Ubiquitous Buccaneers middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson is the only NFL defender to regularly stymie Detroit running back Barry Sanders, the league's leading rusher in three of the last seven seasons, including 1996. In one of their two games against Tampa Bay last season Sanders, who averaged 97.1 yards per game in '96, was held to 73; in another game the year before, the Bucks limited Sanders to 48 yards.
"The first thing I do is try to look eyeball-to-eyeball with Barry," says the 6'2", 230-pound Nickerson, of lining up across from the 5'8", 200-pound Sanders. "I might be able to see him peeking in the direction he's running, but almost always he's got his head down, not giving me or anyone else a clue. Then I'll look to see who's blocking me. Usually it's center Kevin Glover. When the ball's snapped, Glover or a guard will lunge at me, trying to take me on. My job is to shed that block with my hands as soon as I can. That's half the battle, getting rid of the blocker. Assuming I do that, then I look for Barry.
"When he's got the ball, he'll usually run wide. Then I have to figure out what angle to take on him. If there's a corner forcing him in, then I can go right for him. If there's a safety inside, I have to take a wide angle toward the sidelines, kind of overrun him, so we're protected outside.
"When I get close, I pounce. I never wait for him to make a move. A lot of guys sit back and wait for him to give them a move, then go for him. I think you've got to initiate the action, or he's going to make you look sick. When I get close enough, I reach out to any part of his body, and whatever I touch I lock onto. No way he'll get free then. I try to grab the outside of his shoulders because that's where his jersey is easiest to get a hold of. Then I just ride him. I will never, ever let go. When he goes down, for me, it's like scoring a touchdown. I've just done the hardest thing a defensive player can do in the NFL.
"I love playing Barry. I pride myself on tackling, and chasing Barry is the greatest opportunity I have to show what kind of tackier I am."