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Ed Nickla, ex-Chicago Bear who coached at Deer Park schools, dies at 88

Ed Nickla, a former pro football player who

Ed Nickla, a former pro football player who won the 1950 Newsday Thorp Award and went on to coach in the Deer Park school district, died on Nov. 2 at age 88. Credit: Edward Nickla

Edward Nickla was a towering man — 6-3, and listed as 240 pounds back in his defensive tackle days. His exterior was gruff, and when he moved to coaching middle and high school sports in the Deer Park district, he was known for his no-nonsense approach, for being strict, his son said.

But though that paints an imposing portrait, it also belies what lived underneath.

This was a man who played one season for the Chicago Bears, under Hall of Fame coach George Halas, but rarely spoke about it to his family. He played another four seasons in the Canadian Football League, earning All-Star honors in 1962 and 1963. He served as a military police officer in the Air Force, stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., during the Korean War, and dedicated 30 years to the students of Deer Park and elsewhere, shepherding them on the field and off. He married his Mepham High School sweetheart, Catherine, and loved taking the family boat out on the Great South Bay with his son, Edward.

"Anyone who knew my father would say that he was a tough individual that would always go out of his way to help a person out," his son said. "He took great satisfaction in helping his students, whether it be scholastically or personally. I recall back when I was in high school, my father sitting at the kitchen table with one of his football players helping him fill out a college admission form. One of his former junior high school players posted on social media: ‘One of the greatest men I ever knew. He took the time to help this troubled youth. He is one of the few men I encountered that took the time to show compassion.’ "

Ed Nickla, 88, of North Babylon, the 1950 Newsday Thorp Award winner — given to the most outstanding high school player in Nassau County — died on Nov. 2, leaving behind his extended family. He left behind, too, all the student athletes he mentored as he taught them football, wrestling, basketball and track and field at middle and high school levels before retiring in 1991. He worked as a physical education teacher in East Meadow and Deer Park, and served as an assistant football coach at both Half Hollow Hills East and Deer Park.

"He loved to watch kids develop," his son said. "He loved to watch the kids in their earlier years and develop through the years within the sport. That was one of his biggest things. He took pride in the kids getting off to college, whether it be for a sport or just academically."

Nickla was born in Brooklyn in 1933 and his family soon moved to Long Island, first to Baldwin and then Merrick. He played offensive and defensive end at Mepham High School, and earned All-Long Island honors as a senior, along with the Thorp Award.

Nickla often credited that award with setting him up for what came next: a football scholarship at Tennessee, where he won a national championship in 1951.

He left to join the Air Force from 1953-57, then finished his degree at the University of Maryland. He was drafted by the Bears in 1955 and joined them in 1959. After a season, he moved to the Canadian League and the Montreal Alouettes because he was paid double what the NFL was giving him.

"Winning the Thorp Award is still one of the biggest things that ever happened to me, maybe the biggest," Nickla told Newsday in 1992. "Whenever the list was in the paper, kids in school would be amazed and say to me, 'You won the Thorp Award?' And people always remember. I guess it really means a lot, because only one guy can get it every year."

After his playing career ended, Nickla focused on his family and doted on his grandchildren, his son said. And even after he retired, he still went to local high school football games.

He’d go "up until the end," the son said. "He would stress the value of an education and never missed his children's or grandchildren’s sporting events … Dad was a huge presence in our lives. Family meant everything to him. He was a rough, tough man with a kind heart who would always be there when we needed him."

In addition to his son, Nickla is survived by his wife; daughters Debora Nickla, Pamela Stewart, Lisa Noren and Andrea Dunnin; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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