Whatever Happened to Hardy Nickerson, the Buccaneers Linebacker Who Helped Change NFL Free Agency Forever?

Anyone who has enjoyed — or dreaded — watching Tom Brady play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can blame Hardy Nickerson.

Nearly 30 years ago, Nickerson joined several other NFL players — including Philadelphia Eagles icon Reggie White — in fighting for free agency. Without Nickerson helping lead the pursuit for rights, the 2020-21 Buccaneers may not have even reached the playoffs.

This is Nickerson’s story, from free agent fighter to becoming one of the most impactful figures in Buccaneers history.

Hardy Nickerson played 16 NFL seasons

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A fifth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987, Hardy Nickerson earned a starting linebacker position by his second season.

Nickerson totaled 426 tackles, 9.5 sacks, forced five fumbles, and intercepted a pass in 84 games across six seasons with the Steelers. Pittsburgh let Nickerson walk as a free agent in the spring of 1993, and Tampa Bay jumped at the chance to sign him.

Nickerson didn’t need long to become a fan favorite in Florida. He recorded 926 tackles, nine sacks, seven interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, and nine fumble recoveries in seven seasons.

A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Nickerson earned first-team All-Pro honors twice and appeared on the second-team in 1996 and 1999.

Nickerson ended his career with two seasons in Jacksonville (2000-01) and one in Green Bay, where he totaled 86 tackles and forced three fumbles at 37 years old in 2002.

Nickerson helped change NFL free agency forever

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a major splash when they signed Hardy Nickerson in March 1993. 

Just months earlier, Nickerson — then with the Steelers — – joined Eagles defensive end Reggie White and Saints quarterback Mike Buck in filing a lawsuit seeking free agency.

According to The Washington Post, the lawsuit requested free agency for any players whose contracts expired after the 1992 season. By that time, Major League Baseball’s free agency — which worked under a similar formula — was nearly 20 years old.

In an October 2020 interview with The Athletic, Nickerson reflected on being one of the “founding guys” who fought for true free agency in the NFL.

“I wanted to become a free agent and have the right to move on to wherever I wanted to play. I wanted to play on grass, I wanted to play in warm weather and wanted to play in a great city. Shucks, those were things worth fighting for. We fought for it, and we finally got it, and it worked out pretty well for me.”

Nickerson’s reward for his fight came in the form of a three-year, $5.1 million contract. Although that may not look like much by 2021 standards, Nickerson received a 534% raise from his 1992 salary.

What has Hardy Nickerson done since he retired?

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Hardy Nickerson has been a busy man since he played his final down in January 2003.

Nickerson spent the 2006 season doing radio commentary for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were then under Jon Gruden‘s reign. He returned to the NFL a year later to coach Brian Urlacher and the Chicago Bears’ linebackers.

From 2010-13, Nickerson served as the head football coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif., before he rejoined the Buccaneers. Much like he did in Chicago, Nickerson worked as Lovie Smith‘s linebackers coach in Tampa Bay from 2014-15.

Although he joined Chip Kelly‘s 49ers staff in January 2016 to work with linebackers, Nickerson once again teamed up with Smith later that year and became defensive coordinator at the University of Illinois.

Nickerson held that role through October 2018, when he resigned for health reasons. He has not held a coaching position anywhere since then.

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