Hakeem Nicks excited for chance to play big game with Giants in his native North Carolina

Hakeem Nicks of the Giants runs a reception

Hakeem Nicks of the Giants runs a reception against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium. (Sept. 15, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Some people run to catch a plane. Hakeem Nicks couldn't.

A year ago, the Giants wide receiver was excited about the prospect of playing the Panthers in his hometown of Charlotte, his first real game there since college. He was coming off a 10-catch, 199-yard performance against the Bucs that made him the reigning NFC offensive player of the week and indicated that he had recovered from the broken bone in his foot that had slowed him throughout the offseason.

But in that game against Tampa Bay, he banged his knee on the turf and it didn't feel quite right. With a short week -- the Giants were playing in Carolina on a Thursday night -- Nicks tried to mend in time to make the trip.

On the Wednesday morning the team left their facility for Newark Airport and the trip to North Carolina, Nicks tried to run on a practice field to show that he would be able to play in the game.

There was an empty seat on the flight.

"It definitely was frustrating," Nicks said this past week, recalling his aborted mission home. "All of last season, period, was frustrating to me."

Nicks struggled through his knee injury for the rest of the season, but that was the game that stung. About 20 members of Nicks' family and circle of friends, former coaches and teammates were at the game. But he wasn't.

On Saturday, Nicks finally boarded that charter flight to Charlotte.

"Oh, yeah," he said of not wanting to disappoint his people for two years in a row. "They gonna see me this time."

Playing a game in one's hometown is always a special experience. Victor Cruz, Nicks' closest friend on the team, gets to do it often. He grew up in Paterson, N.J., just a few miles away from MetLife Stadium. Cruz knew how disappointed Nicks was in not playing last year.

"I think it killed him a lot," Cruz said.

"Being a Charlotte guy, he was itching to go back home," said running back Andre Brown, a fellow North Carolinian who had a breakout game that night a year ago in their shared home state. "He has a lot of family members down there in Charlotte. I know it hurt, but it's a part of the business."

Oddly enough, Brown isn't making the trip this year. He fractured his leg in the preseason and is on short-term injured reserve.

"We can't seem to make the trip together," Brown said with a laugh. "But he's happy to go out there and play this year."

But there was a moment when it seemed as if Nicks might be left behind again. On Friday, he was not with the team at practice.

Nicks dislocated the middle finger on his left hand in Sunday's game against the Broncos and had been practicing gingerly with it during the week. Could this be another case of injury preventing him from going home?

Turns out Nicks was excused from practice to attend to a personal matter. His finger, which will be taped for the game, was not an issue. He was listed as "probable'' on the injury report, a status that translates to "virtual certainty" for Sunday's game.

"It's special to play at home and he's excited for the opportunity," Cruz said. "I'm excited for him."

Nicks has played at Bank of America Stadium twice in his life. The first time was in the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl with the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost, 31-30, but Nicks had eight catches for a bowl-record 217 yards in the game. Three of those catches were for touchdowns and another was a behind-the-back, one-handed grab that became an instant YouTube sensation.

The second time was in 2011 when the Giants opened their preseason there. Nicks caught one pass for 14 yards in his brief time on the field. The Giants lost that game, too, 20-10.

Now Nicks is returning for a third time, hoping to come away with his first victory. The Giants are 0-2, and a third straight loss to start the season almost certainly would doom their season.

Nicks admitted he is a little more excited for this game than he is for his usual Sunday games.

"Definitely," he said. "I want to have a big game every game, but first things first. I want to get a W. As long as we're leaving there with a W, I'll be all smiles."

And as long as the Giants are getting there with Nicks in tow, that should be worth a smile or two.

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