Nickerson shows he still has it
Roger Mills, The St.Petersburg Times, published 15 November 1999

The veteran linebacker reads the play and comes up with an interception that clinches the victory. In the Bucs' galaxy of defensive stars, veteran linebacker Hardy Nickerson may have passed his brightest days. He no longer may be the most popular player on the team. He even may have seen his last Pro Bowl. But with 17 seconds left in a gut-wrenching fourth quarter and the Chiefs rallying, Nickerson proved he still knows a thing or two about making a big play.

His game-saving interception of an Elvis Grbac pass intended for Tony Gonzalez not only sealed the Bucs' 17-10 victory but provided the 13-year veteran a perfect way to start the second half of the season. Nickerson remains a critical part of the defense. "It was very special. I love it," linebacker Derrick Brooks said of Nickerson's interception. "You feel good for anything that happens to Hardy. He's the leader of the team, no doubt, and it couldn't have happened to a better guy."

Added defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin: "Believe me, he hasn't been lost. Everybody on this defense, when you ask them about the MVP, they might tell you Hardy because he calls every huddle. He calls every defense, he makes the checks at the line of scrimmage, he gets people lined up. "He's the leader of this defense, and that will never change. Although the other players are playing very well, with all due respect to them, Hardy is still the man. He's like the coach out there."

Yes, there were the years when Nickerson led the Bucs in tackles every game. Yes, there was a time when needing a big play on defense, Nickerson would be counted on. But times have changed. New stars like Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch have emerged to clutter the limelight. But through it all, the man they call Hardware has routinely brought his lunch pail to work. Nickerson entered Sunday's game second on the team in tackles with 61 and finished with 12 (4 solo, 8 assists) against the Chiefs, behind only Brooks (17) and Lynch (13).

"I just try to lead by example," Nickerson said. "Some days, the opportunity is not there to make many plays, but you can contribute in a number of other ways. I can make sure everybody is lined up and there are no mistakes and everyone knows what calls are made. We have some great players on our defense, and they deserve everything they get. It's just that the opportunity presented itself for me today."

It was his ability to read Gonzalez's route and make the interception that typified his effort Sunday. As the Chiefs drove down the field, trailing by seven, the Bucs seemed vulnerable down the middle of the field. Grbac completed consecutive passes of 18 and 22 yards to Gonzalez to help set up a first down at the Bucs 13. After an incompletion, Grbac dropped back again and tried to hit Gonzalez posting up in the middle of the end zone. Nickerson read it all the way. "They had hit Gonzalez for two big gains, and I had a feeling they were going to him again," Nickerson said. "I kind of cheated over to him. When I saw the quarterback's eyes, I knew it was coming."

Added Gonzalez: "Hardy's a smart linebacker and has been in the league a long time. He got burned twice in a row, and he learned. We tried to go to it again, and he dropped deeper. "You've got to give him credit. He's still a good player. When it comes down to it, he made a great play, and that's how it goes."