CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the record, none of this — not one blasted thing — was Dad’s idea.
Not the transfer from California to Illinois. Not the call to play middle linebacker. And sure as heck not the decision to start rolling around with the pigskin in the first place.
“People always ask me: ‘Did you force him to play football?’ ” Hardy Nickerson recalled with a grin. “When he was born, he was reaching for a ball, that football. And when he was a baby, a toddler, he wouldn’t go to sleep unless he had cleats on and a football helmet on.”
The compass? The vision? The motor? Some cats learn it. Some cats develop it.
Hardy Nickerson Jr. — H2 to Mom, Little Hardy to Dad — was born with it.
“If anything, I try to play like this guy,” Illinois’ senior linebacker said, nodding in the direction of his father, the Fighting Ilini’s defensive coordinator, standing a few paces back.
“I’m always watching film on him when we get the chance. I think we’re both kind of in that range where people think we’re undersized, but it’s more about heart and flying around. I think I’m big enough to play at any level and anytime I get a chance to make a play, I want to make it.”
Old habits die hard. H2’s first tackle football game was a Pop Warner contest at the age of 8 at Lambeau Field, during halftime of one of his father’s games with the Packers. He followed Dad in spirit and substance, switching to eight different schools between kindergarten and 12th grade while Hardy Sr. anchored defenses in Tampa Bay (1993-1999), Jacksonville (2000-2001) and Green Bay (2002).
Dad was named to the Pro Bowl four times during a 16-year pro career; for kicks, the Illini defense pulls up footage of their defensive coordinator during his Buccaneers salad days.
“And those guys,” Hardy the younger said, “really got after it.”
Junior gets after it, too. As the Illini head to No. 15 Nebraska this weekend for coach Lovie Smith’s conference debut, Little Hardy leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (9.7) and ranks second in assists (5.7):
— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) September 27, 2016
Scouts dig football IQ, quicks and the things you can’t teach. H2 offers all three as a potential second-generation NFL linebacker, and if some personnel types raise red flags over size (6-foot, 230 pounds), others see another potential London Fletcher: a fireplug who usually finds himself filling the right gap at the right time.
“For him to have the same opportunity I had as a young man, I’m excited for him,” said the elder Nickerson, a fifth-round draft pick in 1987 out of Cal. “It’s something he’s dreamed about.”
They just never dreamed it would shake out quite like this. The elder Nickerson had coached his son at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., but when Dad went to go work for Smith as the Bucs linebackers coach in 2014, the family became more or less bicoastal.
Technically, Mom got the worst of it. Amy Nickerson would frequently catch a flight from their leased home in Tampa out to the Bay for a Saturday game in Berkeley, then jump on a redeye back to Florida to make the Bucs game on Sunday.
“She got a lot of miles between trying to get to games out there and back to Tampa and figuring out the schedule,” Hardy Sr. said. “So it became pretty tough. But she’s a trouper. She made it. We always had a thing about being at all of our kids’ events. So that’s been really important to us.”
The elder Nickerson figured he’d solved the mileage problem in January, taking a job as linebackers coach with the 49ers. Only when Smith landed the head coaching job at Illinois and invited Hardy Sr. to serve as his defensive coordinator, the Cal defender encouraged his dad to take the gig in the Midwest.
“I was staying in (our) house in Oakland, and (he’s) there and we’re seeing each other every day and he’s like, ‘Man, you’ve got to go, that’s a great opportunity for you,’ ” the Illini coach recalled. “And I thought I was leaving and wouldn’t see his senior year at all.”
Instead, he’s got a front-row seat. H2 rolled up 112 tackles (8.6 per game) last fall for the Golden Bears, a three-year starter at middle linebacker who blossomed into one of the Pac-12’s most reliable stoppers. Father and son would spend whatever time they could recounting each other’s exploits, usually over the phone, generally at strange hours.
Then Little Hardy had a big epiphany: The young linebacker decided after finishing spring drills at Cal to pursue his final season of eligibility — he’d graduated from Berkeley with a degree in legal studies — in the Big Ten and follow pops to Champaign.
“It was a very hard decision for me, just leaving some of my good friends out there,” the younger Nickerson said. “But it was one that I felt that I needed to make and that I thought was right.”
Mom, Dad and H2 decamped to downstate Illinois, uncluttering the family’s tangled travel itineraries something fierce.
“It’s something for you to move and start coaching in a different place,” Smith reflected. “But for the entire family to be able to come out to cheer for the University of Illinois each week and have a chance — just (as) a coach’s son, that’s pretty special to him. So many stories within that story. It’s neat. And for me, I’ve known little Hardy since he was practically born.”
Home-cooked meals 1, West Coast 0. The apple doesn’t fall far from the passing tree.
“Coach is …” Hardy Jr. started. He paused, shot a sheepish grin at the sky and corrected himself. “My Dad is hard on everybody.”