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Two decades.

That's how long Hicks has been playing football. Now 31 years old, he's spent 20 of those years on or near a gridiron.

While it's no secret the NFL schedule can be a grind at times, Hicks always wears a smile beneath his helmet. Because whether it's the dog days of training camp, 6 a.m. arrival times after a West Coast Sunday Night Football game or an outdoor practice on a chilly Minnesota afternoon, Hicks' gratitude runs deep.

Football was fun when he scored his first touchdown at 11 years old, and it's still fun now.

Hicks is careful to never take a day in this league for granted.

"I've been through a lot of scenarios that have felt like it could potentially be closer to the end of my career than the beginning," Hicks said. "And now, more is behind me than ahead. I think it's allowed me to truly appreciate just being out there, messing around on the field and the small things of being with the guys."

He's overcome hurdles along the way, including a pectoral tear and ruptured Achilles in 2015 and 2017, respectively, that threatened to shorten his playing days. And most recently, a fluke injury almost cost him much more than that.

Hicks Saints

During the first series of Minnesota's Week 10 game against New Orleans, Hicks attempted a tackle of RB Alvin Kamara and was struck inadvertently by teammate Camryn Bynum, whose knee collided with Hicks' shin.

Believing it to be a contusion, Hicks pushed past the initial pain and re-entered the game after exiting for a brief time. But as the first Saints possession of the second half neared its end, he knew something wasn't right.

Hicks certainly is no stranger to pain, but what he experienced entered a new realm.

He described the agony as "the deepest, darkest ache you can probably imagine," rendering him helpless to find any level of comfort or even function coherently.

Hicks ultimately was transferred via ambulance to undergo emergency surgery for compartment syndrome, a condition in which pressure rises in and around the muscles, most often in the lower leg.

Limiting the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to muscles and nerves, compartment syndrome can cause serious damage, including the need for amputation. In rare cases, it has resulted in death.

The moments leading into surgery remain a blur for Hicks, but he remembers clearly the doctor's words upon waking: "It's a good thing you got in, because you could have lost your leg."

"I'm thankful," Hicks said. "Thankful and blessed to be where I'm at."

Hicks Hospital

Making his mark

Incredibly, tonight marks Hicks' second game back in action.

He diligently rested, then just as diligently rehabbed, in order to play Week 16 against the Lions and record nine tackles, a pass defensed and a quarterback hit of Jared Goff.

Hicks' game-day tights conceal a nearly 12-inch scar. The wound healed effortlessly but leaves behind a reminder of what could have been.

Missing four games may mean he's not finishing this season with career numbers, but Hicks' impact on the Vikings defense in 2023 is undeniable.

He's thrived in Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' system, the first time Hicks has been part of such a pressure-heavy defense.

Hicks Falcons

"I've been in defenses that blitz a lot, but there's a lot of responsibility that comes with it. This defense allows you to play fast and play free and really use your instincts to be in the right spot and make plays," he said. "It's a lot less black and white than a lot of people are probably used to on the defensive side, but it allows us to play with a freedom that, I know for me, no other defense has allowed me to.

"It also has given me the opportunity to make checks and to take ownership and to kind of do what I feel is right on the field, without [Flores] really second-guessing me, which is awesome to have in a defensive coordinator," Hicks added. "I think it's given us a lot of freedom, a lot of ability to just use our instincts and natural-given ability to be in the right spot and make plays."

And as much as Hicks has enjoyed playing in Flores' defense, the coordinator conversely called it a "joy" to coach the linebacker.

"I can't say enough good things about him. He brings leadership. He's got presence. He's really got command of the defense and understanding of what we're trying to do and why we're trying to do it," Flores noted. "He's serious about the game. He's serious about doing things correctly, doing things the right way, but he also has a great time playing football.

"When you can combine all those things – being serious about it and really locking in … but applying it while having a good time, that's really what you're looking for. That's what I like to see. That's what we as coaches like to see," Flores continued. "I tell our players this: 'You've gotta have peace, and you've gotta have fun to play at your top level.' He certainly has that."

Hicks has totaled 96 tackles, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries – including one returned for a touchdown at Chicago. Hicks also nabbed an interception that day, helping the Vikings spark a five-game win streak.

Hicks Bears

But when you really see him celebrate? Anytime his teammates are the ones making plays.

Whether it's Josh Metellus' fumble recovery against the Falcons, Camryn Bynum's two picks on Monday Night Football, Byron Murphy, Jr.'s late pick against New Orleans, Ivan Pace, Jr.'s at Las Vegas, or one of Danielle Hunter's sacks, Hicks is typically among the first running to congratulate … or to limbo beneath a hoisted Akayleb Evans in the end zone, as he did against the Niners.

"We're out there having a great time, and that's what makes it special," Hicks said.

The glue of the defense

When Hicks first arrived in Minnesota in spring 2022, he wasted no time getting to know his new teammates.

He and Eric Kendricks connected quickly, as leaders in the linebacker room and on the field, as well as fast friends outside the team facility.

"He's a football guy," said Kendricks, who joined the Chargers this past offseason. "He understands the game well and communicates well. I mean, I feel like there's not much that Jordan Hicks doesn't do well. He never gets enough credit for that, either.

