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Nickerson bridge in NFL time


It was the second day of Hardy Nickerson's rookie training camp in 1987, when he was a fifth-round draft choice trying to carve a place for himself on the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He took on the Steelers' strongest of strongmen, a 300-pound offensive lineman named John Rienstra, the Steelers' first-round pick of the previous year.

"I was just trying to make some plays and hope somebody would take notice," Nickerson recalled, then laughing at the memory of having been lifted in the air and slammed on his back.

What do you call a rookie who takes on the strongest veteran on the team? Foolhardy, was the answer.

"Training camp in Latrobe (Pa.); there was no air conditioning, you brought your own pillows and blankets, and it was two-a-days in pads every day for six weeks," Nickerson reflected.

That was 14 summers ago. Since then, Nickerson has established himself as one of the most productive linebackers in NFL history, a second team linebacker on the 1990's team of the decade. Rienstra completed a couple of more undistinguished seasons before washing out.

Nickerson is one of a select few players in the NFL who bridge the 1980's, 1990's and 2000. No period in NFL history has seen greater changes: replacement players and strike games, exploding salaries and the advent of the salary cap, radical changes in roster sizes and in the league's draft, franchise flight and expansion.

"My rookie contract was $75,000. I had a $40,000 signing bonus. The highest-paid players on our team were Mike Webster, Donnie Shell and John Stallworth, and all of those guys were making $325,000," Nickerson said.

It was a competitive time. Training camp rosters in 1987 were huge, compared to today. The owners were still in control of the game, a fact that was made clear that season when the owners broke the back of the players' union with replacement-player games that caused veterans to break picket lines in embarrassing numbers.

"You'd go in (to training camp) and there'd be 6-7 guys playing your position. It was different then. You were battling for a job. The door was revolving much faster then. Yeah, I think about it. I guess that sense of urgency has never left me. I take the attitude that I'm a rookie trying to make the team," Nickerson said.

"He never stops," running back Fred Taylor said of Nickerson. "He's just all over the field and he has the other guys playing the same way."

Nickerson played six years with the Steelers, then seven with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and now the kid from Cal who was just trying to make a roster in 1987 is a big-money free-agent acquisition with the Jaguars, with whom Nickerson hopes to add the only thing missing from his great career.

"I want to win a championship," he said with sincere eyes. "That's all I want. I've been to the Pro Bowl; done everything else. I want a championship."

He has a chance; probably no less a chance than he did of making the Steelers' roster as a rookie, even after he was slammed on his back.

"When I entered the league, the goal was to make the team. In the second year, the goal was to become a starter. In the third year, the goal was to be one of the league's better players. I figured that after 10 years I'd have a home and a car and I'd get a real job," Nickerson said.

That was the credo of his first coach, Chuck Noll, who preached to his players that professional football was a short-term opportunity to do something of distinction before they got on with their "life's work." These days, a pro football career of any distinction will probably constitute a player's life's work. That in itself underscores the degree to which professional football has changed since Nickerson was a rookie.

"Chuck Noll was just an old-school coach. He was quiet, dry-humored. He was big on the fundamentals of football; how to block and tackle," Nickerson said of the coach who has won more Super Bowls than any other coach in history.

"Bill Cowher was much more fiery; really got into the game. Sometimes you thought he wanted to play the game," Nickerson said of his second pro coach.

In Tampa, Nickerson played for Sam Wyche, then finished with Tony Dungy at the helm. A Noll-school graduate, Dungy took the Bucs to the NFC title game last season, and the Bucs are a Super Bowl contender this year, but time and the salary cap had run out on Nickerson in Tampa.

Now, Nickerson plays for Tom Coughlin, who is a uniquely different coach than any of Nickerson's previous four.

"I see a great coach; a great football coach with a strong desire to win," said Nickerson, who knows all about wanting to win. It is his only remaining goal.

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