Last Friday night, over plates of steaming Mexican rice, chicken enchiladas and beef tacos, Hardy Nickerson celebrated his 35th birthday at home with his wife, Amy, and fellow Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts. At first they talked excitedly about the day in February when Nickerson signed a four-year, $16 million contract with Jacksonville that reunited him with Marts, his teammate in Tampa Bay from 1994 through '96. Later the conversation turned to a more sensitive subject: Nickerson's departure from the Buccaneers, whom he had represented in five Pro Bowls in seven years.
"After a while, [team officials] started cutting me out of press conferences," Nickerson told Marts. An incredulous Marts asked why. Nickerson, the Bucs' alltime leading tackier, just shook his head. "I got lost in the shuffle, I guess," he said. "They just phased me out."
"He probably won't admit it," Marts would say later, "but the way they let him go, after all those lean years when he was the only guy they had and he kept their heads above water, well, I think he feels betrayed." No, Nickerson won't admit it, but his hurt is palpable at times. "If a team wants to keep you when your contract is finishing, then it'll make a gesture, start talking before the season," he says. "I didn't hear anything from the Bucs, and when I still hadn't by the halfway point of the season, it dawned on me I wouldn't be back. That was hard. But I kept playing, doing my job. I gave them all I had. I'm just glad to be here now. So very glad."
So are the Jaguars. In his 14th season Nickerson remains an every-down linebacker, due largely to an arduous conditioning regimen that has kept him almost injury-free (only nine games missed in the past 10 seasons). "I remember watching him in the NFL when I was still in high school," says Jacksonville's 27-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker, Kevin Hardy, "so I didn't know what to think. But then he showed up, and I thought, Man, he's moving faster than me."
The signing of the fiery Nickerson gave the Jacksonville defense—criticized for being soft and lacking a dynamic veteran presence—instant street cred. "First off, he's a leader, which we'll need without Carnell [Lake, the Pro Bowl safety who's out for the year with a broken left foot]," says coach Tom Coughlin. "He also brings an unflappable quality to the huddle. Plus, he can plug the middle or blanket a tight end on every play."
Nickerson is, in other words, an antidote to the Jaguars' Tennessee flu. The Titans were the only team to beat Jacksonville last season, and behind punishing running back Eddie George and imposing tight end Frank Wycheck, Tennessee did it three times. In the off-season Jacksonville made one major free-agent acquisition to end the Titans' dominance. Asked if the Jaguars have found their missing Super Bowl piece in Nickerson, Coughlin says simply, "Yes. That's why we signed him."
In Jacksonville's 27-7 win at Cleveland on Sunday, Nickerson rewarded his new team's faith in him just three plays into the Browns' opening drive. On third-and-two at the Cleveland 28, he closed on wideout Darrin Chiaverini and viciously separated him from a sure first-down catch (below). As the receiver lay concussed on the field, Nickerson flashed his signature strongman flex. "It was a hit," he said after making a team-high 14 tackles, "that I'll remember for a long time."
No, getting lost in the shuffle won't be a problem in Jacksonville. Just ask Darrin Chiaverini. No matter where Hardy Nickerson plays, he has a way of finding you.