to ever be voted onto the All-Pro squad.
Although the Bucs as a whole still struggled defensively, they showed trickles of what lay ahead. In six games they held their opponents to 15 points or less, and four of their opponents could only muster 10 points against them.
Nickerson didn’t make the Pro Bowl in either of the next two seasons, but he still continued to terrorize opposing offenses by contributing 122 tackles (86 solo) in 1994 and 143 tackles (89 solo) in 1995.
The franchise would start to experience its much-desired turnaround in ’95. In that year’s draft, Tampa Bay took defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks in the first round, and they would give Nickerson some tremendous support up front.
Nickerson would also reciprocate by serving as a mentor for Brooks and Sapp, as well as safety John Lynch.
After ranking 25th in points allowed the year before he arrived, the Bucs had improved to 12th in that category in ’95. After finishing just 7-9 that season and 6-10 the following year, Tampa Bay finally returned to the playoffs by winning 10 games and ranking second in points allowed in 1997.
Week 1 of the ’97 season gave the football world an instant hit of Tampa Bay’s newfound defensive bite. Facing the dynastic San Francisco 49ers and former Super Bowl MVPs Steve Young and Jerry Rice, the Bucs swarmed around them and made their lives a living hell.
Early in the contest, Sapp sacked Young and forced him to temporarily leave the field. When he returned, Nickerson sacked him for one of his six tackles on the day.
In all, Young was sacked four times. This was also the contest in which Sapp grabbed Rice by the facemask and threw him to the ground, causing him to tear his ACL and MCL and miss almost the entire balance of the season.
Nickerson would finish the season with 147 tackles (105 solo), leading to both Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors.
All of a sudden, the Bucs were becoming perhaps the league’s most feared defense, and some of it had to do with a new scheme employed by Dungy known as “Tampa 2.”
Dungy based this new scheme on his experience playing for the Steelers in the late ’70s under Chuck Noll, Nickerson’s former coach. Tampa 2 requires a middle linebacker such as Nickerson to be able to read and react based on the play being run by the offensive team, and to either drop back in a “Cover 3” zone on a pass play, run forward on a rushing play or give support to his outside linebackers on short passes.
Within a handful of years, multiple other teams would start to use Dungy’s Tampa 2 defense.
In the wild card round, the Bucs smothered the Detroit Lions 20-10 as Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders was contained to just 65 yards rushing. The Green Bay Packers, the eventual Super Bowl champs, then put Tampa Bay to sleep in the divisional round, 21-7.
The Bucs had an off-year in 1998 as Nickerson missed the last six games of the schedule due to a viral infection that caused pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the sac around the heart. Tampa Bay won just eight games and failed to quality for the playoffs.
But it was back strong in ’99, ranking third in both points and yards allowed with the help of Nickerson’s 110 tackles (66 solo). In four games that season, the Bucs held their opponent to single digits in points.
Although their offense seriously lacked punch, their defensive manpower propelled them to an 11-5 finish and first place in the NFC Central. By squeaking past the Washington Redskins in the divisional round, they advanced to the NFC Championship Game for a date with the omnipotent St. Louis Rams.
Featuring league MVP Kurt Warner, All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk and star wideout Isaac Bruce, the Rams had one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, earning them the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Needless to say, Nickerson and the Bucs would have their hands full.
But they proved to be worthy of the challenge. Deep into the fourth quarter, they held St. Louis to just five points, aided by Nickerson’s six tackles and one interception on the day.
But they couldn’t plug the dam long enough, as Warner found Ricky Proehl for a touchdown with less than five minutes left to push the Rams to an 11-6 win. Still, Tampa Bay had served notice to the rest of the NFL that a game involving them would be 60 minutes of pure agony.
The NFL had certainly noticed Nickerson, as he would be named to the league’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
On To Jacksonville
Nickerson hit free agency again in 2000 and signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They were coming off an impressive 14-2 season, and head coach Tom Coughlin was hoping that Nickerson would be the final piece to the puzzle.
Instead, the 2000 season would be a frustrating one, as he suffered a knee injury that ended his year after just six games.
