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PRO FOOTBALL ‘87 : Hardy Nickerson: Not Hitting It Off With His Teammates

Times Staff Writer

What’s this? Someone knocking the rust off the old Steel Curtain? This whole thing is sort of like a play. There are a whole bunch of punch lines. Maybe some introductions are in order:

“Hardy Nickerson meets the Steelers.”

Act I (also Round 1)

It is during a passing drill that Nickerson, our hero, a 223-pound rookie linebacker from the University of California, runs into Preston Gothard, who is the team’s 242-pound starting tight end. Gothard does not like people running into him, especially fifth-round draft picks.

Gothard throws a punch. It knocks Nickerson’s helmet off.

Nickerson kicks Gothard. He tears Gothard’s helmet off. Nickerson and Gothard are pulled apart.

“Hardy has a way of making offensive players not like him,” said linebacker coach Jed Hughes.

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Act II (Round 2)

This is where our hero meets John Rienstra, a teammate at left guard who weighs 275 pounds and looks as if he can bench press most of western Pennsylvania. The meeting occurs when Rienstra blocks Hardy, puts an illegal hold on him and they both fall down.

Hardy retaliates by pushing Rienstra’s head into the ground.

Now, let’s have Rienstra pick up the story:

“He’s still pushing down on my head. So I said, ‘OK’ and I just started picking him up. I was slowly picking him up and I was getting real mad. He was pulling my face mask.

“I was telling him to let go and I was trying to body-slam him. I was going to pull a Hulk Hogan when he let go of the helmet. A couple of the players kind of ran into us and the whole pile fell down.”

So now, what is your opinion of Hardy?

“He is a tough guy.”

And what, can you call this certain guy who shows such slight regard for the face mask and helmet of a certain person who just happens to outweigh this certain guy by 52 pounds?

Fool-Hardy

Acts III and IV (Rounds 3 and 4)

We begin the last of the training camp conflicts with a brief chance encounter between Hardy and one Terry Long, who just happens to be Rienstra’s opposite number at the other guard position, Long tipping the scales at 265 pounds.

Let us just say that there is a slight altercation, which is explained by another guard, Craig Wolfley: “Sometimes, things get out of hand.”

At last, Hardy gets to meet a player from the backfield-- 235-pound fullback Doug Reeder.

On this occasion, Hardy fights off a block. Unfortunately for Reeder, Hardy twists off Reeder’s helmet doing it.

Unfortunately for Hardy, Reeder is a two-time state wrestling champion at Christiana High School in Newark, Del.

Reeder quickly flips Hardy over and is about to punch him when 269-pound defensive end Keith Gary intervenes as peacemaker. Gary’s reward is to be body-slammed by Reeder, who as it turns out, isn’t mad at Gary or even at Hardy.

“It was nothing personal between me and Hardy,” Reeder said. “Hardy was just being aggressive. That’s what happens to people who are over-aggressive--they end up getting in fights.”

And in Hardy Nickerson’s case, there’s one other thing that happens to people who are over-aggressive.

They play linebacker for the Steelers.

Besides all that rust on the Steel Curtain, the rest the team doesn’t look so hot these days either.

The last four years trace their decline. From 10-6 to 9-7 to 7-9 to 6-10. It isn’t like old times around here anymore, when you could be sure that a football season would wind up in a Super Bowl, just as surely as you could depend that the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers would continue to flow together and become the Ohio River.

However, now comes news out of Steelertown: The Steelers aren’t going with the flow anymore.

They don’t want to lose anymore. No more Mr. Nice Guys here. These look like some new Steelers trying to reclaim the Central Division of the American Conference of the NFL as their own--the one they advocated to Cleveland and Cincinnati, who are now the dominant forces.

The black and gold are thinking about changing their team colors to black and blue. They’re getting down and dirty and also mean. They’re trying to put the teeth back in their defense, the ones that Jack Lambert used to take out when he played linebacker in the Super seasons.

Two years ago, former Steeler Dwight White called the defense “soft and cheesy.”

The Steelers? Soft and cheesy? Well, Nickerson may help change that image. Already the Steelers have made room for him. Pittsburgh cut Dennis (Dirt) Winston, an 11-year veteran inside linebacker, which moved Nickerson into a backup role behind Robin Cole.

On passing downs during the exhibition season, the Steelers sometimes went to five linebackers when Cole came out and Nickerson and Greg Carr joined starters Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Mike Merriweather.

“They need some linebackers,” Nickerson said. “The thing I’m concentrating on right now is trying to fit in as well as I possibly can.”

What? Then what were all those fights about? If you fit like that you’ll need Don King. Nickerson said he found the bouts with his teammates “fairly interesting.”

How so?

“Each day, I go out to play as aggressive and as hard as I possibly can,” he said. “As a result, there have been a few skirmishes. That’s the way I play. I’ve always played the same. It doesn’t matter to me who I run up against. Whenever there’s a skirmish, there’s a point to be made. And I’m never going to back down from anyone.”

Nickerson has been making runners back down for a long time. He was California’s all-time leading tackler after a high school career in which he starred at Verbum Dei High School. The Eagles won 25 straight games and shut out 13 opponents when Hardy played there. As a junior at Verbum Dei, Nickerson made the switch from center to linebacker.

“I wanted to hit someone,” he said. “I wanted to hit someone for the first time. I did it. And it felt great.”

It probably didn’t feel so great to the guy getting hit. But that’s how Hardy got his first nickname: The Hardware Man. He nailed ballcarriers.

Anyway, the Steelers need plenty of that. But first, there’s this small matter of teaching the Hardware Man the nuts and bolts about playing linebacker.

“Making mistakes has been his biggest problem,” Steeler Coach Chuck Noll said. “Errors. When he knows what to do, he does pretty well.”

While that is not exactly high praise, linebacker coach Hughes thinks Nickerson has what it takes to make an impact in the NFL.

“He has toughness, toughness we want,” Hughes said. “He’s the type of individual who could continue to improve and help us tremendously in the years to come. He goes full-speed out on the field.”

Nickerson said he is much different off the field. When he talks about football, it seems as though he’s describing its effect on two completely opposite personalities. He’s both, of course, but only one at a time.

“It makes me two different people,” he said. “Hardy plays wild and very aggressive. Off the field, Hardy is just calm and collected. Quiet, I’d say. Shy. I’m a controlled person off the field. On the field, you have to have a certain temperament. You have to be outgoing. You have to be a little wild.”

It’s quite a contrast, one that Hardy, the sociology major one semester short of a degree, might find interesting when considering Hardy, the linebacker prodigy enrolled in the Steelers’ school of hard knocks.

Nickerson’s parents still live in Los Angeles, where his father is a probation officer and his mother is a telephone operator. They taught him to work hard, push himself, try to be better. “I won’t ever relax,” Nickerson said. “And you know, the thing about all those skirmishes, I wouldn’t say I provoked them. It was all the result of just hard play. It sets a tone that I’m not going to be someone that’s going to be pushed around. I’m going to play at a certain level and I’m not going to slow up at all. I’m going to be standing up with both feet on the ground and go at it.”

So strike up the Steeler band once again. Let it proudly play the team’s theme song once again. You may know it as the “Steeler Polka.” Hardy knows it as the “Steeler Poke-a.” Pretty soon, they may wind up liking Hardy’s version better here.


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