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Nickerson returns as source of inspiration

For seven seasons, linebacker Hardy Nickerson was the symbol of professionalism for the Bucs defense and an undisputed team leader.

So in his quest to link the Bucs of today to the great contributors of the past, coach Jon Gruden invited Nickerson, now retired, to travel with the team to Oakland.

"It means a lot," Nickerson said Friday. "It's something that didn't happen a lot, at least not in my days. We may have had Lee Roy (Selmon) come along a few times, but as far as actively getting the older guys involved, that hadn't happened. It's something that's a great positive. The players who are here now get to see a little history."

Nickerson, 39, said he's happy to play whatever role the Bucs wish.

"Maybe a pregame speech, I don't know," Nickerson said. "Coach asked me to come out, so I'm here to do whatever he needs. If it's speaking to them, it's speaking to them. If it's being around, then it's being around."

Cornerback Ronde Barber, one of the few remaining Bucs who played with Nickerson, said "Hardware" was always a true professional.

"He brought a lot energy to the team," Barber said. "The guy was fun to be around. Always on his job. He understood what it took, and we need that to rub off on some guys."

Nickerson began his career with the Steelers before signing with the Bucs in 1993. Over the next seven seasons, he started all 104 games he played for the team. His 1,028 tackles are second in team history to Derrick Brooks' 1,445. He played two seasons with the Jaguars (2000-01) and retired after playing the 2002 season with the Packers.

Nickerson said he felt "like a proud papa," when the Bucs won the Super Bowl, but stressed that retirement is a lot of fun.

"It's relaxing for sure. I think I've been in my wife's hair. As for the kids, I think I'm getting on their nerves, too," Nickerson said.

TALL ORDER: Much has been made about the impact defensive tackle Warren Sapp will have on the Raiders defense, but center John Wade said the Bucs offense could pay a heavy price if they ignore defensive tackle Ted Washington, the other new addition in Oakland.

"He's a big man and has been playing a long time and is a force in the middle," Wade said of the 6-foot-5 veteran who is listed at 365 pounds. "He's been doing it for (14) years now. I've seen him toss linemen, backs and lead blockers around like they were children for years. It's going to be a tough battle like it is every week, but this is a 400-pound man who knows how to play the game."

Washington, a critical part of the Patriots' stifling defense during last season's championship season, is known for his ability to clog the running lanes and force teams to double team him.

Washington also is known for his mean disposition.

"I think everyone, every week (has a mean disposition). Every week is a fight. There's no shaking hands. You can be friends later," Wade said.

Gruden said Washington is particularly menacing in the Raiders' 3-4 defense.

"Not only is he big, but he's strong," Gruden said. "He can control the center. He has for years, and that's what makes him such a valuable commodity in the 3-4 system. He's got good agility for a big guy and with the supporting cast that he has, he's very effective right now."

_ ROGER MILLS, Times staff writer

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