Last Friday night, over plates of steaming Mexican rice, chicken
enchiladas and beef tacos, Hardy Nickerson celebrated his 35th
birthday at home with his wife, Amy, and fellow Jacksonville
Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts. At first they talked excitedly
about the day in February when Nickerson signed a four-year, $16
million contract with Jacksonville that reunited him with Marts,
his teammate in Tampa Bay from 1994 through '96. Later the
conversation turned to a more sensitive subject: Nickerson's
departure from the Buccaneers, whom he had represented in five
Pro Bowls in seven years.
"After a while, [team officials] started cutting me out of press
conferences," Nickerson told Marts. An incredulous Marts asked
why. Nickerson, the Bucs' alltime leading tackler, just shook
his head. "I got lost in the shuffle, I guess," he said. "They
just phased me out."
"He probably won't admit it," Marts would say later, "but the
way they let him go, after all those lean years when he was the
only guy they had and he kept their heads above water, well, I
think he feels betrayed." No, Nickerson won't admit it, but his
hurt is palpable at times. "If a team wants to keep you when
your contract is finishing, then it'll make a gesture, start
talking before the season," he says. "I didn't hear anything
from the Bucs, and when I still hadn't by the halfway point of
the season, it dawned on me I wouldn't be back. That was hard.
But I kept playing, doing my job. I gave them all I had. I'm
just glad to be here now. So very glad."
So are the Jaguars. In his 14th season Nickerson remains an
every-down linebacker, due largely to an arduous conditioning
regimen that has kept him almost injury-free (only nine games
missed in the past 10 seasons). "I remember watching him in the
NFL when I was still in high school," says Jacksonville's
27-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker, Kevin Hardy, "so I didn't know
what to think. But then he showed up, and I thought, Man, he's
moving faster than me."
The signing of the fiery Nickerson gave the Jacksonville
defense--criticized for being soft and lacking a dynamic veteran
presence--instant street cred. "First off, he's a leader, which
we'll need without Carnell [Lake, the Pro Bowl safety who's out
for the year with a broken left foot]," says coach Tom Coughlin.
"He also brings an unflappable quality to the huddle. Plus, he
can plug the middle or blanket a tight end on every play."
Nickerson is, in other words, an antidote to the Jaguars'
Tennessee flu. The Titans were the only team to beat
Jacksonville last season, and behind punishing running back
Eddie George and imposing tight end Frank Wycheck, Tennessee did
it three times. In the off-season Jacksonville made one major
free-agent acquisition to end the Titans' dominance. Asked if
the Jaguars have found their missing Super Bowl piece in
Nickerson, Coughlin says simply, "Yes. That's why we signed him."
In Jacksonville's 27-7 win at Cleveland on Sunday, Nickerson
rewarded his new team's faith in him just three plays into the
Browns' opening drive. On third-and-two at the Cleveland 28, he
closed on wideout Darrin Chiaverini and viciously separated him
from a sure first-down catch (below). As the receiver lay
concussed on the field, Nickerson flashed his signature strongman
flex. "It was a hit," he said after making a team-high 14
tackles, "that I'll remember for a long time."
No, getting lost in the shuffle won't be a problem in
Jacksonville. Just ask Darrin Chiaverini. No matter where Hardy
Nickerson plays, he has a way of finding you.
COLOR PHOTO: RON SCHWANE/REUTERS