Hardy Nickerson Belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

When most sportswriters chronicle a franchise’s turning point its usually attributed to the hiring of a coach or a number one draft pick QB who goes on to a Hall of Fame career. One where the culture of an organization completely shifts as the team has a pivotal player & focal point to build around. Enter Hardy Nickerson.

Most try to equate the turnaround with the drafting of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks when the direction was set in motion several years before these two Hall of Famers were drafted in ’95.

Let’s take you back to the early 1990’s Tampa was a desolate outpost no one wanted to play for. It was a rudderless franchise that had just finished 1992 having set an NFL record with their 10th straight double digit loss season.

The culture was so demoralized just 8 years before 1st round draft pick Bo Jackson refused to play for Tampa. He elected baseball instead. USFL refugee Steve Young was so disheartened with the situation he only played 2 seasons. After a 3-16 record as the starter in ’85 and ’86, Young asked owner Hugh Culverhouse to allow him to leave. His trade paved the way for a Hall of Fame career out in San Francisco and the chance to draft ’86 Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde.

Testaverde toiled in Tampa for six seasons, never winning more than 6 starts and exited in the first season of free agency for a backup assignment in Cleveland. Yet before the door shut Hardy Nickerson was the first big free agent to sign on and step through.

Nickerson became the centerpiece of Defensive Coordinator Floyd Peters’ 4-3 at Middle Linebacker and a terror was set loose. He became a sideline to sideline tracker and hit everything in sight. In ’93 he led the NFL in tackles with a team record 214 while making his 1st Pro Bowl and voted 1st team All Pro. It was only the 4th time a Tampa Bay defender was voted to the Pro Bowl in Hawai’i and the 2nd all pro selection since the team’s inception.

His play was so dominant he broke the team season tackle record in a week 15 win over Chicago. There were still 3 games to go in 1993! So his 1st season ended with 214 tackles, recorded a sack, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and had an interception.

Or think of it like this… he recorded 96 more tackles than his Hall of Fame teammate Derrick Brooks (118) recorded in ’02 when he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Chew on that for a second…

He brought an intensity that was infectious and the Bucs began to stand and fight with their foes instead of conceding defeat. In 1993 Nickerson and the Bucs weren’t highly ranked but held 4 teams to 10 points or less. A Taylor Blitz defensive staple. To match this total,  not including season finales where teams and the Bucs had packed it in… you have to go back 6 years to 1988 to tally 4 teams held to 10 or fewer covering a year time period.

Earlier in his career he shared the inside linebacking duties in the Steelers 3-4. Yet now he became the successor to Mike Singletary’s Middle Linebacker throne in the old NFC Central. Over the next 7 years Nickerson averaged 119 tackles 2 forced fumbles every year as he led his young teammates in to battle as they chased the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North who had become league champion.

From that point on the organization geared their personnel decisions on teaming Nickerson with blue chip defensive talent. Gone were the high profile offensive players that turned the “Yucs” into the laughing stock of the NFL. Replaced by one forged of grit and toughness that thrived on the visceral edge of football. This culiminated with the 96 draft and twin #1 selections Derrick Brooks & Warren Sapp along with promoting SS John Lynch up from special teams.

The season opener in ’97 saw the seminole moment Nickerson’s defensive mates had grown to match his intensity and tenacity. Perennial power San Francisco came to Tampa and were hammered 13-6 as Steve Young was sacked and knocked from the game by Sapp. He returned a few quarters later where Nickerson sacked him again along with his 6 tackles on the game. Brooks had 10 tackles and Sapp finished with 2 1/2 sacks.

With playmakers all over the field in Tony Dungy’s new “Tampa 2” Nickerson’s stats took a hit. Yet in ’97 he recorded his 2nd highest career total with 147 tackles, the 1 sack and 2 forced fumbles. Hardy made 2 different All Pro teams while being named to the 1st unit and made the 3rd of his 5 Pro Bowl appearances.

However had he made the ’95 Pro Bowl he would have finished on the last 5 straight Pro Bowl teams to finish the 90’s with 6 overall.  Yes Ken Norton and Jesse Tuggle were great that year but…

  • Nickerson – 143 combined tackles, 1 1/2 sacks 3 forced fumbles 3 fumble recoveries
  • Ken Norton – 96 combined tackles, 1 sack, 1 ff, 3ints for 2 TDs (same game)
  • Jessie Tuggle – 152 combined tackles, 1sack, 1ff, 3ints

Kenny, Kenny, Kenny Norton…. sigh..  yet this is what the players voted and he was on a #1 defense in San Fran that year. This catapulted Norton’s profile that year and Nickerson was robbed.. I meant snubbed. Yet I digress

The ’97 Bucs finished 3rd in defense and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years where they lost to the Packers. Ushering in the era where the Bucs finished in the top 3 in both 98 and 99.

Unfortunately ’99 was the last season for Nickerson with the Bucs. Although he was 34 he finished with 110 combined tackles, 1/2 sack, 3 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. He made his 5th and final Pro Bowl. His final game in Tampa was the NFC Championship where the Bucs held The Greatest Show on Turf to 11 points and held a 6-5 lead in the 4th quarter.’

Nickerson left Tampa after that stellar defensive performance and played for both Jacksonville and Green Bay before retiring.

Yet the men he helped usher in defensive excellence with went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII a few years later. Once the final minutes counted down the first two members of the Tampa Bay family I thought of were former head coach Sam Wyche and Nickerson. It was the late Wyche who signed Nickerson and set him loose in his defense.

