Hardy Nickerson - My Story
I have been a part of football and football has been a part of me for for close to 40 years. Starting as young player coming up in Southern California, through high school, college, the NFL, and then as a radio and TV commentator, and finally coaching at various levels. I've seen every part of the game - the plays, the people, the crowds, winning, losing, the whole nine yards!
Here's my story (so far)!
I was born and raised in Compton, California, where I lettered in track and football at Verbum Dei High School. located in the Watts section of Los Angeles. At Verbum Dei I had a very satisfying and successful high school career playing both Center and Linebacker, helping lead the Verbum Dei Eagles to 2 CIF Section Championships, while sustaining a 25-game winning streak. I was honored to be named to the Verbum Dei High School Hall of Fame.
After high school I headed north from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, where I attended and played at the University of California at Berkeley, During my Cal Bear career, I was a 3-time team MVP (1983-86), earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors, Sports Illustrated Defensive Player of the Week, and tallied 501 total tackles, still second on the school’s all-time list to this day. As hard as I worked on the field, I also worked hard off the field. I'd always know that regardless of what you do, you had to continue to educate yourself. I still hold that philosophy today with myself and my family. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Berkeley. Berkeley is also where I met my partner of 30 years Amy Nickerson.
National Football League
In 1987, I was drafted in the fifth round (122nd overall) of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I initially found playing time on special teams, but quickly established myself as a stalwart at inside linebacker, accounting for 426 total tackles during my 6-year Steelers career from 1987-1992.
In 1993, in the first class of NFL free agency (thanks in part to me being a plaintiff in NFL vs White, the historic case that created free agency in the NFL) I headed south to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where I would star in the middle of the Bucs 4-3 defense under Coach Sam Wyche.
In my first season with the Buccaneers, I worked hard to establish myself as a force to be reckoned with. I tallied a record-breaking 214 tackles, was selected as a starter in my first Pro Bowl, and also earned prestigious first-team All-Pro honors. From 1993-1999 while playing for the Bucs, I averaged 118 tackles per season, earned 5 Pro Bowl selections, and 4 All-Pro honors.
During my tenure with the Bucs I was proud to be one of the architects of the famed and feared 'Tampa 2' defense. Perhaps my proudest on field achievement, at least the thing that will last in the history books as a contribution to the game of football, is the Tampa 2 defense, and how I, humbly, came to dominate in that formation.
In 2000, I again became a free agent and headed north to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Unfortunately, I sustained a season-ending knee injury that year, but came back the following year to lead the team in tackles with 116. In 2002, I joined the Green Bay Packers for the final year of my NFL career and helped lead the Packers to the NFC North Division Championship.
I am proud to say that during my 16-year career as an NFL player, I started 200 of 225 career games played, totaling 1,867 tackles, and averaging 137 tackles per season. I also recorded 21 sacks, 12 interceptions, 60 passes-defensed, 23 forced fumbles and a dozen fumble recoveries.
Along with this long list of achievements I was also included a second-team selection to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team - Defense, as well as being selected as the recipient of the Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award in 1998. The “Whizzer” White award is given annually to one NFL player who best serves his team, community and country in the spirit of Byron “Whizzer” White, who was a Supreme Court justice, professional American football player, naval officer, and humanitarian.
As a player, my strong leadership capabilities combined with a deep knowledge of the game led me to serve as a mentor for countless players and teammates. Consequently, it was a natural progression for me to make the move from the field to the sideline as a coach. This new journey began in 2004 when I was offered a training camp internship position with the Chicago Bears through the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. Later I coached linebackers for the Chicago Bears in 2007, helping linebacker Lance Briggs make the Pro Bowl that season.
After leaving the Bears due to health issues within my family, I returned to coaching in 2009 as the linebackers’ coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. There I the linebackers, including my son Hardy Nickerson Jr., for one season, and in 2010 became the Varsity Head Football Coach for the next four years.
