Jordan Hicks: A Man Of His People

Behind Jordan Hicks' journey that made him a rookie sensation in Philadelphia.
Photo by Jeff Fusco

DeMeco Ryans and Jordan Hicks. (Jeff Fusco)

YOU TAKE THE three-minute walk from the painted red “W” on the field to the locker rooms, then a four-minute walk to the parking lot. You pile in a friend’s car, pull out of the parking lot, and drive down curving Union Centre Boulevard, past a bank and an insurance office, past the West Chester baseball complex. Then turn right on Princeton Glendale Road and drive until you see the mismatched, red-and-blue-fonts on the sign above Willie’s Sports Cafe in an unassuming Butler County, Ohio strip mall.

This is where you could find Jordan Hicks in the fall of 2006, with Aaron Phelan, Jordan Thompson, Mark Fowler, and plenty of other members of his Lakota West freshman football team. They were a force that year, losing just one game, while Hicks earned attention for his dominating play.

Larry Cox, the head football coach at Lakota West High School was so enamored with the linebacker, whom he first saw playing seventh-grade basketball that, for the first time in his 10-year tenure, he wanted a freshman on varsity. “I just thought to myself,” Cox says, “‘This kid’s got something about him.'”

“I only move a kid up if I think he can play varsity,” Cox says a decade later. “Jordan’s the only one I’ve ever felt that about.”

Hicks was at home when Cox made the call. His mother answered the phone, talked to Cox, and told her son the news: the coach wanted Hicks, who was already set to start on the varsity basketball team, to move up to varsity in football.

Hicks went to see Cox the next day. He told the coach that he appreciated the offer, but if it was all right with him, he wanted to stay on the freshman team for the rest of the season.

Cox was surprised. A freshman? Turning down a once-in-a-decade offer to move up to varsity,  to see the bright lights on Fridays, to prove himself to the head coach?

A decade later, Hicks matter-of-factly explains his decision: “I just wanted to play with my boys, my friends that I went to school with, my friends that I hung out with.”

It’s just the way Hicks works. He prioritized his burgeoning football career at Lakota West, but he wouldn’t sacrifice his relationships with friends like Phelan, Thompson, and Fowler, guys he still texts every day, all these years and pit stops later.

Or a relationship with a friend like Greg Osinski, who suffered from muscular dystrophy. Hicks and the rest of the Lakota West football team were Osinski’s best friends. They tagged along when he went to compete in Special Olympics events; they ate lunch with him at school every day. They treated him just like one of the guys, because he was. They might’ve even ragged on him a little harder, Hicks says years later with a chuckle, because of the wheelchair. And because Greg dished it right back.

During his senior year, Hicks’ schedule allowed him to leave school early each day. But instead of eating his lunch and ducking out, Hicks would eat lunch with Greg, then spend the rest of the day with him, talking and joking, until Greg had something else to do.

“[Greg] was someone you could look at and see strength, see courage,” Hicks says, his voice measured. “He never, not once, showed any type of nervousness in being scared. It wasn’t him.”

Osinski passed away in the fall of 2012, when Hicks was away at school. Just the day before, Hicks and the Texas Longhorns had toppled Oklahoma State in Clearwater. Greg’s death hit all of Lakota West hard; it hit Hicks especially hard.

“You saw in high school a kid who didn’t deserve to be stuck in a wheelchair, struggling every day, knowing that the end is near,” Hicks says. “We got to see that firsthand.”

Sometime in the future, when his schedule will allow it, Hicks plans to start a foundation to help kids who, like Greg, suffer from muscular dystrophy.

You’ve heard the phrase, a man of the people? All his young life, Jordan Hicks has been a man of his people.

***

HICKS GREW UP all over the country. Born in Colorado Springs. Five years in Indiana. Five more in South Carolina. Then Cincinnati.

His parents, Kelly Justice and Scott Hicks, a high school basketball coach, split up when Jordan was a toddler. He lived with his Mom and his older sister, Taylor.

Hicks’ mother was a role model, a woman who reminded him not to call a job done until he’d taken care of his responsibilities.

“She’s the strongest woman I know,” Hicks says. “Raised my sister and myself on her own. It didn’t matter what she had to go through, what she was going through, she continued to work for us and fight. There were times she was working two jobs, three jobs, whatever it may have been, to make sure she provided for us. She’s a huge part of where I’m at today.”

Hicks meant that his mother was a huge part of where he is as a person. But she was also a big part of where he was geographically. As she climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder, from Pillsbury to Revlon, her jobs drove their moves.

