He walked into the Alamodome in San Antonio, Tex., with a baby face, a pair of chubby cheeks and a lot to prove at the US Army All-American Combine. All Hardy Nickerson, Jr. had was his father's name and a legacy. He left with a lot of question marks.
Opinions of the talent evaluators on hand were in varying keys, but the tune was largely the same: Good instincts, slow feet, too short, a little doughy; likely a bit of a project at the next level if he matures physically.
Six months later, Nickerson has shed some of that baby fat, checking in at 6-foot, 220 pounds. He can bench 305 pounds and squat over 400. His 40-yard time still isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but a consistent 4.7-second time is a sight better than his 5.0-plus time in San Antonio.
"I went there just for the publicity," Nickerson says. "I had recently gotten surgery on my jaw, so I just kind of went there for the publicity and stuff … They told me that I wasn't supposed to run or anything because I was still on all of my Vicodin and all my medicine, so I was real woozy. They threw me out there and I was like, 'Why am I doing this?' Then, they told me to go ahead and do it, and they'd scratch everything, but I guess they didn't.
"Since then, I've increased everything. I feel like a totally different player than last year, and I'm ready to get started again."
First impressions can be hard to shake, but, the criticisms that have been leveled at Nickerson, Jr.'s game since then have done little to his self-esteem. He knows that he's undersized. He knows that he may be a step slower than he'd like to be. But he's far from ready to give in to just being "the little guy." If anything, he sees it as an advantage.
"Always being told that you're undersized, it definitely adds up, and makes you push that extra weight and get more, to push extra hard and prove the critics wrong," Nickerson, Jr., says.
ENTER THE DRAGON
Nickerson, Sr., got his nickname, "The Dragon," thanks to some clever marketing.
"I got that nickname from NIKE," he says. "They did a commercial with myself and Dennis Hopper, and they approached my agent and said, 'Hey, we want to do one with Hardy. We're going to call him El Dragon,' so they did it, it looked great, and that's where El Dragon came from."
That commercial ran in 1994, while Nickerson, Sr., was playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just over a decade and a half later, when he took over the reins of the Bishop O'Dowd football program, he couldn't help but smile.
"That is funny," he laughs. "I did chuckle a little bit when I took over here, because I thought it was quite funny."
Last season for Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O'Dowd, Nickerson saw some time on offense, carrying the ball nine times for 45 yards and catching 10 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown, but the real fireworks were on defense. Nickerson led the Dragons -- coincidentally, his father Hardy Nickerson, Sr., now the head coach at O'Dowd, was known during his 16 NFL seasons as "The Dragon" -- with 116 total tackles. The next-closest defender was 43 hits behind.
Nickerson, Jr., also recorded two pass deflections and caused one fumble from the middle linebacker slot in the largely 4-3 alignment.
"Number one, he's as tough as they come," Nickerson, Sr., says. "You're talking about a kid that, right off of having his wisdom teeth pulled, on medication, was not supposed to do anything at that All-American Combine, he wanted just to be a part of it, to be around the players. The strides he's made, he's a totally different player now, as opposed to what he was last season. He's made great strides, and I can see that his upside is tremendous."
Before committing to Cal this past weekend, Nickerson had amassed offers from Nebraska, Colorado, Colorado State, Navy, Utah and others, but the most important one was of course the one from Dear Old Dad's alma mater.
"I was excited," Nickerson, Jr., recalls. "To get that offer, it was very exciting for me, and I kind of went back and evaluated everything and made my decision. I realized that's where I wanted to be all along."
The three-day full-contact camp at Underhill Field in Berkeley that preceded the offer played a large role in cementing Nickerson, Jr., as a scholarship candidate.
"It was huge," he says. "The first day, I was just kind of with my team, and then I got pulled over to the individual camp and went through a workout with them and after that, I got called into coach [Jeff] Tedford's office, he offered me, and it was just very exciting.
"I wanted to talk with my parents before I made any sort of decision, so I knew I wasn't going to commit on the spot. I was very happy and very excited, and I expressed that, but I wanted to talk with my mom and dad first, before I made the decision."
