(This story appeared in the October Cincinnati edition of ESPN Rise Magazine.)
After each practice, the Lakota West (West Chester, Ohio) football team gathers to reflect on what it means to be a Firebird by reciting the Lakota West football creed.
I am a Lakota West football player
I will put my team first
I am dependable
I am an example on and off the field
I am respected for my work ethic, honesty, mental and physical toughness and I will never make excuses
This is the creed of a Firebird
"Some of them buy into it, the others just say the words," says Larry Cox, who's been the head coach at Lakota West since the school opened in 1997. "In my eyes, Jordan epitomizes what the creed is about and aspires to live by its values."
Jordan is star senior Jordan Hicks, a varsity starter since his sophomore season. He's followed the creed from the moment he arrived at Lakota West, and it's helped him become a role model off the field and an elite defender on it. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is rated the nation's No. 1 linebacker and No. 2 overall recruit in the ESPNU 150.
Cox first saw Hicks play in middle school, and even then the linebacker stood out thanks to his combination of size, strength and speed. Cox thought so highly of him that he sat down with Hicks and his mother, Kelly Justice, the summer heading into Hicks' freshman season and asked him if he'd like to play on varsity his first year at Lakota West. It was the first and only time Cox had offered a varsity spot to a freshman.
Hicks, however, surprised his coach by politely declining the offer, saying he didn't want to rush his high school experience. He wanted to develop a bond with his teammates on the freshman team, the kids he'd be spending the next four years with.
"I just felt more comfortable with my boys," Hicks says. "I felt like I'd excel better and have more fun if I played with my freshman class. I don't regret that decision at all."
Although surprised by the decision, Cox was even more impressed by the maturity of the answer.
"I knew the kid was going to be pretty good, but the response he had made me realize he was going to be special," Cox says.
Hicks' loyalty toward his teammates hasn't waned as he's gained notoriety. Instead of mentioning his boatload of scholarship offers, Hicks would rather talk about his talented teammates, like senior Alex Smith (the nation's No. 14 tight end in the ESPNU 150) and senior Kevin Schloemer (the nation's No. 37 offensive tackle).
"The creed talks about how you put your team first," Hicks says. "That's very important to me. I feel like I wouldn't be where I am right now without them."
Since joining the varsity as a sophomore, Hicks has been counted on to make plays all over the field, and he hasn't disappointed.
After tallying 61 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks that year, he broke out for 88 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season to become only the third player in school history to earn All-Ohio first team honors. He was also selected to The Cincinnati Enquirer Division I All-Star first team and the Greater Miami Conference All-Conference first team.
His highlight play last year came in the season opener against Wayne (Huber Heights, Ohio). Hicks was lined up outside to blitz and Wayne knew it, sending a running back over to his side to block. Immediately after the snap, Hicks burst off the edge and tossed the running back to the turf like he was a tackling dummy. He kept going and chased down elite Class of 2011 quarterback Braxton Miller (who can run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds) for the sack.
"He just ran right through him -- I mean, through him," Cox says. "When (Ohio State head coach) Jim Tressel came to visit me in December, I popped in the highlight tape and this was the second play on there. He turned it off, looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding me? I don't have to see anything else.' I tell the kids to be the hammer, not the nail. He was the hammer on that play."
Hicks has taken all the recruiting attention in stride. He's kept the process relatively low-key so he's not consumed by it. And he hasn't let it get to his head. "I don't feel like I'm anything special," he says.
His humility is a credit to his mom, who holds him responsible for his actions off the field and accountable for his grades. So far he's held up his end of the bargain with a 3.5 GPA.
"She's the one who's made me the man I am," Hicks says. "She's always trying to teach me a lesson, whether it's being responsible for cleaning my room or making the right decision. She's taught me to be humble. She means everything to me."
His unassuming nature carries over to practice, where he works with Lakota West defensive coordinator Carlton Gray on improving every aspect of his game. He might be the nation's top linebacker, but Hicks knows he can always improve.
And by following the creed, he sets an example as a true Firebird, albeit one with enormous potential.
"If he works at it and puts himself in the right situation, he'll have a chance to play on Sundays," says Gray, who played eight years in the NFL. "And I've never said that about anyone I've coached before. But I've never coached anyone like him."
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine