Josh Bickham has overcome obstacles his entire life.
Though he was far from being the biggest player on the Covington football team, he was a leading running back for the Lions the past three seasons. And though he was far from being the biggest person in the weight room, he went on to become a three-time state and national powerlifting champion for Covington.
Those are things tackled on the field or in the gym. That’s where Bickham defied the athletic odds.
But Bickham has perhaps overcome his biggest odds in the game of life. And he knows that’s where the odds matter most.
The 18-year-old Covington senior’s dad died when Josh was only an infant. He lived with his grandparents for years, until they both died. Covington football coach Greg Salter said that Josh was living alone with his sister in his grandparents’ abandoned home with no public utilities after Bickham’s grandmother died. He since has lived with the family of a Covington teammate.
“We had no clue,” Salter said. “He’s the type of person who would say ‘Ya’ll have enough to think about. I don’t want to burden you.’ ”
Then there were two brushes with the law that caught attention — an altercation with a friend; and another in family episode. Both sent Bickham to jail for questioning. Knowing Bickham’s character, the Covington coaches rallied around their player and said they never lost faith in him.
They said issues of domestic concern send both parties to jail for questioning. And they believed there was little reason to question Bickham’s accounts of those matters, because they knew better.
“The main thing I always say about him is (here you have a person who had every opportunity (to make mistakes),” Salter said. “He could act out loud or not comply with authority or rules. He hasn’t done that. He’s chosen to do things right. He’s chosen to be a leader and to be supportive of his teammates. ... He could have taken the easy way out, but he chose the tougher path. ... And he has set an example for (kids from similar backgrounds).
“He’s a leader, and he’s done this right.”
Covington’s football coaches said they knew they had a player when Bickham arrived on campus four years ago. He was a vital component in Covington’s run to the Class 5A semifinals in 2013 and helped them to a solid season last year, even though he missed two games because of his legal issues. When they saw how powerful his 5-foot-7, 195-pound frame was, they asked him to become a power lifter.
Since he decided to lift, Bickham has been a powerhouse. He was the top lifter (pound for pound) at nationals and has set several dozen state and national records in his prep career.
“As a freshman, you can’t wait to get out of this place,” Bickham said. “Now that I’m a senior, it’s hard to say goodbye. It goes by too fast.”
Bickham’s history is tethered, in part, to St. Tammany Parish. Part of a long line of successful athletes of the same surname in the area, he said missing two games last season for Covington’s football team was among the toughest things he’s had to experience.
“It was hard (to miss games),” he said. “I had been preparing for this since my freshman year, and it was a mistake I made that kept me out. ... You just have to be careful, and you don’t take anything for granted.”
Covington coaches said Bickham never took anything for granted. They said he’s just being humble when he talks about some of the suggestive paths he had to encounter.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, whether in the weight room, on the field or in the classroom,” Salter said.
“Every grade he gets, he scratches and claws. He’s worked harder on his ACT. He plays one of the most physical and emotional sports there is. Never once has he gotten out of character.”
Bickham is set to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. later this summer. He’s never seen the campus, but hopes to make a trip there after the Covington school year ends. The team is coached by former Saints defensive back Robert Massey, who like Bickham, was considered undersized in their early playing days. Salter said he expects his young charge to excel on the east coast.
Bickham relishes the chance to make a difference, though he flies blindly into a new program, a new state, and a new world; all far removed from the confines of Covington High.
“I feel like God doesn’t put anything on anyone they can’t handle,” he said. “I do the best I can and try not to take anything for granted. Every opportunity is a blessing. I look at it like that.”