On July 22, he finally pulled the trigger.
"I was really excited to be a part of the Bear family, and I was just totally comfortable being there and just wanted to make it official," Nickerson, Jr., says. "My dad, it was more, 'You've done this by yourself. My name is not your name. You make your name.' He was just excited for me, proud of me and he wasn't pushing me to make a commitment or anything. He just wanted me to take my time, really evaluate everything."
Junior made the call to head coach Jeff Tedford without Senior even knowing.
"Hardy talked to him on Friday, and I was out and about, and he told me he wanted to make a decision during the day, and I didn't know when he was going to do it," Nickerson, Sr., says. "He called me up, and said, 'Dad, I made my commitment to Cal, and I talked with coach Tedford, and he told me that it made his day.' It made his weekend."
While he gets his name and his football instincts from his father, Nickerson, Jr., wants to take his time at Cal and forge his own legacy, his own path. It will be a tall task, escaping Dad's shadow. From 1983 to 1986, Nickerson, Sr., amassed 501 tackles, second on the program's all-time tackles list. He also turned in the first-, fifth- and ninth-best single-season tackle totals with 167 hits in 1985, 141 in 1984 and 132 in 1986.
"It's very important that I be my own man," Nickerson, Jr., said. "Going through this recruiting process, he just told me early: 'I'm not going to push anything to you. I'm going to let you do what you want to do.' I really appreciated that, and he did let me do that, and when I made my decision to go to Cal, he backed me up 100-percent, and I feel like if I had made my decision to go somewhere else, he would have still backed me 100-percent."
After a lengthy NFL career, Nickerson, Sr., sent his daughter to Berkeley, and now, will send his son. Oh, and by the way, his wife Amy is now also a Cal grad. After father and son spent the morning of May 15 in Palo Alto at the NFTC event on the Stanford campus, they had to make a quick exit, but for a good reason.
"I had to leave early, because my mom was graduating," Nickerson, Jr., said. "She got her Masters in Education from Cal. Her graduation was that day, so we had to leave early. I did the pass rush one-on-ones, and then I had to leave."
Nickerson, Jr.'s older sister Ashley -- who ran track until felled by a knee injury -- is currently majoring in Molecular Biology. Nickerson, Jr., is no academic slouch himself, planning on majoring in Business or Economics. He currently carries a 3.7 GPA at O'Dowd, having already completed US History AP, Physics and Economics, with AP Environmental Science and Psychology on deck for his senior year.
Papa Bear returned to Berkeley two years into his NFL career to complete his Bachelor's degree in Sociology, so the eight inches between the ears play a huge role in the Nickerson household.
"It was very important to me, that, when I signed my letter of intent to go to Cal, I promised my mom that I was going to get my degree," Nickerson, Sr., says. "I played four years and had about a semester to finish. Back in those days, I probably would have finished on time, but back in those days, they didn't have Pro Days and all of that. Pro coaches and scouts would just show up on campus and say, 'We want to work you out,' and when they did that, you went and worked out. That forced me to miss some classes, so I had to withdraw in the spring semester of my senior year. So, I went back, got my degree and that was very important. My mom wanted me to make sure I got that done, and I wanted to do that for my mother and my father. My father worked 41 years as a cook for LA County and my mother was a telephone operator. I was the first one in my family to go to a major university and get a degree, so that was very, very important to me, to do that for my family."
That passion for knowledge and study, it seems, has filtered down into the next generation.
"It sets the tone for him, sets the tone for my oldest daughter and it sets the tone for Hardy's little sister," Nickerson, Sr., says, referring to Haleigh Nickerson, a soon-to-be senior guard for the Lady Dragons basketball team. "It shows how important it is to get a college education, get that degree and move on to post-graduate work. Now, it's important that you have that to be successful."
One of the things that distinguished Nickerson, Sr., in his career was his cerebral approach to the game, and the same holds true for his son.
"The thing that defines me as a linebacker is definitely my football IQ," Nickerson, Jr., says. "I feel that my instincts are as good as anybody's -- my big play ability, tackling, of course, hitting off blocks, everything a linebacker needs. I can sniff out plays."