The following season, the 36-year-old linebacker was able to muster one final strong season. Although he wouldn’t make the Pro Bowl, his numbers rivaled those of any other season he had put together: 117 tackles (89 solo) and a career-high three interceptions.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars couldn’t take advantage of Nickerson’s production, as they won just six games and missed the playoffs.
For the 2002 season, Nickerson moved on to the Green Bay Packers, who still had Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and a strong offense.
For all his greatness, Nickerson had yet to appear in the Super Bowl, and 2002 would be his last chance at competing for the world championship.
He played in all 16 games, starting in all but one of them, and put together 86 tackles (49 solo) and 1.5 sacks on the season. The Packers won 12 of their first 15 games and simply needed to beat the New York Jets in Week 17 to clinch the best record in the NFC.
But a 42-17 loss meant that the Packers had to start the playoffs with a wild card game instead of a first-round bye. In the wild card round, Green Bay got waxed by the Atlanta Falcons 27-7 despite 11 tackles by Nickerson for its first-ever playoff loss at hallowed Lambeau Field.
That would be it for him, as he decided to call it quits shortly afterward.
“I did the mental inventory,” said Nickerson. “Even though I felt like last year was it, as I walked off the field after the playoff loss, I thought, ‘Well, let’s just see how you feel in a few months.’ But there were some things that hadn’t healed yet all the way.”
A Full Plate In Retirement
Even during his NFL career, Nickerson started to prepare for his inevitable transition to his post-playing career.
He and his wife Amy had three kids – daughter Ashleigh and twins Hardy and Haleigh, all of whom were born during the early part of his pro career.
One of them, Hardy Nickerson Jr., took after his dad. He played three seasons of college ball at Berkeley, then transferred to the University of Illinois, playing linebacker just like his old man did.
Although he went undrafted in 2017, Nickerson Jr. was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals. After playing three seasons for them, he moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, and he then spent the 2021 season with the Houston Texans.
The elder Nickerson, meanwhile, tried his hand at coaching. In 2004 the Chicago Bears, through the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program, gave him a training camp intern position, and three years later Nickerson became the team’s linebacker coach, a position he resigned from a year later due to family health issues.
A couple of years later he became the linebackers coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., and a year later he got the head coaching job there. At Bishop O’Dowd, Nickerson had the opportunity to coach his son.
After spending four years as the head man at Bishop O’Dowd, the elder Nickerson had won back-to-back league titles while coaching nearly 20 players who would go on to receive scholarships to play college football.
Nickerson resigned his post in late 2013, and shortly afterward he became the linebackers coach for one of his former teams, the Buccaneers. He also spent some time in the same position for the San Francisco 49ers before becoming the defensive coordinator at Illinois, a job that allowed him to coach his son once again.
Meet the leader of our defense Hardy Nickerson! @hardynickerson pic.twitter.com/WqQMxKIwvg
— Thaddaeus Ward (@wardth09) May 3, 2017
The Bears, Bucs and Illinois gigs also reunited the elder Nickerson with Lovie Smith, who had been the linebacker coach for the Bucs when he played there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Nickerson has also done lots of philanthropy to assist the disadvantaged over the years. He started the Hardy Nickerson Foundation, which helps children in need of assistance by offering programs, mostly in the area of educational help, such as after-school tutoring and mentorship.
The linebacker started helping those in need very early in his NFL career. In 1997, he won the Byron “Whizzer” White Award, which the NFL hands out to players who do exceptional things for their community off the field.
Nickerson has been so committed to helping his community that he once even said that he wouldn’t trade the White Award for the Super Bowl championship ring that he never came close to winning.
It’s one thing for an athlete to maintain an outstanding level of play year after year on the field. But when he extends his productivity off the field in order to help the less fortunate to help themselves, that’s when he makes the transformation from merely being a great athlete to also being a great human being.
Nickerson has become one of many former NFL stars who have committed their post-football lives to making an impact on others. As the old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships, and Nickerson has helped raise the tide for plenty of disadvantaged kids.
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