"He's just one of the boys. He can hang out with everybody, gets along with everybody," Kendricks added. "He really molds well with any group."

Hicks and Kendricks

Vikings linebacker Troy Dye was grateful last season for Hicks' immediate willingness to get to know younger players and share any experience he could.

"You can tell he's just a natural leader," Dye said. "He's been in the league awhile, had played for two different teams already, so he knew how to fit into different locker rooms. He's definitely the mold of guys we have here – a very outgoing person, very smart, selfless, wants to help everyone around him be better. He fit in perfectly."

Hicks' mother, Kelly Justice, saw that magnetic personality in action since Hicks was young.

"He'd get the neighborhood boys together and, as a group, they'd plan some fun activity – from building bike ramps, creek walks, forts in the woods, basketball games in the driveway," Justice recalled. "He was always a leader, and the boys always wanted Jordan to come out and play."

Hicks Throwback 1

For Hicks, it all comes down to being his authentic self and always staying focused on the bigger picture.

He wants to pay forward what he learned from former All-Pro linebacker and current Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans, who took Hicks under his wing in Philadelphia and invested in him – rather than compete with him – as a young player and teammate.

"I can't connect with a rookie or a second-year guy if I don't know who they are. If I don't know personal things about them, what they like to do, how they see the game," Hicks noted. "So every time I have an opportunity to sit down and ask questions, or give some type of advice, tell a little bit of my story, I'm always looking for those opportunities."

It's why Hicks spent most Thursday evenings this season bonding with defensive teammates in ways completely removed from football.

In early November, he reserved a suite for the group at the Minnesota Wild-New York Rangers game and provided his fellow linebackers with custom Wild jerseys.

Hicks Wild Game

"I'm just always looking for more opportunities to connect," Hicks said. "If you know the person next to you on game day, you're not willing to give up easily. You're willing to go the extra step, you're willing to do more for him.

"There's no secret – the closest teams and the guys who connect the most on the field are the defenses and the teams that play the best," continued Hicks, who earned a Super Bowl LII ring with the Eagles. "You see us – we're having fun out there. We're playing fast, we're playing physical, and we're celebrating. It's because of the camaraderie and the culture that's in this building, that's on this defense."

Players like Dye and Pace understand not only the benefit of learning from a veteran like Hicks but also that it's not a given at this level.

Some veterans could perceive younger players as job threats – and yet that's never been Hicks' concern.

"He wants everybody around him to be great. He doesn't care who's playing, as long as the best player is playing. If he feels like he's being outperformed, that's only going to elevate his game," Dye said. "He wants the best for everybody. When you see that, it helps you improve your own game, and it sets a good example for the future for you … so when they get to that point in their career where they're five, six, seven years in, you're doing the same thing."

Hicks Celebration

'Where my feet are'

Looking from the outside in, one might wonder how Hicks balances it all.

Studying the game he loves, teaching younger players, planning and executing teammate outings, rehabbing a potentially devastating injury and being a dedicated family man.

Hicks prioritizes being a loving husband to Ivana and father to three young children, Ayven, Lukah and Taliya.

Every day on the field or in his home might not be perfect. But every day, he's thankful.

"There are hard times," Hicks acknowledged. "When I've got to leave for work in the morning and my daughter's telling me, 'Don't go' or crying that I'm leaving – that's not easy. But you keep the perspective that they're seeing their dad working hard. These are times they'll remember. So there's a payoff. And it's not easy all the time. But you take it day by day, you take it moment by moment.

"I try to be as present as possible. Be where my feet are," he added. "That's kind of how I approach it. It's not always easy, that's for sure. But it's a lot of fun, and it's very rewarding. I'm doing what I love – in all aspects of life. I love parenting, I love playing football, I love being a good husband."

Hicks Family 2023

Whether Hicks knows it or not, it's yet another area he's setting an example.

"He views life more than just the game of football. I think a lot of guys who get caught up in, 'I'm just a football player; this is all I do,' " Dye said. "But he's a very hands-on father … he's very big on doing things in the community. He's big outside the game of football, so he's not 'just' a football player. He wears many different hats, and that helps him keep a balanced life."

Hicks has relied on that perspective during a season in which the Vikings have met a tremendous amount of adversity. At 7-8, they're facing a steep climb to a postseason opportunity that includes two must-win division matchups, starting Sunday against the Packers (also 7-8).

"We've gotta continue to fight," Hicks said following last week's loss to the Lions.

The losses sting. But no matter the outcome, he's thankful to be out there between the white lines.

Hicks Lions -2

"I wanted to … play free, have fun," he said. "My body felt good. My mind felt good."

Because at the end of the day, Hicks is playing for something bigger.

"I used to be the player that wouldn't look at my mom or Ivana if they're on the sideline … but now I'm over here playing catch on the sideline with [my kids pregame]," Hicks said. "It's less about me, and it's more about the experience and more about the learning and the teaching moments. And leaving a legacy.

"One day when they get older, hopefully they'll remember these times. And if they don't, that when they talk to somebody about who Jordan Hicks was, who their dad was, that whoever that person is has nothing but great things to say – and it pushes them to be a better person," he added. "It's why I play. It's my motivation right now. I love the game of football, but a lot of my motivation comes from my family."

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