Hardy Nickerson 'Jr.' returns to his roots for Shrine Game
As much as anyone playing in this week's East-West Shrine Game, his is a name sure to bring a smile to football fans in the Tampa area: Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who played for his father in high school and college, is now trying to follow his footsteps into the NFL.
The resemblance is striking, from the familiar face and constant smile to a veteran 230-pound presence on the football field. His father, who made five Pro Bowls in his seven seasons with the Bucs from 1993-99, has never been more flattered to hear a prospect being compared to his style of play.
"For those who knew me way back when, as I went through this process, they say 'These two guys are mirror images of each other,'" Nickerson said by phone Wednesday. "When I look at him, I see myself, and I should. That's my son. ... His instincts are there. The leadership is there, but he's a good football player and stands on his own on that."
The younger Nickerson -- not technically Jr., in that father's middle name is Otto and son's is William Lindsay, but the family still proudly calls him Junior -- went to eight schools growing up in following his father's football career, but he was born here in Tampa, so this week is a return to his roots.
"It's nice coming back down here to Florida," he said, and though he considers the other Bay area his home, he's training for the draft at the Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI) in Tampa this spring.
The younger Nickerson played for his father for two years at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, and he signed with Cal, just as his father did. Nickerson was the Bucs' linebackers coach in 2013-14, and when Lovie Smith and his staff were fired, he initially took a job in San Francisco as the 49ers' inside linebackers coach to be close to family and his son during his senior year at Cal. When Smith was hired at Illinois, a reunion was set up, with father becoming the Illini's defensive coordinator and son joining Illinois as a graduate transfer to play his final season again under his father's coaching.
"It was a dream come true for both of us," said the elder Nickerson, who will be on campus for a key recruiting weekend but said he will stay close to a TV to watch the game on NFL Network. "He came over and did a great job for us, provided leadership for a lot of young guys on our team. Me being able to see him every night, it gave us the opportunity to enjoy the game we love and each other's company. My wife and I battle all the time about who is his biggest fan. I may not win that one, but I'm a close second."
For his son, the chance to play his college season not only with his father, but with Smith, who coached him for four years as the Bucs' linebackers coach, was something to cherish. Just as his father was a prolific tackler with the Bucs, Nickerson led Illinois with 107 tackles this past season and tied for the team lead in interceptions as well. The elder Nickerson was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 1987 and has been through this process before, so he can give his son advice from nearly all sides of the draft process.
"He's just telling me to control what I can, give it my all every day, and everything should work out from there," he said.