Injured football player finds niche as Hickman mascot

Thursday, November 3, 2011 | 10:02 p.m. CDT; updated 11:56 p.m. CDT, Thursday, November 3, 2011
The Hickman High School Kewpie mascot performs before a game Oct. 28. Jackson Nicoli decided to become the mascot after suffering his fourth concussion and having to take the year off from football.

COLUMBIA — Jackson Nicoli cheers from the sideline every Friday night for the Kewpies. His enthusiasm for football and Hickman High School is obvious. He stands among his peers and watches the game, clapping and always dishing out high fives to players, cheerleaders and fans. 

If you scanned the sideline for Nicoli, you would see him but probably wouldn't realize it. Nicoli is undetectable, yet he is so obvious.

Friday night's Class 6 sectional game

Hickman (5-5) at Francis Howell (7-3)

WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Francis Howell High School, St. Charles

Hickman is in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 after upsetting Jefferson City last Friday in district competition. Francis Howell, ranked No. 10 in Class 6, is making its fourth consecutive appearance and won all three of its district games by an average of 33 points. The teams last met in 2007, with Hickman winning 37-0. 

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Nicoli is the Hickman mascot and is hidden inside a suit every game — a suit that consists of a large white body, purple and yellow football attire and an oversized baby head. He even wore a tutu around his waist last week in the spirit of Halloween.

He does not throw punches like other mascots. He touches his face as if embarrassed, takes slow and droopy steps and interacts with children who beg for his attention. The Kewpie is not the typical mascot that is supposed to instill fear. On the contrary, its core mission is to instill happiness.

Before the school year started, wearing the mascot suit had never entered Nicoli's mind. He was more interested in wearing No. 61 for the football team. Injuries changed his plans. Nicoli, a lineman, suffered the fourth concussion of his life in a practice early in the season.

"After I got my fourth one, I decided to take the year off," Nicoli said. "A friend of mine who is a cheerleader told me that they still needed someone to be the mascot. I thought it would be fun."

Ever since, he has patrolled the sideline. 

"He enjoys still being a part of the game and experiencing the camaraderie," Nicoli's mother, Leah Herling, said. 

Even though he enjoys being the mascot, not being able to play still hurts. 

"He was upset, but he was fine," Herling said. "He's very good-natured."

Nicoli, who will be a junior next year, intends on playing football again next season. He will not turn 16 until May, yet he is already listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 170 pounds. A neurologist said that playing again was an option. If Jackson were to experience another concussion, however, he would have to sit out another season. That hasn't dampened Jackson's spirit. 

"I can't wait to play next year," Jackson said. 

Hickman has had the Kewpie as its mascot for 97 years. It was adopted after Hickman won the 1913-14 state championship in basketball.

"The players are just as proud of it as I am," Hickman football coach Arnel Monroe said. "We're all proud to be Kewpies." 

The game has ended, and Nicoli stands with his oversized hands at his hips. A little girl behind the fence, which separates the seats and the field, waves to him and catches his attention. Bashfully, he raises his hands to his rosy cheeks and bumbles over to her. His head hung low, he engages her in a game of peak-a-boo and speaks with her.

Soon she is laughing and returns to the arms of her mother smiling brightly. Happiness has been instilled.

Mission accomplished.

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