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A Packer now, a Buc forever

In the moments before the game, the familiar eyes will grow cold.

His rage will build, the way it did in the old days. The energy will surge and the furnace in his soul will begin to heat. He will work himself into a lather that borders on dangerous, the way he used to in the room down the hall.

Then Hardy Nickerson will run onto his old yard.

And he will attempt to show us all what we have missed.

The old warrior comes home Sunday, and he will attempt to turn his fire toward the team that used to warm itself from it. For years, no one worked as hard as Nickerson to pick up the Bucs. For the first time in his career, he will attempt to knock them down.

He is a Packer, for goodness' sake. Can you believe it? Nickerson used to hate the Packers. The sight of the green and gold, the sight of all the Cheeseheads in the old Tampa Stadium, used to drive him batty. This is going to be like watching Braveheart play against the Scots, like watching Spartacus dress as a Roman centurion.

"It's going to be a little different," Nickerson said, laughing softly. "The first time I put on the jersey, it felt strange. I had spent all those years going after people in this jersey."

It isn't that Nickerson was a Buc. It's that, for so long, he was the Buc.

Nickerson blew into town in '93, kicking open the locker room doors and taking over. He was that rare leader who didn't really care if everyone liked him. He was going to get their attention, and things were going to change. Even now, the story of his flareup with Keith McCants in the weight room is legendary, but that was typical Nickerson. Get with it, or get out of the way.

"We had a job to do," Nickerson remembers. "I came in there with the vision of having a winner in Tampa. I came in scratching and fighting for that. I came in to restore some respect and help build something. That was the mission. I'm proud of what we did. I'm proud of what they're doing now."

Tampa Bay loved Nickerson at first sight. There are so many moments to remember from his seven years. He was a nasty sort on the field, snarling and snapping, fuming and flexing. He was gleeful in victory, mystified in defeat.

"I had a lot of fun," he said. "People in Tampa got to see the best football I had in me."

Remember the near-fight with Bears kicker Kevin Butler? Remember his game-saving interception against Kansas City? Remember the game he missed against Detroit because of a heart problem? Remember when he would have 20 tackles on Sunday, and Monday the coaches would find a half-dozen more? Remember the day he went to the Pro Bowl with an armful of Bucs gear, and no other player would trade with him?

There was the NFC title game in '99.

Remember when the Bucs let him leave?

Nickerson took a better contract offer with Jacksonville. Tampa Bay had offered, too, but nowhere near the money. So Nickerson left. But he didn't want to go.

"I wanted to stay," he said. "I had worked hard, not just on the field but off it. We wanted to get more programs going. But I understood. I was an older guy who they felt didn't have much left in him. They had a younger guy behind me, and they felt it was time for him."

For the Bucs, it turned out to be a bad bet. The young guy was Jamie Duncan, who spent two seasons showing just how valuable Nickerson really was.

Things weren't great for Nickerson, either. He played only six games his first season with Jacksonville. He had a decent season last year, but he was cut because of the salary cap.

When that happened, there were some who would have loved to see Nickerson return. But the Bucs were satisfied with Shelton Quarles in the middle, and they didn't think Nickerson would be happy as a backup.

Nickerson is 37 now, and it's unsure how much he has left. He has been heavily criticized much of the year in Green Bay. "Weak at the point of attack and slow in diagnosing plays," one report said. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel quoted an unnamed AFC personnel director as saying Nickerson was "terrible."

Nickerson says he hasn't read the papers, hasn't heard the criticism. Ask how he thinks he has been playing, and he says, slowly, "I think I'm improving. I think I'm doing my job. Like everyone else, there were times I could have played better."

His best days are done now, andNickerson admits that most still will remember him as a Buc. But the old guy thinks he still has some plays in him. Maybe we'll see a few of them Sunday, just enough to take us back.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Nickerson steps onto the field. He'll come from the wrong direction, wearing the wrong jersey, and he'll head for the wrong sideline. Still, you get the feeling he'll hear the cheers again.

After all this time, after all those tackles, how else are the fans going to say thanks?

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