For his career Nickerson made All Pro 4 times, the Pro Bowl 5 times and was a member of The All Decade Team of the 1990’s. Do you realize he is the only true Middle Linebacker on the all decade team?

Where Heisman Trophy winners Vinny Testaverde, Bo Jackson, and Hall of Famer Steve Young failed to change the culture of the organization, Nickerson succeeded. The relative wealth and fortune of the franchise changed from the moment he took the field.

Name a better and more consistent Middle Linebacker from the NFC side of the ledger from the 1990’s?? I’ll wait here

His signing at the advent of the 1st season of true free agency (1993) you have to think of his signing as important as Reggie White in Green Bay. It resurrected a franchise and led to Super Bowl triumph ultimately.

To see his number isn’t retired nor in the Buccaneer Ring of Honor is a complete travesty. The relative wealth and prestige took off the moment Nickerson signed on and they should have a statue out front. Well one place this historian believes he should be is in Canton.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame I present to you Hardy Nickerson.

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The Chancellor’s past articles advocating for players to be inCanton prio induction:

 

With Kevin Greene after the Induction ceremony.

Kevin Greene

 

 

Terrell Davis

 

“Hey big guy!” The laughs at the Hall of Fame party were priceless.

Jerry Kramer

Randy Moss

Andre Reed

Edgerrin James

Ken Stabler

Cris Carter

Robert Brazile

 

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Met Robert Brazile after the Gold Jacket Dinner. Great time.

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What Would Bill Walsh Say??

In Dcecember of 2016 NFL Films presented “A Letter to Bill Walsh” by Professor Harry Edwards… What would he say to the Colin Kaepernick protest?? Before spouting nonsense…watch the vid of one of his best friends and confidant who organized the boycott of the Olympic Games of 1968 in Mexico City. Edwards still works for the 49ers and u can see him on the sidelines and in the locker room of every San Francisco 49er Super Bowl win. Then it got me to thinking “What would my Hall of Fame trip in August been like had he been there?” Sharing his connections of each inductee

It would have been great had he been alive for the last Hall of Fame ceremony and to have met him. He had links to so many who were enshrined. The 1st being Eddie Debartolo, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, who gave him the coaching job he deserved.

hofticketHe would have mingled with all the former 49ers who were in attendance and partied all week. He would have obviously shared stories with his former offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, whom I did meet right after his QB Brett Favre had just given his induction speech. What stories would they have shared?? I saw Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, and bumped into Brent Jones as I entered the Hall of Fame ceremony walking and joking with SS Carlton Williamson off his 1st 2 49er championship teams.

He would have had a blast talking to friend and fellow Northern Californian Dick Vermeil. Of course he was in town for the enshrinement of T Orlando Pace of his Greatest Show on Turf Rams. They were coaching confidants for decades. When Walsh first struggled with the 49ers, Dick was one of the coaches he leaned on. Who kept telling him to “hang in there” as revealed in a 2000 interview with NFL Films. Vermeil, I got the chance to share a laugh and a joke with in the Atlanta airport waiting for our connecting flight to Canton.

Had he been there with me at the time… he could have shared that laugh as Vermeil introduced me to Kevin Greene’s parents sitting next to him. It was Walsh’s failure to block Greene when he had that 4 1/2 sack performance on a Sunday Night to put him on the NFL map in Walsh’s last Super Bowl season in 1988.

Had Bill Walsh been there it would be great to wish Dick Stanfel had been as well. Remember “The Fridge” when Mike Ditka put a defensive tackle in at running back to pay back San Francisco in the 80s?? Well it was Stanfel’s defensive line of the Chicago Bears that watched in the 1984 NFC Championship Game where Walsh put Guard Guy McIntyre in the backfield as an additional blocker. I got to share a couple stories with Bears DT Tyrone Keyes about those glory days hanging in the Canton airport with Hall of Fame LB Ricky “Dome Patrol” Jackson. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall to hear all those great stories they would have told had he been there.

stabler-crestI know he would have definitely had a lot to share with all the former Raiders in town for Ken Stabler’s enshrinement. Walsh, Madden, and Stabler were all Bay area legends. It was the Raiders legacy he was chasing all those years in San Francisco. Working to make the 49ers a perennial winner. Fighting for respect from the Bay area press..

Then you have Tony Dungy…one of the first coaches to have come up through the Minority Coaching Fellowship program he founded. Now here he was…the 1st black head coach to win a Super Bowl who was going into the Hall of Fame having coached in much the same temperament as Walsh.

hofdungyspeechCould you imagine the stories he could have shared with all those former LA Rams in attendance?? Certain elements of game plans of what to do against specific Rams they had to game plan for. All those 49ers and Rams were sitting not too far from one another…

Had Bill Walsh been there and broken away from the week long 49er party ( I still haven’t seen Gary Plummer since the Gold Jacket night…lol) could u imagine the game plan stories he could have shared at Gervasi Vineyard as everyone had wine at Kevin’s post enshrinement with all those former Rams?? What questions would they have had for Walsh?? What stories would he have shared??

Bill Walsh had links to everyone who was enshrined this year off the top of my head except Marvin Harrison. There has to be a link there somewhere…just hadn’t thought of it yet..

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh are linked forever in football lore.

Joe Montana and Bill Walsh are linked forever in football lore.

Could you imagine the fun had he been there for Canton this last August?? I definitely would have found him and shook his hand… however Walsh, Stanfel, Al Davis and Snake were up there looking down…smiling…and sharing stories of their own.

What would they have been sharing???

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