That should come as no surprise, especially with his father watching from the sidelines.
"It's great because he has so much knowledge of the game," Nickerson, Jr., says. "You can just ask him anything, and he has an answer. It's great to talk to someone with that much experience and that much knowledge."
Echoing Hardy, Sr.'s return to campus nearly 20 years before, the family made yet another return to the Bay Area just before Nickerson, Jr.'s sophomore year of high school, having settled for several years in Charlotte, NC.
"After he retired, we were in Danville, because we used to commute back and forth in the offseason. He was just looking for a place where he could raise us, a nice place, and all his friends were out there, so we just decided to go to Charlotte," Nickerson, Jr., says. "My sister got accepted to Cal and then all our family was out there, and my [maternal] grandma died, so we just thought it was just a great time to come back here and get reunited with the Bay Area."
Nickerson, Sr., then took up the head-coaching job for the Dragons, and kept a watchful -- yet distant -- eye on his son.
"He's worked so hard since really his eighth grade year, his freshman year, he's just worked," Nickerson, Sr., says. "It's been a long road. It's been great, it's been fun and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Having spent so long in the pros, and even having coached for the Chicago Bears for a season, Nickerson, Sr., has drawn a firm line between being a father and a coach when Junior is on the field.
"I think the best thing about me coaching him, is that he understands that I'm fair, and if he makes a mistake, I'm his coach," Nickerson, Sr., says. "Sometimes I think I'm a little bit harder on him than on everybody else, but he's been a great player for me, in terms of our coach-player relationship, and of course, he's a great son. Shoot, he's just been a delight to coach and a delight to have as a son."
Like his father, Nickerson, Jr., is a born-and-bred Californian. As the fourth commit in the Bears' 2012 class, Nickerson, Jr., is also the fourth straight son of California to make the call for the state's flagship university, behind quarterback Zach Kline, linebacker Michael Barton and another Cal legacy in four-star wide receiver Bryce Treggs. Sources also say that cornerback Ishmael Adams is also a heavy lean for the Bears, as are No. 10-overall prospect Shaq Thompson and wide receiver Kenneth Walker, who nearly committed at NIKE's The Opening. Throw in big Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian wide out Jordan Payton, and the Bears will have the building blocks of yet another top-20 recruiting class that hail completely from Cal's own backyard.
"I think it's great to get all of the guys that, growing up, have been close [geographically] to each other," Nickerson, Jr., says. "They know each other. They see each other in the paper and stuff and they build that chemistry. I think that'll be great for the program, to get back to that, and I'm happy to be a part of it.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to any of [the commits], but I've seen Michael Barton in passing, I've seen Zach Kline in passing and I've seen Bryce Treggs in passing. Whenever there's an event, I always go up to them and say 'What's up?'"
Even though he's now a part of the same fraternity as his father, Nickerson, Jr., isn't content to ride on his name alone. He's planning on doing some serious work his senior season, in order to match the rankings and accolades of his highly-regarded classmates.
"I want to make more big turnovers," he says. "I want to get into the turnover game and force some fumbles, make an interception. I got one forced fumble last year, and I really want to get into that game and make that more of a part of my game, to become more of a game-changer in that way."
Nickerson, Jr., plays in the middle of the defense in each of Bishop O'Dowd's defensive schemes, playing the middle linebacker in the 4-3 sets (Nickerson, Sr.'s old position) and on the inside in the 3-4. He will stay on the inside when he comes to Cal.
"They haven't told me yet what inside spot, but I just know that I'm going to play inside," he says. "We have some 3-4 packages, but we run primarily a 4-3."
As a coach, Nickerson, Sr., says that it will be up to his son to ready himself for the next level. And the Old Man is just fine with that.
"I think that he'll be ready," Nickerson, Sr., says. "I think when he gets there, he'll be ready. He's got a great football IQ, his work ethic is out of this world and those things, based on my experience as an NFL player and also coaching, those ingredients build the best. I see him going in there and doing well."