Thursday, June 12, 2003
Linebacker Nickerson calls it a career
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
Typical of Hardy Nickerson, on Wednesday evening as the Packers middle linebacker was explaining to ESPN.com why he has decided to retire, his more pressing concern was in making sure that oldest daughter Ashleigh got to softball practice on time, especially since she had recently been named to the all-star team.
Nickerson, of course, knows something about all-star games, having been named to five Pro Bowl berths during his 16-year NFL career. And he knows a lot about parenting as well, even though he intends to spend even more time developing that coveted lifetime skill, now that Nickerson will be home this summer, instead of in training camp.
The decision to retire -- and, unlike some longtime veterans who waffle after they make the call, Nickerson has already filed his exit documents -- apparently was not a difficult one. It came following a few months of introspection, some time spent evaluating his physical condition and, most important, a realization there are pursuits that will more than adequately fill the void created by not having to step up into the "A-gap" on Sunday afternoon and take on a lead-blocking fullback helmet-to-helmet.
"I did the mental inventory," said Nickerson, one of the premier middle linebackers of the last two decades, a player whose career included 1,867 tackles. "Even though I felt like last year was it, as I walked off the field after the playoff loss, I thought, 'Well, let's just see how you feel in a few months.' But there were some things that hadn't healed yet all the way. And as much as I will miss it, there are a lot of things for me to do, believe me."
Exactly what those things are, and in the order they will be accomplished, isn't certain yet. But one distinct possibility is law school, a longtime aspiration, and Nickerson has begun to scan the LSAT exam. There are some business opportunities. And there is the ongoing assimilation into the life of a chauffeur, as Nickerson ferries Ashleigh, 12, and twins Hardy and Haleigh, nine, around the Bay area to various functions.
One of the NFL's biggest hitters for much of his career, Nickerson was always one of its most notable humanitarians as well. He and wife Amy will continue to have an impact on the community, to be as involved as time permits, and they plan to enhance some of the programs that they initiated in the past.
None of this is of much surprise to Nickerson's teammates and associates.
Eugene Parker, the agent who has represented Nickerson for several years, acknowledged his life "would be a whole lot easier" if every client followed the linebacker's lead. One who has, former Tampa Bay teammate Derrick Brooks, a celebrated philanthropist in his own right, allowed that Nickerson will commit himself even more now to social causes.
"He's not one to stand on the sideline, certainly not when he sees an opportunity where his involvement can make a difference," Brooks said. "The game is going to miss him. Hardy will be around a long time, though, doing good things for people. That's simply his nature, you know?"
For sure, the football statistics are impressive enough, with Nickerson having appeared in 225 games during stints in Pittsburgh (1987-92), Tampa Bay (1993-99), Jacksonville (2000-2001) and Green Bay (2002). He registered 100-plus tackles nine times and posted more than 200 tackles in 1993 and 2001. His playing resume also includes 21 sacks, 12 interceptions, 60 passes defensed, 23 forced fumbles and a dozen recoveries.
In 16 seasons, Nickerson played in eight playoff contests. The Steelers and the Bucs, in part because of his presence, were among the most dominating defenses in recent history.
"But football," said former Steelers teammate Rod Woodson, "is just part of the measure of the man."
In the past month, one student who benefited from the Hardy Nickerson Foundation graduated from The Citadel and another is preparing to enter college. Past programs for at-risk youngsters, former mentoring initiatives that were set aside when Nickerson left the Tampa Bay Bucs after the 1999 season, may be revived. There may be increased efforts at the Hardy Nickerson Computer Center, which he established at the University of California, his alma mater.
In some ways, I'll miss the game, because I respected it so much. But it was time to move on and there are a lot of things to move on to. ”
— Hardy Nickerson
Nickerson, who was presented the prestigious Byron "Whizzer" White Award in 1997 -- which is given by the NFL Players Association to a player whose excellence extends beyond the field -- isn't likely to suddenly lose a well-nurtured social conscience. Notable is that Nickerson insisted Wednesday, and quite convincingly, that he would not trade the White Award even for the Super Bowl ring that eluded him during his career.
A championship ring, after all, is indicative of excellence on a given day. Nickerson is hardly retiring from life, just football, and he intends to add to his body of work away from the game. That charity will doubtless start at home, and already has, given some of his new duties around the house, but definitely won't end at the Nickerson front door.
"The best role model I had was my father," said Nickerson of Hardy Sr., a former cook. "Every night, I sat across the dinner table from him and learned something about life. I learned about his work ethic, his loyalty, and his regard for people. Those are the kinds of things you want to take forward with you in life. When it comes to the big picture, the football things are great, and they create opportunities. But they are temporary."
Just how temporary, and fragile, the life of celebrity can be was dramatically illustrated to Nickerson in 1998. That season, he missed the final six games battling pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. Doctors told Nickerson that, with rest and a lack of stress, he would recover fully and resume his career.
At age 33, however, he considered the possibility he might never play again. The things prescribed to him, relaxation and rehabilitation, were the elements of his life he found most difficult to control.
"Even with what the doctors say," recalled Nickerson, "you can't help but think, 'Hey, we're talking about my heart here. What if there's scarring? What if it doesn't heal the way it's supposed to?' I mean, you can't be 100 percent certain when it's your heart. That's why, when I came back (in 1999), I definitely appreciated the game more. And, I guess, life in general more, too. I definitely felt like I got a second chance."
There will not, he added adamantly, be a third one.
His retirement decision is final and, Nickerson emphasized, there are no regrets. While some critics panned his performance with the Green Bay Packers in 2002, when he had 108 tackles but wasn't the dominant force he had been earlier in his career, Nickerson recalled his final season the most enjoyable one of his lengthy league tenure.
There may be times, come July when his body is telling him it's time for training camp, when Nickerson will permit himself the luxury of a glance into the rear-view mirror. But for the most part, he plans to travel the road in front of him, and with few detours.
When he speaks of his wife and children, as when he mentions that son Hardy belted a grand slam home run last week, there is a small hint of vicarious satisfaction. But he is a man who desires to live his life with his kids and not through them. To be sure, there is plenty of challenge out there, he agreed. And plenty of potential endeavors into which he will throw himself.
"In some ways, I'll miss the game, because I respected it so much," Nickerson said, before heading off for Ashleigh's softball practice. "But it was time to move on and there are a lot of things to move on to."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.