He’d always been a fan of new adventures, but 11-year-old Jordan Hicks wasn’t too pleased with the idea of moving from South Carolina to Ohio. He wanted to become a basketball player, to don the powder-blue-and-white of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, just like the first basketball jersey he ever owned: a college-era Michael Jordan. That was the dream.

But the dream changed in Ohio, where he met Larry Cox and Carton Gray, two men who would mold his future in a way he could never have imagined.

Gray, a Cincinnati native and former NFL safety, was Lakota West’s defensive coordinator at the time. Gray and Cox eyed up Hicks as a sophomore, during his first summer with the varsity team, and decided that Will linebacker should be his lot in life.

“We sort of ear-marked Jordan and said, ‘He’s going to be a real special linebacker,'” Cox says.

Hicks had a general understanding for the way defenses operated when he started playing varsity ball, but he credits Gray — and all of the yelling that goes along with playing for him — with changing the way he plays the game.

“I knew nothing about the game,” Hicks sheepishly admits. “I did what they told me to do, but didn’t know any techniques. I just went out there. See the ball, go and get the ball.”

Gray fixed that in a hurry. He taught Hicks and the rest of Lakota West’s defenders to think about the game cerebrally instead of instinctually. He installed pro-style schemes and concepts that blew Hicks’ mind, helping him to see the game in a whole new way, to understand why things happened instead of just reacting to what was happening. Though he was talented enough to rely on instincts alone in high school, ‘talented enough’ has never been something Hicks believes in.

“I was the No. 1 linebacker coming out of high school, and had offers from everywhere, and I was still getting yelled at [by Gray], just like I was when I was a sophomore,” Hicks says.

Gray’s mindset began to rub off. Hicks was always pushing himself; it didn’t matter in what realm. The first time he took the the ACT, he scored a 25. He had a 3.5 GPA in school at the time. He certainly didn’t need much more to go play football for any of the dozens of teams climbing over each other to get a shot at Hicks. But that didn’t matter to him.

“He said he had to re-take it,” Cox says. “He was mad. He was pissed. He goes, ‘I should do better.'”

Gray was the perfect coach to tap into Hicks’ desire to improve.

More. Bigger. Better.

***

HICKS, 23, OFTEN seen around the Eagles’ practice facility sporting a team-issued black hoodie, is both a listener and a conversationalist.

His voice bends with its audience; surrounded by eight reporters at his locker on a Wednesday afternoon in November, a month removed from his season-ending injury, Hicks projects his smooth baritone, explaining in detail that, yes, he expects to be fully recovered for next season. No, his left pectoral isn’t really sore anymore. Yes, his range of motion is returning.

He talked to anyone and everyone last season. Sal Paolantonio, on a special report for the Longhorn Network. Jim Rome on his radio show after the Eagles’ early-season loss to the Cowboys. Who’s next? Line ’em up.

When Hicks gets off the air with Rome, the host talks at length about how Hicks conducts himself like a veteran. He can’t believe the linebacker is a rookie.

After the pack at Hicks’ locker disperses, a reporter lingers to talk with him a while longer. The linebacker’s voice is lower, warm and engaging, without a swarm of recorders buzzing near his squared jaw.

His smile is highlighted by a small gap between his two front teeth, noticeable because he so often grins. He likes to place his hand on the shoulder of the person he’s talking to, especially when legendary broadcaster Merrill Reese makes his way back to Hicks’ locker to chat each week.

Even before his injury, Hicks’ locker was largely indistinguishable from one of a newly-signed practice squad member. The few identifiable mainstays? His daily personalized smoothie, a bluish-purple concoction with blueberries and assorted nutrients; his trusty black flip-flops; and his mouthguard case with his name on a piece of masking tape. Most other players have littered their lockers with personal mementos. Even fellow rookie Nelson Agholor kept a pair of personal pictures, framed, on a shelf. Not Hicks. Without the name scrawled on the tape, Hicks’ locker was a generic, tidy, put-together picture of anonymity.

No distractions.

Everything this season was catered towards Hicks putting his best product on the field. He says he wanted to earn the respect of his teammates, his coaches, and the city of Philadelphia. He used to spend Thanksgivings in high school at soup kitchens with his family, and he knows teammate Connor Barwin is one of the most charitable players in the league, but this season he couldn’t find much time to engage in the city’s vibrant charity scene. His life was football this year. That was it.