I was able to prove by ability to coach players at all skill levels, and thus was instrumental in developing many young players into elite athletes. Under my leadership, my coaching staff helped produce nearly twenty collegiate scholarship athletes. Also during my tenure at Bishop O’Dowd, I helped lead the Dragons to multiple league titles. During this time I also made numerous coaching appearances across the country for various football camps, clinics and elite football programs.
Finishing up my four-year run as a high school head coach, in 2014 I moved on to coach linebackers in a familiar location – the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During my two years with the Bucs, I worked with Pro Bowler Lavonte David, who finished third in the NFL in total tackles in both 2014 (146) and 2015 (147). Rookie Kwon Alexander also had a breakout season under my coaching, totaling 59 tackles and two interceptions. Alexander was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after totaling 11 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in an overtime win over Atlanta.
Entering the 2016 NFL season, I was hired as linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers, but just for a short time, being ultimately lured to the University of Illinois with a promotion to Defensive Coordinator. I spent nearly three seasons (2016, 2017 and most of 2018) as Illinois’ defensive coordinator and assistant head coach (2018 season).
At Illinois, I helped to produce outstanding seasons in my first year from senior defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot, while my son Hardy Nickerson Jr. led the team in tackles with 107. Phillips was named Illinois’ first All-Big Ten first-team selection in five years after finishing the regular season ranked seventh in the nation in tackles for loss (TFL) per game (1.7). Smoot, who was drafted in the third round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, added 15.0 TFLs as they combined for the second-most TFLs between teammates in the Big Ten and the Illini were 10th in the nation in team TFLs per game (7.9). Smoot (third team) and Phillips were both All-Big Ten performers under me, while sophomore linebacker Tre Watson and Hardy Jr. were honorable mention picks. Hardy Jr. started all 12 games and was fourth in the Big Ten in tackles per game (8.9). In 2017, I helped safety Bennett Williams to ESPN.com's Freshman All-America honors and the BTN.com All-Freshman Team.
In 2018 I resigned from coaching after experiencing health issues, but still remain involved and active in the football fraternity. In fact, the Cover 2 project is an exciting next phase that I'll talk more about elsewhere!
Titles and Accomplishments
After 40 years of experience as a player, captain, coach, commentator, and analyst there is not much that I haven't tried or accomplished. A 16-year career as an NFL linebacker is an extraordinarily long one, especially in a position like linebacker!
- 5 Pro Bowl selections
- 4 All-Pro selections
- 1990s NFL All-Decade 2nd Team
- Byron “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year 1998
- NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Runner Up
- 2-time recipient of NFL’s Ed Block Courage Award
- NFL Players Association NFLPA Linebacker of the Year
- NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame Nominee
- John Madden’s “All-Madden” Team 1999
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Captain – 6 years
- Buccaneers Team MVP – 3 years
- 3 time NFC Defensive Player of the Week
- NFC Central Division Title
- Jacksonville Jaguars Defensive Captain
- Green Bay Packers Defensive Captain
- NFC North Division Title – 2002
- University of California at Berkeley Athletics Hall of Fame
- Verbum Dei High School Hall of Fame
- Name Plaintiff in historic White v. NFL case which successfully granted unrestricted free agency to all NFL players
- Keys to City of Tampa awarded by Mayor Greco
- Hardy Nickerson Day proclaimed on Jan. 26, 1994 by the City of Tampa
- PewterReport.com’s Buccaneers Coach Of The Year
- BucsNation.com’s Buccaneers Coach Of The Year
- NFL’s High School Football Coach Of The Week – Northern CA
Finally, I am also very active and have received attention from my philanthropic work and as an active leader in the community. The Hardy Nickerson Foundation provides educational tools and programs for disadvantaged youths. I've mentored numerous children through the foundation’s program “Hardy’s Huddles”, and have also helped to create numerous other programs including “Hardy’s Homeworkshops”, which provided after-school tutoring assistance in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs, and “Education Expedition”, a summer bus tour of colleges.
Besides work in my foundation, I've dedicated much of my life contributing to charitable causes and events, and giving back to the community that has been such an important part of my life and has given me the success for which I am very grateful and feeling blessed.