Parry Nickerson could hardly get his back on the ground before Tulane’s bench converged on him.
Moments after the redshirt freshman snagged a game-winning interception to complete Tulane’s 31-24 upset victory over Houston, Nickerson was covered by a swarm of teammates at the 20-yard line. Minutes later, he was lifted in the air by receiver Larry Dace and carried halfway across the field.
It was the kind of image kids recreate in the backyard and Hollywood screenwriters close out films with. The fact Nickerson’s pick also broke Tulane’s freshman interception record was a mere afterthought to the jubilation taking place in front of a stunned-silent TDECU Stadium.
“It was the end of the game, so the whole team just jumped on me,” Nickerson said. “I just went down under the dogpile. It was a great feeling. We got that road win against a great team.”
It was a moment Nickerson, and most of Tulane’s coaching staff, thought may never happen.
Not that anyone doubted the abilities of the 5-foot-11, 179-pounder from West Jefferson High School. The rangy cornerback became one of coach Curtis Johnson’s most fawned-over freshman last August and backed up the praise by racking up seven tackles and forcing a fumble when he was thrust onto the field for 53 snaps in his first collegiate game (a 34-7 win over Jackson State).
However, until a few months ago, many thought that would be Nickerson’s only appearance in a Tulane uniform. A debilitating knee injury, which required a possible career-ending surgery, left it unclear whether he would ever be medically cleared to play again.
“To be honest with you, we prepared for him not to play just because of the injury and him being a young kid,” Johnson said. “Young kids don’t do well with coming back from injury. I was told early on that he may not be able to ever play. I was told that he may have to miss another year.”
After sitting out the final 12 games of the 2013 season and all of spring practice because of dead bone cartilage in his knee and the risky medical procedure it required, Nickerson never lost hope. While Tulane’s coaches reluctantly made contingency plans in case he never returned (estimated at nearly 70 percent by some on the staff), the upbeat Nickerson put his faith in the medical team around him.
Despite initial skepticism from some in the program, the procedure worked.
“At first they told me they thought I wouldn’t be able to play again once I had the surgery,” Nickerson said. “But I went ahead and got the surgery and everything just worked out. I just kept staying positive and kept working.”
The dead cartilage was removed and replaced with cartilage from a cadaver, allowing Nickerson the ability to rehab into shape and get his knee even healthier than it was before signing with the Green Wave in 2013.
“Recovering (from) my injury has been a long process,” Nickerson said. “It took a lot of work, and I would say I’m pretty happy with the results on my knee.”
Two weeks into preseason practice, No. 17 finally got to show off his progress. Seeing him in football pads for the first time in nearly a year left Johnson hardly able to contain his smile watching the cornerback backpedal, cut and make plays on the ball.
In Nickerson’s second scrimmage, defensive backs coach Jason Rollins said his jaw nearly hit the ground watching the long-haired corner stop on a dime, leap over a receiver and swat a pass.
“He made a play that had all of us just looking at each other and be amazed,” Rollins said. “I couldn’t believe he was better than he was before he left. So, we were trying to find ways, right after that, to get him on the field.”
In the season-opening loss to Tulsa, Nickerson played as the No. 3 cornerback and skied into the end zone to pull down his first career interception. He also racked up five tackles, prompting a promotion into the starting lineup.
Less than a year removed from not knowing if he’d ever play again, Nickerson was lined up across the field from preseason All-American cornerback Lorenzo Doss, putting a target on his chest.
“My coaches all told me they were going to be throwing at me,” Nickerson said. “You see him on one side and me on one side, the coaches said, ‘He’s one of the best corners in the country and they don’t know who you are, so be prepared for what’s coming to you.’ I just got myself ready as best as I can and it all starts with working hard.”
Two months later, his six interceptions rank No. 3 nationally and Monday he became the first freshman named the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Week. Not only has he complemented Doss in the secondary, but he even surpassed his freshman record for interceptions in a season.
Gone are the dire predictions, the health concerns and that target on Nickerson’s chest, replaced by respect, praise and maybe even a hint of fear from opposing quarterbacks.
“I’m very proud of him,” Doss said. “I encourage him every day. I’m on him to make sure he’s getting better. I tell him that if they throw at him, he’s got to pick it off. The numbers say he’s better than me. I had five (interceptions) as a freshman and now he’s got six.
“I want him to get a lot and keep getting them. He’s that type of player that if you throw at him, he’s going to pick you off.”