“You don’t see too many rookies like Jordan,” says DeMeco Ryans, who, after a decade in the NFL, is a pretty good barometer. When fans started likening Hicks to a young version of Ryans early in the season — because they play the same position, because they share a similar level-headedness, and because they both happen to be very good at playing football — it stuck in the locker room, too. Ryans is the team’s Mufasa; Hicks is their Simba.

Like Ryans, Brandon Graham has been around awhile. Graham was impressed by Hicks’ dedication this season: the way he took meticulous notes, then organized those notes by day. Graham was so impressed that he began doing the same thing as the season went on.

“I think Jordan’s a special kid; he has a sense of maturity about himself,” Ryans says. “He’s just … it’s like he’s been here and done that before.”

In part, it’s because he has. Hicks had a little time away from the glare of the media during his time at Texas, because two of his seasons ended with injuries, a hip injury in his third year, and a torn achilles in his fourth.

They were much-needed reprieves. Hicks’ time playing high school football was successful, yet stressful.

He started by knocking the state of Ohio flat on its back, and opponents never could catch up. During his three seasons with the varsity team, Hicks recorded more than 200 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 36 tackles for loss. He was named an All-American by pretty much everyone who follows high school football. He won the High School Dick Butkus award in 2009, handed out to the best high school linebacker in the country.

Of course, with the recognition and the success came the inevitable throng of college coaches and reporters, each seeking his signature and a quote.

He’ll admit now, in hindsight, that he met plenty of great people during his recruitment. And, yes, he came away with a handful of once-in-a-lifetime stories.

Like the time Ken Norton came on behalf of Pete Carroll’s USC team and sized up five Lakota West recruits before turning to Cox and telling him, “I just came here for one kid. I came here for Jordan Hicks. What do we need to do to get him?”

Or like the time he was on the receiving end of Nick Saban’s first ever recruiting Skype call.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done this,” a digitized Saban told Hicks, who took the call while sitting in his coach’s living room.

Or the time Jim Harbaugh, still coaching Stanford, came to watch him play basketball during his junior year. Harbaugh and Hicks were chatting with Cox and a Stanford assistant in the Lakota West gym when Harbaugh, with that wild look in his eyes, turned toward Hicks.

“You any good?” Harbaugh asked him.

Hicks replied: “Yeah.”

Of course he was good. He’d been playing varsity since he was a freshman. He set the district career records for steals (170) and most varsity basketball games played (87).

That was enough for Harbaugh.

“Let’s play,” the coach said. “Right now.”

Hicks looked at Cox. Was he serious? He turned to the Stanford assistant, who nodded and assured Hicks that, yes, Harbaugh was absolutely serious.

Unfortunately, Hicks was wearing a dress shirt and slacks, so the one-on-one matchup was postponed indefinitely. Of course, Harbaugh didn’t leave the gym without sinking a corner three.

Hicks tried to ignore the onslaught of promises during the recruiting process, and instead gravitated toward coaches with a penchant for building relationships with their recruits. He fell hard for Jim Tressel, who coached at nearby Ohio State. He and Hicks had a connection, and Tressel pushed hard to bring the coveted local prospect to Columbus. He even pushed hard after watching from the stands as Hicks rugby punted a football backwards, over his own head, and out of the end zone against rival Lakota East. To this day, Hicks blames it on the wind and the rain.

When Hicks had to call Tressel to tell the coach about his commitment to Texas, Cox was surprised by how hard it was for the 17-year-old to break the news.

“That was a very emotional moment for him,” Cox says.

So, yes, he met some great people. And yes, he had fun. And yes, he understood what all the fuss was about.

But the attention still didn’t mesh with Hicks’ personality, especially when it came to the platitudes and promises.

“I felt like there was just too much B.S.,” Hicks says.

He only spoke to one reporter directly; everything else he handled through a weekly conference call, and even that was a bit much.

Eventually, he chose Mack Brown and Texas. After growing up all over the country, Hicks felt the allure of a new state, a new city, and a storied program pulling him south.

Most 23-year-olds don’t come ready-made for the professional athlete life. Look at Johnny Manziel, if you dare. The second-year quarterback continues to struggle with off-field issues, failing to stay in the Browns’ flimsy quarterback rotation in between run-ins with the police. Or at Jadeveon Clowney, taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, who reportedly left Reliant Stadium in a bruised-ego rage when he learned he wouldn’t be active for the Texans’ wild card game against the Chiefs.

