By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2000
Old 56, he's so familiar. It's still a shocker. So huge. So hue. Hardy Nickerson wearing his familiar number but on a jersey of Jaguars teal, not Bucs pewter.
"I would've dearly loved to have finished my career with Tampa Bay," the 13-year NFL linebacker said. "In my seven Bucs seasons, we came so far, from non-contender to within a touchdown of making the Super Bowl.
"It's a tough part of the business. Feeling you've established yourself in a community. Doing everything that was asked. I don't think I ever played better than in 1999.
"Then, I had to leave."
Salary cap took the rap. Tampa Bay's middle linebacker, still a Pro Bowl talent, was deemed too expensive to retain, with Nickerson turning 35 in September.
"It's now April, and I'm doing great," he said. "It's become real smooth. I'm sure I have three, even four good years left in me." Hardy is being paid about $3.5-million per. "During last season, it became clear the Bucs were excluding me from their plans. That was difficult to accept.
"I kept playing hard. We came so close to the Super Bowl before losing (the NFC Championship Game) in St. Louis.
"I feel fortunate to have landed with a first-class Jaguars organization. We have an outstanding coach. Tom Coughlin is tough, but that's great. I'm all for discipline and heavy demands."
I spoke with Nickerson by telephone. You wonder, how hot is Hardy's inner rage against the Bucs, especially general manager Rich McKay, and even a coach Hardy continues to revere, Tony Dungy? Old 56, now centerpiece of an extraordinary Jags defense, was slow to buy into fiery backlash.
"McKay and I never had a close relationship," Nickerson said, "but Rich did what he thought was best. Trying to not get into a position like the 49ers or Cowboys, with a lot of veteran, aging players being retained for large salaries.
"I do have mixed feelings. While the Bucs claimed to not want older guys, they then brought in (offensive guard) Randall McDaniel. I'm younger than him. Tony is a great coach, but I was a little disappointed he didn't ask to keep me around."
Nickerson played six seasons in Pittsburgh. Leaving the Steelers was his option. Hardy was an unrestricted free agent. His income ballooned with the move to Tampa Bay.
But this is different, his Bucs-to-Jags transition. Old 56 wanted to stay in Tampa. Stakes became extremely high. McKay saw it as an unwise investment. But let's not go into OT weeping for Hardy. He was offered a $10-million package to stay. What's the NFL going rate to prove true love?
Hardy bought a half-page ad in the Tampa Tribune in February, his chosen conduit to Bucs fans. "I just wanted to thank everybody," he said. "They'd been nothing but good to me, on the football field and around the community. I didn't think it had to end the way it did."
Jamie Duncan, a two-year Bucs apprentice to Old 56, moves into the top job. "He'll step in and do well," Nickerson predicted. "Jamie has ability, a good attitude, and he's working with a great linebacker coach in Lovie Smith."
But the kid from Vanderbilt isn't apt to replace Hardy's loud leadership voice. I wondered who Old 56 saw as taking over the role as vocal triggerman of Tampa Bay's strong defense.
"I think John Lynch," Nickerson said. "He's been around the longest. Playing safety with so much spirit and toughness. John will speak up more than ever."
Oh, about Hardy's number. When he became a Jag, it was taken. The fellow wearing No. 56 was another former Bucs linebacker, Lonnie Marts.
"We sat down, me and Lonnie," Nickerson said. "I told him, if he was really attached to the number, I would wear something else. Lonnie said, "Nah, man, you can have it.' It's good to still be 56."
Marts is now No. 58.
Old 56's house in Tampa is for sale. He will dissolve the Hardy Nickerson Foundation, which had a salaried administrator and a motor home used for charitable ventures.
"We remain committed to some students at Seminole Presbyterian School, which involves tuition," he said. "Here in Jacksonville, a lot of players already had foundations going. I will try to help them any way I can."
After signing with the Jags, Hardy went to California, spending time with family and friends. He's a Cal-Berkeley alum. After returning to Tampa three weeks ago, Nickerson quickly cranked his car and drove to Jacksonville to begin off-season conditioning.
Don't expect him back ... unless.
Tampa Bay will be among this season's NFC favorites. Ditto for Jacksonville in the AFC. What if, next January, with Super Bowl XXXV being played at Raymond James Stadium, it became Hardy's Jags against the Bucs?
"That would be awesome," Nickerson said, punctuating with one of his high-pitched giggles. "Look, I don't hold any grudges against anybody in the Bucs organization. Once the season gets rolling, I will be too involved with the Jaguars to pay much attention to what's happening in Tampa.
"My main objective will be to help Jacksonville get to that Super Bowl. But if it happened to be us against the Bucs, well, yeah, that would be awesome."
Old 56 is ready.