BY JEFF FALK
And so it begins, the college football career of Jon Hicks.
Saturday’s Big 33 Classic won’t be Hicks’ last high school contest, it’ll be his first college test.
Hicks, who up until a week ago was a senior at Palmyra High School, will compete at Hersheypark Stadium in what is billed as the top scholastic senior all-star football game in the country. The 55th edition of the Big 33 Classic, an exhibition of football skills pitting the top players from Pennsylvania against their counterparts from Ohio, will kick off at 7 p.m.
Ohio has won the last three meetings in an all-time series that is tied with 12 wins apiece. The Big 33 Classic boasts that every NFL Super Bowl ever played has included at least one of its alum.
“This game and week is the beginning of my college career,” said Hicks. “This isn’t a normal high school game. It’s more like a college game. The talent level is unbelievable. It’s a great end to my high school career. It’s the way I want to go out.”
The 6-3, 235-pound Hicks, an inside linebacker who’s headed to Division One Connecticut, established a new Palmyra standard for tackles in a career. Employing toughness, brute strength and competitiveness, Hicks help lead the Cougars to a 9-3 mark in 2011 and their first District Three Class AAA playoff appearance in school history.
“It’s (playing in the Big 33) huge,” said Hicks. “It’s the biggest honor I’ve had. I’m one of 34 players from Pennsylvania to play in the Big 33 game. There are so many good players from Pennsylvania.
“When I first found out I was selected, I was shocked,” Hicks added. “I can’t say I didn’t know I was going to be selected, but I was shocked.”
“This is kind of a transitional game,” said Hicks’ coach at Palmyra, Chris Pope. “It’s a high school all-star game, but it’s also a glimpse into what college football is going to be like. It’s a natural progression for Jon. I’m looking forward to see what he can do.”
The week leading up to the Big 33 Classic is as much about pomp and circumstance than it is about winning a scholastic all-star football game. Practices are more informal in nature. There are media requests to be obliged. And distractions are more the norm than the exception to the rule.
Still, Hicks seems to have made the best of it.
“There’s things like the buddy program where you go and eat lunch with your buddy,” said Hicks. “It’s definitely a lot different than I’m used to. There’s so many more activities than football it’s ridiculous. It’s definitely more than a game.
“I’m enjoying my time here,” continued Hicks. “It’s the kind of environment I love. It’s football 24/7.”
“He’s really excited,” said Pope. “I got to see him a little bit this week. He’s having a lot of fun. It’s a great experience. And I think he’s getting used to the speed of the game.”
Hicks will be the first Lebanon County player to compete in the Big 33 Classic since Lebanon’s James Capello in 2009, and he’ll be the fifth Cougar in school history to do so. The last Palmyra player to play in the game was Ed DiAntonio in 1977.
“It’s completely different than I’m used to,” said Hicks. “The guys are bigger, stronger and quicker. I’ve got to move faster, play at a different tempo. There are running backs who are so much faster than I saw in the Mid-Penn (Conference). They’re unbelievable athletes.
While Hicks’ forte is stuffing the run, he would prefer not to be stereo-typed as any one sort of linebacker.
“Yeah, I’m definitely a run-stopping linebacker,” said Hicks. “I’ll do my best to cover anyone I can. But I’m not necessarily a third-down linebacker.”
“I would say working on my fundamentals is the biggest thing I can do,” Hicks added. “Just fine-tune the fundamentals. And work on more explosive drills to be a dominant linebacker at that level.”
“Jon is more of a run-stuffing linebacker,” said Pope. “One thing he can can work on is his speed and agility, so he can stay out there in passing situations. When you make the transition from high school to Division One football, you’ve got to work on the speed of the game. I’m sure it’s similar to going from junior high to varsity. And that’s probably for everyone.”
During commencement exercises on June 6, Hicks ceremoniously became a young man when he graduated from Palmyra high school. On June 24th, he will travel to Storrs, Connecticut to continue that journey into adulthood.
“Oh, I’m ready,” concluded Hicks. “After this week, the weight room for a week, to the beach for a day and off to college.”