COLUMBIA — His teammates call him an old man and say that he's like the dad of the team.
While Nikola Velickovic, a senior defender on the Columbia College men's soccer team, is by far the oldest member of the team at age 26, he still acts like a big kid off the field.
Cardinal Stritch University (13-4-2)
at Columbia College (14-1-5)
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: R. Marvin Owens Soccer Stadium
He is always at the forefront of any jokes or pranks. He has changed the locks on his teammates' lockers and put an alarm clock that quacks like a duck in a vent in a friend's room and set it to go off at 3 a.m.
"He's the oldest guy on the team, but I feel like he's my age even though I'm five years younger," junior forward Jovan Ilic said. "He's the only person who could think of putting that clock in the vent."
Off the field, when Velickovic, who is originally from Cacak, Serbia, isn't reading books on finance for class, he can usually be found hanging out with his teammates playing Xbox.
He said he's been spending most of his gaming time playing "Call of Duty" and tries to find some time to go "shoot," as he calls it, as much as he can. His area of expertise, however, is the soccer game "FIFA '12" in which he beats his teammates so often, he calls himself "the king of FIFA."
Velickovic is not the only Serbian on the team. He, Ilic, and sophomore forward Marko Paunovic are all from Serbia. They generally spend time together at least once a week to do things they used to do in their native country. They listen to Serbian music or cook Serbian food, which Ilic described as "a lot of meat."
Velickovic has served as a guide to the younger Serbian players, helping them adjust to life at Columbia College and working through language barriers. They still celebrate some Serbian traditions, including spending the day together on Jan. 7, when Christmas is celebrated in Serbia.
"It's a huge thing to have three or four guys from my home country to talk to," Velickovic said. "I spend time with all my teammates, but I always find time to hang with my Serbs."
Ilic said that having another Serbian player on the team was a major reason why he came to Columbia College.
"It's especially tough to come from a different continent, but he (Velickovic) helped me adapt to my new surroundings," Ilic said. "He's been a good friend since the beginning."
Velickovic has a serious, competitive side to his personality. If he's playing cards, video games, or Risk with his teammates, he wants to win. Soccer is no exception. Columbia College coach John Klein said Velickovic's mindset is exactly what he looks for in a player, and he hopes that his teammates feed off that desire to win.
"He comes every day to play to win and sets an example by doing so," Klein said. "That's my kind of player. Not every player has that spirit, but it's innate for Nikola."
The competitive streak causes Velickovic to become a different person while he's playing soccer. He is always focused and can frequently be seen shouting at an official, an opposing player or even his own teammates.
"There are no friends on the field, but I'm completely different once I'm off the field," he said. "I feel bad sometimes after screaming at someone while playing. I'll think why did I scream at that guy, he didn't do anything."
This competitive drive has pushed Velickovic to become a successful soccer player.
He began playing as a young boy in Serbia where soccer is the most popular sport. He said he was a good player when he was young, but he "exploded" around age 15 and became one of the best talents among players his age.
He seemed to be on track to play soccer at a high level in Europe until at age 20, when Velickovic developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart caused by a muscle virus. The recovery time ended up being a year and a half with no physical activity.
"Soccer was such a priority, I was thinking 'What am I gonna do now?'" Velickovic said. "I was either not going to be able to run ever again because of my heart, or I was going to play soccer if I recovered."
Velickovic was able to get his strength back, but it was almost too late. The Serbian teams didn't have much interest in a 22-year-old with a heart problem nor did most Division I colleges in the United States. He eventually found a place to play at Columbia College thanks to former Cougar and fellow Serbian, Milos Milosavljevic, who contacted Velickovic about coming to play for Klein and the Cougars.
"He lived 20 miles away from my hometown in Serbia, so when he saw I was looking at coming abroad, he told me 'You're coming here, don't look anywhere else,'" Velickovic said.
It turned out to be the right decision for Velickovic, who was named to National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American teams his first three years with the Cougars.
When he was sick, Velickovic said his family told him that while something bad had happened, they believed something good would happen to him in the future. Velickovic thinks that Columbia College is that good he was waiting for.
"I've been an All-American for three years, and I'm getting my college degree this year," he said. "I was able to do a lot at Columbia College, and I've made something out of my life."
Klein said he has been grateful to have a player like Velickovic protect the Cougars' goal for four years. It makes him feel that much more secure on the bench.
"He's physical but skillful, and he's elite at both of those things," Klein said. "He might be the best defensive header in the country. I don't know of anyone better in the air than Nikola."
Velickovic's play has paid off for Columbia College, which has qualified for its third NAIA national tournament in the past four years and will host Cardinal Stritch University in the tournament's opening round at 3 p.m. Saturday at R. Marvin Owens Soccer Stadium.
The Cougars went 14-1-5 and were ranked in the top 10 nationally for most of the season. He doesn't get many scoring opportunities, with just three goals and two assists on the season, but Velickovic is the anchor of a defense that allowed only 13 goals all season.
"I'm fortunate that we've had one of the most successful seasons at Columbia College so far," Velickovic said. "In five years I'm going to look back and see how proud I am of what we've done here."