The elusive Chris Nickson

Vanderbilt signee Chris Nickson of Pike County (Ala.) High School was almost as elusive for reporters during the recruiting process as he was for would-be tacklers during the season. Here's the story of one reporter's attempts to track down the record-setting quarterback. <I>Second in a series of follow-up reports on National Signing Day.</i>

Each year, on the whole, the great majority of senior high school football prospects are perfectly willing to talk with the press about their college decision-making process. Reporting to the public about the ever-changing whims of these gifted 18-year-olds has become a burgeoning industry for newspapers and Internet recruiting sites.

Each year, however, there is a small minority of players who elect to withdraw from the public eye. They'd rather make their decisions in private, thank you very much. One such recruit this past year was Pike County High School quarterback Chris Nickson, who signed a letter-of-intent last week with Vanderbilt.

Nickson became a household name after his MVP performance in the Alabama 3A state championship game, a game televised throughout the state. Based on his stellar season with the 14-1 Bulldogs, Nickson was awarded the coveted Mr. Football trophy by the Alabama Sports Writers Association as the state's most valuable player.

The 67 touchdowns he scored as a senior set a new state record. His 9,806 career all-purpose yards vaulted him to elite status among the state's all-time high school greats.

But it seemed the more attention Nickson received, the more he withdrew. He refused to talk with the press about his college choices. His family and his coaches were instructed to remain mum, and they did. Phone calls to the Nickson household were never picked up or answered. Reporters had a tough time even finding out which colleges Nickson was planning to visit.

Why the secrecy? Vanderbilt recruiting coordinator David Turner helped explain it last week when he said it had a lot to do with the political pressure on a prominent young Alabama high school player to attend school at one of the two in-state schools.

"[Nickson] was under a lot of pressure," said Turner. "And he handled it great. Chris is a pretty smart and intuitive guy. He understood what he was doing coming to Vanderbilt."

Nickson, a straight-A student who will almost assuredly graduate as the top student in his class, wanted two things, Turner explained. He wanted a first-class education, and he wanted a chance to play quarterback at an SEC school. Vanderbilt offered him both.

"Alabama had offered him. Auburn had offered him," Turner said. "He [signed with Vanderbilt] for all the right reasons. The political pressure that he withstood down there, none of us know. And it wasn't as bad as it could have been because of how he handled it.

"I have a lot of respect for him. If he comes and never plays a down for us, I have a lot of respect for how he handled himself."

Even on signing day, when he went public with his decision and signed a letter-of-intent at a school ceremony, Nickson was loathe to talk to inquisitive reporters about his thought process. We reached Nickson that day by phone through Pike County assistant coach Joseph Suber, who agreed to put Nickson on the line. (At long last, this reporter, who had been trying for months to reach Nickson by phone, was talking to him in person!) The conversation went something like this:

"Hi Chris, I understand you've made your college choice. Which college did you choose?"

"I have chosen Vanderbilt."

"Can you tell us some of the factors that went into your decision?" (A standard question.)

(Long pause)

"Chris, are you there?"

(Another long pause)

"Hold on for a minute."

(Phone is put on hold for about two minutes. Finally a school secretary comes back to explain that Nickson has left with his coaches to attend more signing day activities.)


Suber, an assistant coach who helped handle the recruiting process for Nickson, refused to comment about Nickson's recruiting up until signing day, but was more than willing to talk about Nickson's attributes once his decision had been announced.

"Chris' greatest attribute is his uncontested, unending work ethic," said Suber. "He works harder than probably any individual I've ever known in my 20 years of coaching. He's just phenomenally focused.

"He's just inspiring. He's always tried to outwork everybody around him. It seems as though he's always got something to prove to himself. Those attributes kind of bleed over to his teammates, and they compete with him and for him. His work ethic and desire to be great are just unmatched."

Obviously Nickson has great leadership ability-- why was he so reserved about his college decision?

"He does have tremendous leadership capabilities, but what he does is going to speak louder than what he does. We were lucky to have some other good players, like [Alabama signee] Nick Walker and Elijah Daniels. They get at each other some, but they're very close-- in fact Chris and Nick are cousins. They're very close, and very competitive, but they have a lot of respect for one another.

"I wouldn't say that Chris stood out over anybody else as a leader, but what he did on a day-to-day basis spoke louder than the things he said."

Nickson runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.75 seconds, Suber said. He also plays forward for the Pike County basketball team, and is currently averaging about ten points per game. In baseball, he pitches and plays shortstop.

With all he accomplished, Nickson has become one of the most beloved student-athletes in his school's history. But what really makes him tick?

"As focused as he is as an athlete, he's probably more focused as a student," Suber said. "In his personal life, he's very close with his friends and his family. Other than school and sports, he doesn't have a lot of time to have any other hobbies... it's all about his family, his friends, school and sports."

Suber, who has mentored Nickson since eighth grade and guided him through the recruiting process, has almost become a father figure for Nickson. Seeing him move on to Vanderbilt will bring a mixture of emotions.

"We're very close," Suber said. "He lives right behind me, and Nick Walker lives with me. I'm not just losing a player... it's kind of like seeing one of my own family go on to the next stage of his life." Top Stories