Five days after his father passed away, Justin Hickman played football.
It seemed like the right way to honour the man, a former NFL and CFL player himself, who taught his son about the value of an iron will above all else.
Donnie Hickman was just 60 when he died after a long battle with cancer.
“Toughness is one of those things you need in life, not just on the football field,” Justin Hickman said. “Things never go the way you plan them and you have to be able to adjust and persevere. It’s what he taught me and it’s something I’ve always been able to do.”
Born into a family of 16 in Flagstaff, Arizona, Donnie Hickman likely would have become a lumberjack like his father if not for football. An offensive lineman, he was a national champion at USC and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1977.
After splitting time between the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions the following year, he headed to the CFL’s B.C. Lions, where he played four seasons. He finished his playing career with two years in the now-defunct USFL.
He did his best to pass on what he’d learned to his son, stressing a philosophy summed up by the five Ps: proper preparation prevents pisspoor performance. His no-nonsense approach didn’t always resonate with Justin, however — at least not right away.
“He treated me like I was a professional from day one and I didn’t even really start enjoying football until I moved away to college,” Hickman said. “But looking back, those are the lessons that have allowed me to make a life in this game.”
Though his father’s health had been in decline for sometime, Justin received an urgent call from his mother, Bridget, in the early morning of June 26, the day after the team’s season-opening loss to Calgary. He’d taken a turn for the worse. Hickman raced home to Phoenix but arrived 90 minutes too late. His father was gone.
“It wasn’t something that was all of a sudden, so I’ve had a few years to wrap my mind around the situation,” Hickman said. “It was really about making sure my mom was OK because she’s never really been alone before.”
Hickman missed two days of practice before returning to Calgary to re-join his teammates and travel with them to Winnipeg. There, he registered a tackle in the Ticats’ 52-26 victory.
It would have been his parents’ 37th wedding anniversary.
“I was heavy-hearted but I know my Dad would have wanted me to come out here and play ball,” Hickman said. “I was happy to give them both a win.”
Hickman is back in Arizona this week to attend his father’s funeral and spend time with his extended family. Donnie Hickman was active in the community after his retirement from football, getting involved in a number of initiatives to help troubled youth.
“He was a simple, blue-collar man and what you saw is what you got,” Justin said. “He was hard-nosed, hard-working, and he liked passing on knowledge.
“I loved him.”