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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At its highest population density, the three-bedroom house in Jacksonville, Fla., had 10 residents. Louis Nix III, who has 11 younger siblings and half-siblings, could have made a choice that would have allowed him to enlarge that house considerably. The 326-pound Notre Dame nose tackle could have decided to enter the NFL draft after the BCS title game. In a few months, he could have collected a seven-figure paycheck.
Yet the one person who would have benefitted the most from Nix turning pro begged him to stay in school. "My brothers and sisters, they didn't really care. My dad, he knew the decision was up to me. It was just my mom," Nix said on Monday after he and Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin announced their intentions to return to campus in 2013. "She called me every day like 'I can't wait to walk on the field with you for Senior Day.' In high school, she didn't get to do it with me. She barely made it to any of my games. She didn't do the Senior Day in high school and she cried. That was a big one for me."
Nix's mother, Stephanie Wingfield, desperately wanted to see her son honored on Senior Night at Raines High in 2009. She couldn't attend. She had to work a shift at a hospital cafeteria, because someone had to put food on the table. "She just had to work all the time," Nix said. "She couldn't afford to take off." So when her jumbo-sized son with a heart to match took the field that night, he did it alone. "I was the only person who walked on the field by myself," Nix said. "People were like, 'Where are his parents?' She didn't like stuff like that."
Nix looks forward to the day he can financially support the woman who sacrificed so much to keep her children fed, clothed and sheltered. He understands how easy it would be to leave school now and take the money. He understands why that might be the most sensible option. But Nix can't deny his mother a chance to greet him at midfield at Notre Dame Stadium. If that's what she wants, that's what she'll get.
There is a column to be written here about the lunacy of a system in which schools rake in millions on the backs of athletes who can't use any of that money to help their families, but we'll save that for another day. For now, during a dark time when good news seems in short supply, let's marvel at the miracle of a mother's love. Given the opportunity to trade a difficult life for an easy one, Wingfield declined because, according to Nix, she didn't consider it the best course of action for her son.
"She knows I have this big opportunity," Nix said. "She knows this would help us all out. But at the same time, I believe she knows what's best for me. At the end of the day, what if football doesn't work out? She wants me to fall back on something."
That something is a film, television and theater degree with a business minor that Nix is on schedule to receive in December 2013. Anyone who has watched Nix's "Chocolate News" series on YouTube knows Nix has a future in television if football doesn't work out.
But barring injury -- Nix will be eligible for a hefty insurance policy to protect him if that happens -- football is going to work out. Nix is one of the nation's best at a position that has grown increasingly valuable in the NFL. There simply aren't many humans large enough and strong enough to withstand a double team from two 300-pounders and quick enough to split that double team and disrupt a play.
For a while, Nix wasn't one of those people. He was plenty large, but he was too big to be quick. Earlier in his career, Nix weighed 368 pounds. "You see all these guys finish [runs] like five minutes before you, it kind of gets you upset," Nix said. "You don't want to be that guy in the back. I had to work my way up." This past summer, Nix dedicated himself to conditioning. "Louis Nix reported to fall camp in perhaps the best shape he's ever been in," Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston said. Nix put it another way. "I'm still in the back," he said, "but at a faster pace."
Nix submitted his name to the NFL's draft advisory council for an evaluation, but as of Monday, he said he had not received the results. "I don't need to know," Nix said. Any evaluation will include criticism. Nix's prior weight issues will be a red flag for NFL teams, and, like most nose tackles, his motor will be questioned. Had he left after this season, Nix probably would have been overshadowed by several elite defensive tackles -- Utah's Star Lotulelei and Alabama's Jesse Williams, for example -- but the premium placed on his position would have put Nix in line for more wealth than he or his family have ever imagined. Now that he has decided to stay, Nix will use the evaluation to fuel his offseason workouts. "I'll probably post it in my locker as motivation if it's not what I like," he said.
In the BCS title game, Nix can raise his 2014 draft stock. Few centers can block him one-on-one. One of the most fascinating matchups of the national title game will be Nix against 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones. Nix's play could determine whether the Fighting Irish can win a national title. If Nix can hold his gaps against Jones and guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen, Alabama's tailbacks will have little room to run. If Nix gives ground at all, the Tide will control the ground, the ball and the clock. Teammates believe if anyone can clog the A gaps and slow the Crimson Tide's rushing attack, it's Nix. "Without him," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said, "there are a lot of runs that wouldn't be stopped."
No matter what happens in South Florida, Nix will be back in South Bend stuffing runs next year. Nix could have taken the money now, but if his mother didn't need it, neither did he. If all goes as planned, Nix will walk across the field on Nov. 23 before the BYU game and make Wingfield's Senior Day dream come true.
"That'll make her happy," Nix said. "We've been surviving this far. We'll be OK."