By Scott Latta
When Alabama tight end Nick Walker takes the field Saturday against the Vanderbilt Commodores, he'll be facing off
against more than just another SEC opponentÂ--he'll be opposite a family member and former teammate.
Walker and Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson both attended Pike County High School and were teammates on the Bulldog team that won the 2003 Alabama 3A State Championship.
Beyond that, the two are second cousins.
"We always talked in high school about how we wished we could go to the same school and play college football, but deep down inside I knew it wasn't going to happen," Walker said. "Now it hasn't, and we're fortunate enough to get to play against each other. It's going to be fun. We stay about two seconds away from each other when we go home for Christmas, and it's going to be fun to talk about times like this."
Nickson was voted Mr. Football in Alabama in 2003 following Pike County's 30-7 state championship over Oneonta.
In the championship game, Nickson ran for three touchdowns and returned an interception 56 yards for a fourth score. He ran for 238 yards and accounted for 359 total yards while amassing five solo tackles and a sack.
"He was really good," Walker said. "He was the guy you could count on, he was the type of guy that you want the ball in his hands."
With just over 20 players on the roster, both Nickson and Walker pulled double-duty for the Bulldogs in their high school careers. In addition to quarterbacking Pike County to the '03 championship, Nickson was also a defensive back. While Walker was a receiver, he also played the role of punter and place kicker, booming five punts and four extra points in the championship against Oneonta.
Though he was a star on defense and in the offensive backfield, as well as a starting guard in basketball and a pitcher and shortstop in baseball, there was only one position Nickson wanted to play at the next level.
"It was a tough decision for him, he struggled with it because there were some places he wanted to go but he didn't because they recruited him as a defensive back and he always wanted to play quarterback," Walker said. "My decision was never hard, I knew where I was coming from the start, I was just waiting on the offer."
While Nickson led the Bulldogs under center, Walker was his primary target. In his senior season, Walker caught 67 receptions for 1,028 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"When we played on Friday nights, always before the games he told me, Â`You're going to be my first look, so try to get open,'" Walker said. "He had confidence in me because he knew that if he threw it to me I was going to try my best to make sure it was a complete ball. He didn't always throw a pretty ball, but he knew that if he got it near me I was going to do my best to catch it, and most of the time I did."
The 2003 championshipÂ--Pike County's first in 14 yearsÂ--was to Walker the culmination of, a lot of work and a little luck.
After falling short in the playoffs in previous years, the Bulldogs were able to string together a run during the playoffs that carried them into Birmingham for the Super Six at Legion Field.
After a 63-0 drubbing of Oak Grove in the first round, the Bulldogs cruised past both Lincoln and Tarrant before a 35-34 overtime win over T.R. Miller in the state semifinals matched the team against Oneonta in the finals.
"It was a real good season," Walker said. "We worked really hard over the summer, and it was special because the few years before that we always got to the playoffs and in the third or fourth round somebody would be beat up because we never had many players.
"That year we were determined and we stuck together even though the injuries did come, but we just stayed strong and worked hard for it. We had about 21 players and had to scrimmage with half lines, some teams had 70 or 80 players and we only had 21.
"We knew each other and knew what to expect, and we trained hard during the summer, and that's what helped us down the road," he said.
Today, Nickson is the quarterback of a Vanderbilt team that is trying to find its identity in the post-Jay Cutler era, with the former Mr. Football playing the role of heir-apparent to the NFL first-rounder.
When the two cousins share a field this time, neither will be wearing Bulldog blue. While thoughts of Pike County's 2003 dream season may temporarily pass through his head, Walker says, blood is no thicker than the crimson on his uniform.
"It goes all the way out the window," he said. "He's just another player this week."