Photo courtesy of MCT
Donnie Nickey was living the dream in January 2003. He was an Ohio State football captain and starting free safety for the National Champion Buckeyes.
Just four months later, he was fighting for his football life. Drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fifth round (154th overall) of the 2003 NFL draft, Nickey hoped just to make the team.
“I really had wide eyes and just wanted to be on the team,” Nickey said. “I was willing to do anything that I possibly could to be on the team and just get myself better and learn about the NFL.”
Now in his eighth season with the Titans, he is still familiar with uncertainty. He is under his sixth contract with Tennessee, none of which has exceeded two years.
“My future has always been uncertain,” he said. “I am used to having to make the team and I enjoy that part of the job. It is very stressful and there can’t be anything that is more physically competitive than NFL training camp. Every year I look forward to that and have proven myself and gotten myself better. Uncertainty kind of just goes with the territory.”
As an All-Ohio performer in football and baseball at Jonathan Alder High School and a four-year starter at OSU, Nickey rarely had to deal with limits to playing time.
Now, he uses his all-out playing style and passion for special teams to combat big-league uncertainty. Recognized as one of the best special teams performers in the game, Nickey quickly embraced his role in football’s less glamorous facet.
“The main thing I remember when he first came into the league is that he had size and speed, and playing special teams meant something to him,” said Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry. “He showed a knack for playing special teams fairly early.”
Nickey has continued to show that knack.
Despite only seven career starts on defense, Nickey has been team captain each of the last two seasons and has appeared in 105 straight regular season games for the Titans dating to the 2004 season.
“I found quickly as a backup in the NFL that the chances are few, and in order to survive you have to be a quality special teams player and learn how to do that and take pride in that,” he said.
In 2009, the Plain City, Ohio, product led his team in special teams tackles, with 17.
“I think he understands that’s where he really contributes to this team and that’s his main role,” Lowry said. “He’s been our special teams captain now for several years so he understands that that’s where he is going to get most of his plays. He really studies it hard and he practices it hard.”
Even with his consistent play, the uncertainty remains. As the longest-tenured Titan, he has done whatever it takes to stay employed.
“You have to sell out for that one play and give everything you’ve got,” he said. “You’ve got to be crazy and you’ve got to flip that switch. You turn your common sense off and be reckless but at the same time be under control.”
That kind of mentality has made him a living. After being the lowest OSU player selected in the 2003 NFL Draft, Nickey and linebacker Matt Wilhelm are the only two of the five-man group remaining in the league. Wilhelm has seen limited action with three teams in the last three seasons.
That sustained success has humbled Nickey. He is now a seasoned veteran, a husband and father of a 2-year-old daughter.
With that as motivation, Nickey embraces the uncertainty and takes nothing for granted.
“I’m playing today and I am going to take it day by day … any further than that, I can’t really say,” Nickey said. “Every snap I get is a privilege and I am just grateful so I like to take advantage of it.”
If Nickey can continue to stay injury-free, he could continue to be a Nashville mainstay for many years to come.
“He is here year in and year out,” Lowry said. “He has been voted as our captain and has not been really even thought of as a starter at safety at anytime. That tells you what the coaching staff thinks of him as far as his role and how important we think he is.”
After his playing career comes to a close, he hopes to stay close to the gridiron in some capacity. Former OSU cornerback Dustin Fox said Nickey will be successful no matter his role.
“He is one of the hardest-working guys I have ever played with, ever met,” Fox said. “Whatever he decides to do I’m sure he will do great, but I could see him being a great coach at probably any level.”