The Talk of Troy

Gamebreaking faith

How football is more than a game for Kevin Nickerson.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

DOWNEY, Calif. — On a damp, rainy and brisk Friday night, under the bright lights of the Kretzschmar Stadium, the young men of Warren High School audition before scouts to inch, perhaps, towards their dream of playing professional football. It’s Warren against Gardena’s Serra High — a classic South Bay rivalry game.

Kevin Nickerson looks on as the teams plod and slosh around the field. He rocks back and forth under a translucent poncho like a caged tiger waiting to be unleashed. He bobs his head to the familiar soundtrack of rain, cheers and grunts.

And, too, the thunderous thudding of shoulder pads and the muted crack of helmets crashing together seem to invigorate him. Then, to add to the symphony, as if from Zeus on high, he ferociously claps his hands in mittens, and himself begins to shout, “This is what football is all about! This is football!” It is evident — he still loves the game. And as the young chaplain of the Los Angeles Rams looks on and encourages the young men who rotate in and out, it’s apparent that he’s offering them more than encouragement.

He is, as ever, preparing them for life.

Nickerson could have succumbed to the tropes that typified his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri — gangs, drugs and crime. Instead, as a tender adolescent, he became a man.

Nickerson and his sister went back and forth between his parents’ homes until an experience that remains too painful for him to discuss forced him to choose — live with his mother or father.

“My father did something to my sister that I couldn’t get past. My family came together, and I was forced to choose — my father or sister. I’m always going to choose my sister,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson recalls looking into his father’s eyes and seeing anger and disappointment.

“When I made that decision,” Nickerson said, “I saw him look at me with disappointment and disgust.”

Nickerson moved with his mother and sister. The cost: the loss of his primary male influence. In an attempt to get him around positive men, Nickerson’s mother signed him up for youth football.

Quickly, Nickerson made a reputation around his Kansas City community for being a stellar athlete.

At his first practice, he received oversized shoulder pads, a helmet with a booty cage and a too-big jersey. As the first-team prepared for special teams kickoff coverage, Nickerson, an afterthought, was placed on the scout return team.

The kick sailed through the air under a cloudless blue sky. Nickerson tracked the ball’s trajectory and centered himself underneath; he caught the ball, and as he turned his eyes up the field, his brain calculated a path for him to run through — he took it.

“I remember the coaches yelling and cheering when I took it to the house. My coach came and slapped my helmet and told me to do it again.”

So, he did.

It wasn’t just Nickerson’s tenacity that stood out. Or his speed.

What caught the eye of head coach Tim O’Neal? Nickerson seemed to be fueled by unbridled rage.

O’Neal stepped in and, for Kevin Nickerson, played the role of father.

“Coach Tim was everything. That was a good man. Anything I needed — a ride, cleats, school supplies, Coach Tim had me. He treated me like his son.”

Nickerson would rely deeply on O’Neal, even more so on January 24, 2003 — the day the matriarch of his family, his grandmother, passed away.

“Coach Tim just hugged me. He listened to me. He told me that he would always be there,” Nickerson said.

He was, indeed. Nothing would prepare him for what would occur at his grandmother’s funeral services.

As he stood at the head of his grandmother’s casket, teeming with grief and tears, he gripped the polished wooden box — refusing to let go.

Amid his wailing, the cries and songs of everyone in the church went silent. Then, he heard a voice that provided him with a peace that surpassed all he could comprehend.

The voice said, “Give me your pain. Let it all go. I love you — trust me.”

“It was in that moment,” Nickerson said, “I gave my life to the Lord.”

He recalls the relief of having his burdens lifted. It was a freedom he had never known. In the immediacy of his salvation, Nickerson knew he had changed. He knew he would now replace his anger with joy. Faith would fuel his football journey.

He matriculated through high school as a standout on the gridiron, earning a scholarship to Central Missouri State University, where he set and held the NCAA record for kick return touchdowns from 1998 to 2001.

Yet, despite the success and acclaim that came as a standout, Nickerson refused to allow the trappings of alcohol and women to distract him. Instead, he firmly cleaved to his faith.

Football and faith increasingly became more salient in his life. Nickerson, who always dreamed of sitting in an NFL locker room, had his dreams deferred. Instead, he found himself standing out and making rosters in the Canadian and Arena Football Leagues.

As football’s importance began to wane, his calling to ministry increased. At 25 years old, playing in Canada, he began serving as a youth minister during the offseason.

“The Lord told me, ‘You’re going to be a nobody, but you’re going to reach somebody,’” Nickerson recalled.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.
DESCRIBE THE IMAGE FOR ACCESSIBILITY, EXAMPLE: Photo of a chef putting red sauce onto an omelette.

His vast reach now touches the lives of players of the L.A. Rams. He organizes and leads Bible studies centered around relationships for coaches, players and their partners.

Nickerson’s goal is helping members of the Rams’ organization build healthy and Godly relationships.

“I don’t care what someone believes or doesn’t believe,” Nickerson said. “I’m here to serve.”

When he isn’t in pro locker rooms, you can find Nickerson exhibiting the same passion for Gamebreakers, an organization he founded where he fuses faith and football.

At Gamebreakers, “We ensure that our young men are ready to build lives that defy expectations. We mentor, we disciple, we provide tutoring, we provide athletic training and we provide opportunities to learn for these young men. I am pouring into these young people in the same way Coach Tim poured into me,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson measures success not by wins and losses but by the number of lives touched.

This rainy Friday evening, it’s easy to see just how and why Nickerson’s faith is game breaking — as he places an arm around a lineman who missed a block that forced Warren to punt the ball away — a life touched.