By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
This is the story of Hardy Nickerson and…Hardy Nickerson. One is the father, one is the son. But, let’s be clear, they are not Senior and Junior as the father is Hardy Otto Nickerson and the son is Hardy William Lindsay Nickerson. In fact, for accuracy purposes many of those around them make the effort to make it clear that the Senior and Junior designations are not appropriate. Except for one, tiny kink in the system: the outgoing message on the son’s voicemail says, “You’ve reached Hardy Nickerson junior.”
When asked about it, both Hardys laugh. They have learned to go with flow, especially since this is somewhat of a family tradition; the elder Hardy’s father was Hardy James Nickerson. The family has now settled on referring to the youngest Hardy as ‘H2.’
The elder Hardy is currently known as Coach Nickerson, serving as the defensive coordinator for the University of Illinois. But, from 1987 to 2002 he made an indelible mark on the NFL as one of the league’s fiercest linebackers. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round, he subsequently played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers, earning many accolades along the way including five Pro Bowl berths and four All-Pro nominations.
Now Hardy, also a linebacker, is preparing to start his own NFL career. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 2016 (also his parents’ and sisters’ alma mater) Hardy still had a year of football eligibility left and transferred to Illinois to be able to be with his father, whose NFL career had inspired his own dreams.
“[My father] never pushed me to play,” Hardy said. “I was just always around and watching the games. He did a good job of bringing me around the locker room when I was little. I looked up to everyone my dad played with, and I really wanted to be a part of it.
“I had a really good career at Cal. I was planning on my doing my senior year there. I had red-shirted and I already graduated. Then Lovie Smith and my dad got the jobs at Illinois. The more I thought about, the previous two years he’d been in Tampa and we hadn’t been able to see each other a lot. So, I prayed on that, and made my decision that I wanted to spend my last year playing for Illinois, to soak up their knowledge and be around my dad.”
Being able to work together during the 2016, was a football reunion of sorts for the Nickersons. Coach Nickerson previously coached his son at Bishop O’Dowd High School in California, where the family still makes its permanent home. And, while Coach Nickerson never pushed, he is exceedingly proud of his son’s accomplishments and sees a future for him.
“I felt like he really could do it,” he said. “I said if you really want to play there’s a level of commitment that goes along with it. And he did it. Working out after school. We started training him. You could see he had a level of commitment and dedication to the game that was pretty special.
“I just know from my own career, I was way undersized, was never big enough, never fast enough, never strong enough, but I ended up playing 16 years. So, I was like, ‘Heck yeah, you can do this if you work at it’ and he worked at it. He’s got a football IQ that’s off the charts. From a young age, he had a great grasp of the x’s o’s.”
And while his father’s example and mentorship has been invaluable, Hardy is excited to forge his own path and rely on the knowledge he has gained, and the skills he has developed to take him to the next level and establish a reputation for a new Hardy Nickerson.
“What I’ve realized is, no matter what I do there will always be a comparison,” Hardy said. “But we’re two different people. We do share some similarities in our game, but at the end of the day I’m playing football because I love it. I’m not chasing stats or trying to fill any shoes.”
The entire family will be together for Draft weekend at their home in Oakland as they await to see which NFL uniform Hardy will wear. The general thought is that he will be selected in one of the lower rounds or be an undrafted free agent. As is to be expected, the emotions are a combination of excitement and nervousness.
“We’re all anxious,” Coach Nickerson said. “We’re all waiting on that opportunity. We talk every day, so I’m up-to-date on everything that’s going on with him. From who’s calling him to what kind of questions they’re asking him. It’s pretty surreal watching it all unfold. But I’ve always told him, it’s about what you do with the opportunity you’re given.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.