Profile: Stephen Nikodem, DDS’91
In his third year of dental school, three-time All-American soccer player, Stephen Nikodem, DDS’91, suffered a serious sports injury. He spent three months in the hospital, and doctors told him he had a 50-50 chance of losing his leg.
When it was suggested that he take time off from school to focus on recovery, Nikodem said that repeating his third year of dental school wasn’t an option.
“We all knew I had an uphill battle, but I was raised to never take myself out of the game. To me, that mentality encompassed the classroom. My class of ’91, we had such camaraderie, there’s no way I could stay behind.”
In the 1980s, Nikodem was a top recruit soccer player. Every day since the third grade he had dedicated time to running and training. His goal had always been to play soccer and to be a dentist like his father, the late Raymond R. Nikodem, DDS.
“My father was also a fierce competitor, a former Olympic backstroke swimmer. He worked very hard and long hours and he was always there for his kids — academically and athletically. Many people often say that I act like my dad and that I look like him — and they just don’t know what an honor it is for me to hear that,” Nikodem says.
After graduating from Desmet Jesuit High in St. Louis in 1984, Nikodem became the top American collegiate recruit and was recruited to play in Germany’s professional soccer league. However, he turned down the opportunity to instead pursue his education.
“My mother was a teacher. For my parents, education was paramount,” Nikodem says. “My father had been the first in his family to make it past the eighth grade. He went to school on an athletic scholarship and made a career for himself. And he spared nothing for his six children’s education — he sent all six of us to Creighton.”
Nikodem began his college career as a Billiken on the top-ranked soccer team at Saint Louis University. But in the fall of 1985, as a sophomore, Nikodem, chose to transfer to Creighton to complete his undergraduate credits before entering dental school. His five siblings lso attended Creighton — Raymond G. Nikodem, DDS’87; Gerard Nikodem, DDS’88; Eileen “Mimi” Nikodem Fitzgerald, BS’92; Christine Nikodem Gibbons; and Keith Nikodem, BS’96, DDS’01.
“Going to Creighton was the best thing I ever did. I laugh because now when I get back to campus, people notice a change in me, they say it’s like a switch that flips. There are just so many people I want to see and so many things to do. I love Omaha, Creighton and the community.”
Through his undergraduate and professional years at Creighton, Nikodem continued to play and coach community soccer.
After his injury, sustained while playing in a men’s weekend soccer league, Nikodem persevered through recovery, and his leg was saved. With the support of friends from the class of ’91, he graduated on schedule.
Michael Zacher, DDS’91, who met Nikodem during their undergraduate sophomore year, says he and Nikodem became fast and lifelong friends. Among their circle, they are still known as “Zach and Pops” — a nickname Nikodem earned for his resemblance to his father.
“Our support through his recovery was a reflection of Pops continually caring for everyone else,” Zacher says. “We had to help make sure Steve was OK and that he would graduate with us, because he was always — always — there for us. Steve is the epitome of ‘men for others.’”
At Creighton, Nikodem was active in the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) and volunteer-coached community soccer. After graduating from dental school, he practiced general dentistry and taught minority students in a summer dental program at Creighton. He completed his orthodontic residency in 1994 at Saint Louis University, where he earned his master’s degree in orthodontics. During his residency, he participated in Herbert Hoover’s Boy’s Program for Dental Concerns.
Today, Nikodem runs his practice, Nikodem Orthodontics — the same office that his father started. For nearly 75 years, the Nikodem practice has served the South St. Louis County community. Nikodem and his wife, Hilary, are active in their Missouri community and dedicated representatives of Creighton. Soccer and running are still among Nikodem’s hobbies.
“People ask me, ‘Don’t you own any clothes that are not Creighton gear?’” Nikodem says. “I think Hilary and I could be top recruiters for the University. I enjoy meeting people and talking about Creighton — it’s constant and I love it. Creighton is home to me.”
Nikodem’s children — Steve, Margot, Luke and Catherine “CeCe”— continue their family’s legacy. All are enrolled at Creighton, Steve and Luke in the School of Dentistry and shadowing at Nikodem Orthodontics on a regular basis. They say Creighton games have become a family tradition and the University is usually a topic of conversation at their dinner table.
“After one basketball game, Margot told me, ‘Dad, Creighton is the best place on this planet,’” Nikodem says. “Hearing that, nothing else matters to me. Nothing gives me better satisfaction than seeing my kids at Creighton and seeing them excel.”
Nikodem is a loyal Creighton donor and ambassador, member of the Parent and Family Leadership Council, and sits on the School of Dentistry Alumni Advisory Board, serving as vice chair. He says it is an honor to be on the board and his involvement is especially rewarding because of the impact the board has on current students.
“I get to circle back with members of my class, like Dr. Zacher, and see faculty dedication in a new light. Faculty put in endless hours to keep our dental program top ranked. It’s a chance to meet so many other great dentists who [graduated] before and after me — it’s a fantastic experience.
“And what an honor to meet current students. I think I can be someone they relate to through the challenges of dental school, because if I got through it, anyone can do it.”
Nikodem says he has had many influential people in his life. He credits Creighton faculty, such as W. Thomas Cavel, DDS’70, for their dedication to past and current students. In 2017, Nikodem and Zacher named an office space in the new School of Dentistry building in honor of Cavel.
“We teach to set a positive example and hope the students are impacted by that and our years of experience,” Cavel says. “To have my office dedicated by Steve and Mike is quite emotional. I am sincerely grateful for their dedication to Creighton and their generosity.”