Body Blow Southern Mississippi running back Derrick Nix was bound for the NFL until he was blindsided by a life-threatening disease

May 18, 2003

On Saturdays in the fall the Southern Mississippi football
players, still dressed in street clothes, come walking in
procession past great crowds of fans cheering them on. When they
reach 33,000-seat M.M. Roberts Stadium, known to all as the Rock,
and start along the promenade called Eagle Walk Drive, the roars
come louder, and to a man the players sense at long last that the
game is upon them and it's time to be animals again. ¶ They are
in the shade of the double-deck stadium now, with about two hours
remaining before kickoff, and up above them painted metal
placards celebrate the school's football history. The placards
recognize championships and bowl victories and former players
whose performances made them famous and the Hattiesburg school
proud: Ray Guy, Louis Lipps and Sammy Winder, to name a few.
Because he is the most recent luminary to have graduated from
the program and become an NFL star, Brett Favre, who played for
the Golden Eagles from 1987 to 1990, is the last name the
players see before they move on to their locker room in the
athletic center.

During his recent undergraduate days at the school, a tall,
powerfully built running back named Derrick Nix looked up at the
placards every time he passed under them and wondered about his
future. Would he be good enough to go pro? Better yet, would he
make a mark that so impressed the school that it remembered him
with a placard after he was gone? Rare was the Saturday when Nix,
filled with a dream of greatness, didn't acknowledge that
anything was possible, if only fortune continued to smile on him.
He was arguably the finest runner the school had ever produced,
and he was willing to give all to be even better. I'm going to
have my name up there one day, Nix would say to himself, never
imagining the horror that would end his brilliant career before
he could finish out his senior season.

Today the campus slumbers in the torpid spring heat, and football
season seems a long way off--both the one upcoming and the one
recently past. Nix makes his way into the stadium and starts for
a sunny spot in the seats across from the side where some of his
former teammates are working out. Nix is 23 years old now. He
wears baggy jean shorts and a sleeveless basketball jersey with
the name JORDAN printed on the back. The shirt reveals dense
knots of muscle at his shoulders topping a chiseled, T-shaped
torso. Around his neck hangs a gold chain with the number 43. It
is the number he wore when he ran the ball with such determined
ferocity that everybody called him Baby Bull.

Nix's old mates are running the stairs of the stadium's lower
deck, shoes tapping the concrete as they climb to the top, then
descend one after the other to the bottom and the playing field.
In the end zone Nix stops to watch them, and they in turn pause
and watch him, silent but for their breathing. "Bull," somebody
says finally. Then the players start up the stairs again.

Back in his days as a Golden Eagle, Nix was always out in front
leading his teammates, exhorting the stragglers onward, finishing
first in every drill. He considered it his duty to show them what
was required of a man who meant to win every time he strapped it
on. Not many possessed his size, speed and power; few were as
tough either, and in the end it likely will be his toughness they
remember best about him. "A heart this big," says Jeff Bower, the
coach of the team, holding his hands apart the width of his chest.

By the end of the regular season last year, Nix was playing
despite the fact that his kidneys were barely functioning. The
kidneys are fist-sized organs that filter waste and extra water
from the body, and Nix's were shot. Although doctors monitored
his health throughout the season, they were unaware of how
serious his condition had become. When asked how anyone could
play college football while experiencing full-blown renal
failure--and play well enough to rush for more than 1,000
yards--the most common answer from people who know Nix is a
shrug. "Don't ask me," Bower says. "Just guts, I suppose. Knowing
what we know now about his condition, and looking back at what he
accomplished last year, it's absolutely amazing."

Before his health problems Nix had often seemed indestructible.
He stands a shade taller than 6'2", and at his peak he weighed
223 pounds and had only 6% body fat. He ran the 40-yard dash in
4.4 seconds, and he could bench-press 225 pounds 28 times and
squat 600 pounds, more than most college linemen. He liked to
pound the ball into the line, but his explosive speed allowed him
to take it around the corner and outrun many defensive backs. "He
did everything well," says Bower. "And nobody worked harder.
Derrick was determined to squeeze everything he could out of his
God-given ability."

Nix appeared destined to be a second- or third-round NFL draft
pick this year, although he might have been selected in the first
round had he ever been well enough to play at his full potential.
"Derrick had it all," says Dan Rooney, a college scout for the
Pittsburgh Steelers. "He reminded me a lot of [former Mississippi
and current New Orleans Saints running back] Deuce McAllister. He
had a gliding style, but he also had great running ability. He
could break tackles with power, but he also had good enough feet
that he could be elusive in open space. And once he broke loose,
he could finish a run. He was a can't-miss prospect, the kind any
NFL team would love to have."