In stark contrast, Hicks goes out of his way to avoid drama. When he began to train for the NFL Combine last winter, instead of accepting invites to train in warm-weather locales like Miami or Arizona, he opted to return home to Cincinnati, to a workout facility called Ignition APG with a man named Cliff Marshall.

“Say I go to Miami and train,” Hicks says. “That’s a lot of temptation. That’s a lot of unknown in that down time. I go back to Cincinnati, I know what I’m getting into. I’m either going to be hanging out with my mom, hanging out with my boys, or chilling at the house. There’s not much you can get into there.”

No distractions.

A year removed, Hicks says he feels like going back to Cincinnati and training was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

Not many rookies think like that. But then, you don’t see too many rookies like Jordan Hicks.

***

HICKS HAS TO hang up and return a reporter’s phone call on a Wednesday evening in early January. He booked a flight on the wrong day, and had to clear everything up with the airline. Rookie mistake.

He’s in Philadelphia until the end of January, when he’ll head back to Austin and train with a few other former Longhorns: Washington’s Keenan Robinson, Tennessee’s Brian Orakpo, Carolina’s Fozzy Whitaker.

Last winter, Hicks’ goal coming off his senior year was just to make a training camp. When the Eagles took him in the third round of the draft, that self-imposed ceiling seemed a little higher. When Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks suffered early-season injuries, that ceiling exploded. Forget just making a training camp. Within a few short months, there he was sacking Tony Romo, forcing a fumble, and sidelining the veteran quarterback. There he was again, intercepting Matt Cassel and sprinting down the sideline at AT&T Stadium, on the way to his first NFL touchdown. It’s safe to say the Cowboys aren’t looking forward to facing Hicks in 2016.

This winter, Hicks is focused on making sure he’s completely healed from the season-ending pectoral injury he suffered in the second Cowboys game. The pain was never really severe, so that’s not the problem. It’s more about the confidence and the motion, making sure he’s comfortable enough to make those game-busting plays he regularly doled out in the first nine weeks of the season.

He knows all too well the feeling of being stuck on the sidelines, the frustration that comes when things are so completely out of his control. The injuries he suffered at Texas were random, and debilitating.

“An achilles. How do you prevent that? Tearing your groin off the bone. How do you prevent that?” Hicks asks rhetorically. He sounds like a man detached from his maladies. “There’s a lot of different things that you learn through the process. I handled it well, sometimes, and I handled it not so well.”

During his first injury, the hip problem, Hicks wasn’t concerned. Injuries happen. He’d been fortunate enough to have a fairly clean sheet in high school. That wasn’t going to last forever. Not in this sport. But when he tore his achilles the next season, doubt started to creep in. He began making up stories in his head about what Longhorns fans must have been thinking, what his friends were thinking, seeing him on the sidelines. Was he dependable?

When he was placed on injured reserve this year, the Eagles’ defense took a nosedive.

The questions — about dependability, about durability, about self-worth — didn’t return, but it wasn’t easy for him. He’d be lying if he said it was.

Like a lot of players, Hicks says he tries to stay away from reading much of anything that’s written about him online or in print. He doesn’t really see the point.

“If it’s good, you’re looking for affirmation, and if it’s bad, you’re not going to like what you see,” he says.

But Hicks admits he’s not totally naive. He’s heard people talk about the change in the team’s play when he went down. He knows people are clamoring for something positive, a reason to believe in a defense littered with liabilities, and worse — promises that refuse to pan out.

He happens to think it’s pretty cool.

“I understand where I sit, and the kind of impact that I’ve made on the fanbase here,” Hicks says. “I think it’s awesome.”

There’s just that one nagging problem. Is he injury prone? Is he worried about getting injured again? A few reporters ask him before the season ends.

Hicks has never been interested in entertaining what-ifs. He doesn’t, you’ll remember, like B.S. Each time, he pays the questions little mind. No, he doesn’t think he’s injury prone. And no, he doesn’t worry about it.

According to his high school coach, the challenge in returning from his injury and maintaining the production he had in his abbreviated first NFL season is undoubtedly a good thing.

“The best thing you can do is to challenge Jordan,” Cox says. “He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met.”

He’s already shown his friends and former teammates how he bounces back. Now, it’s Hicks’ turn to show the NFL.

“If your identity lies in football, then you’re going to struggle,” he says. “If your identity is in yourself, and what your beliefs are, and who you are as a person, rather than what you are on the field, you’ll be able to take it and keep rolling.”

It’s clear on which side Hicks believes he rests.