SPARTANGBURG, S.C. – The Nicholson tradition must go on.
Darrell Nicholson has been reminding all three of his sons about that longtime family rule since they were small children.
The youngest of the trio was obviously listening, at least when it comes to the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl. Derek Nicholson (6-0, 225), a four-star linebacker from Mt. Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., is one of 88 seniors who will play in the 66th edition of the annual all-star game Saturday in Spartanburg, S.C.
Darrell played in that same game 27 years ago for North Carolina before developing a star linebacker for UNC. One of his older sons, A.J., a junior linebacker at Florida State, did the same just three years ago.
"It's an honor and a privilege to get a chance to play in the same game that my brother and Dad also did," Derek said. "This was one of my goals, and I feel really blessed."
Derek won't be the only player following in his father's footsteps this weekend. One of his teammates will also be part of the rare feat.
Jon Hannah suited up for South Carolina in 1975 before going on to play tight end at N.C. State. Jonathan Hannah (6-4, 250), a four-star tight end is playing for North Carolina.
"This is one of my favorite honors because my Dad played here before me," Hannah said. "This is a big rivalry between two talented states. It's comparable to the Florida-Georgia game (no longer in existence)."
The elder Hannah and Nicholson said this year's selected crop of players – which includes a handful of the nation's top recruits – don't even resemble their former teammates from over 25 years ago. The players are much bigger at every position and often much stronger.
"I was looking at an old N.C. State game program from my playing days the other day and Jonathan would have been the second-heaviest player on the team in ninth grade," said Jon Hannah, who played at Lake City High.
But, the fathers also agreed that some aspects of the all-star game have remained the same, especially the affect of going to a local Shriner's hospital to meet with severely sick and injured children – a tradition all the players participate in.
"What I remember most about going to the Shrine Bowl is visiting the kids in the hospital," said Darrell, who played at North Forsyth High. "When I was Derek's age, I just thought it was another game and I had no idea about the good work the Shriner's do. When I saw the kids and how much they looked up to a guy like me and all the football players it kicked in that this was the reason I was here."
Jon Hannah's most vivid memories of the Shrine Bowl are extremely similar.
"The thing that stands out in my mind the most was the trip to the hospital," said Hannah, who is now working as a distribution director for Disnep Direct Marketing Services. "That was very rewarding and something you never forget.
"Getting to meet the other players you have heard and read about also stands out. You create a bond with those guys and are friends for life."
Despite helping South Carolina to a 39-27 win 29 years go, Jon says he will be rooting wholeheartedly for the Tar Heel State and his son.
"I told everybody at work that North Carolina is going to kick South Carolina's butt," he said.
Nicholson is under orders from his older brother to do just that. He was part of North Carolina's last defeat in the rivalry, a 17-0 setback in 2001.
"A.J. told me we have to win it because he didn't," Derek said.
Darrell, who earned MVP honors after leading North Carolina to a 38-6 blowout in 1977, has plenty of confidence in the latest Nicholson to carry on the family tradition in the Shrine Bowl.
"Derek goes out and stops the run and forces offenses to throw the ball," Darrell said. "Then, he figures you are out of your game plan and that's when the interceptions start."