ST. PETERSBURG — 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 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,' " Hardy Nickerson said of his son, also named Hardy, 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.; his father's middle name is Otto and his is William Lindsay, but the family still proudly calls him Junior — went to eight schools growing up while following his father's football career, but he was born in Tampa. He's training for the NFL draft at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa this spring and is playing in today's East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field.
"It's nice coming back down here to Florida," said, the younger Nickerson, who considers the San Francisco Bay area his home.
Junior played for his father for two years at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., and he signed with Cal, as his father did. The elder Nickerson was the Bucs' linebackers coach in 2013-14, and when Lovie Smith and his staff were fired, Nickerson 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, Nickerson became the Illini's defensive coordinator and hi son joined Illinois as a graduate transfer to play his final season 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 today's game on the 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 final college season not only with his father but with Smith, who coached his dad 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 last and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
The elder Nickerson was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 1987, 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," Junior said.