Nix finished out his career with 3,584 rushing yards. In the 2002
season he ran for 1,194 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, becoming
the only player in Southern Miss history to carry the ball for
more than 1,000 yards in three seasons. But even as he was
battering defenses, he wasn't at his best. "Sometimes I'd wonder
how well I'd do if I was 100 percent," Nix says. "I never let
myself dream too much about the NFL, because as I was getting
sick, I began to wonder if God had other plans for me. I believe
in fate. I know now that God's plan for me is to help other
people. It's not about money or fame. It's not even about
football, really. It's about being a good example and giving
people hope."

Nix's girlfriend, Allison Story, a forward on the Southern Miss
women's basketball team, says, "Derrick has never once said that
what's happened to him isn't fair. Other athletes go out and
party and drink all the time, yet they get their chance to play
in the NFL. Well, Derrick did everything right. He was the
hardest worker this school has ever seen, yet he's the one who
won't get to play again. Derrick's never said it, but I'll say
it: Not fair."

After a while the players finish their conditioning drills and
leave the stadium, and Nix stands and looks out at the empty
field, the grass a carpet mixing winter gold and spring green.
His eyes track to a spot about 10 yards away. "That's where it
all started," he says, pointing. "This sideline here."

It was Sept. 30, 2000, his junior season, and the Golden Eagles
were hosting Memphis. As Nix rushed toward the sideline he
suddenly found himself in a swarm of defenders. They gang-tackled
him, one of them locking on him from behind, and he felt a sharp
pain radiate through his lower right leg. "I knew what it was,"
he says now of the high-ankle sprain. "When I hurt my ankle back
in high school, it took about two weeks for me really to go
again, so I was saying to myself, Well, I'll need to speed this up."

He says he began taking the anti-inflammatory pills that a team
doctor gave him to reduce pain and swelling in the ankle. He
asked what the drug was for, he recalls, but he didn't bother to
find out its name. "You don't care about that," he says. "All you
do is take what they give you. Then you just wait on the medicine
to start to work so you can get back on the field." In fact,
after a brief appearance the following week against Louisville,
his season was over.

Soon after the injury, Nix's other ankle began to swell. There
was so much fluid under the skin that it felt mushy to the touch,
and the ridges of his socks left marks. His knees also began to
swell, and he had difficulty bending them. Nix couldn't figure it
out. "You're getting bigger," teammates told him. In only a week
he had gone from 227 to 235 pounds.

As his body began to expand, Nix experienced excruciating pain in
his abdomen, and headaches that kept him in bed. He says he took
the anti-inflammatory drugs for about three weeks. (After two
weeks he had been switched from one drug to a second one.)
Meanwhile, he continued to put on weight, gaining "maybe 10
pounds a week," he says. Finally team physicians became alarmed
and removed him from the medication.

Nix began to wonder if he was putting on weight simply as a
result of overeating and not exercising. "I told myself I needed
to start running more," he says. He restricted his diet to green
salads, yet friends still joked that he looked like the Michelin
Man. "The highest I ever got was 280," he says. He reached a
point where he couldn't bear to look at himself in the mirror,
and he occasionally skipped class to avoid being stared at and
peppered with questions by fellow students. "He looked like he'd
gone 15 rounds and had his butt whipped," says Bower. "His face
was so swollen you could hardly tell it was Derrick."

Nix's brother Tyrone, 30, is the defensive coordinator at
Southern Miss. A former star linebacker for the Golden Eagles, he
was the defensive backs coach when Derrick's problems began. "We
were getting ready to play Houston [four weeks after Derrick's
ankle injury], and Derrick woke up the day of the game and could
barely get his eyes open," says Tyrone. "I was in a position
meeting, and he stuck his head in the room, and I immediately got
up and left. I knew something was wrong with him. So Derrick and
I missed the pregame meal. We just sat up in a room, and we
prayed and cried, I guess, trying to figure out what was wrong."

Not wishing to upset their parents, Derrick and Tyrone conspired
to tell them little of what Derrick was experiencing. Preston and
Mary Nix live in Attalla, Ala., a town of about 6,800 in the
northeastern part of the state, where they raised Derrick, Tyrone
and their older brother Marcus, now 33. Preston worked for more
than 30 years at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant before retiring
and becoming a minister. Today he is the pastor at Mount Olive
Baptist Church in Oneonta, Ala.; Mary works as a teacher's aide.
"All they knew was that I had a sprained ankle," Derrick says.
"We were still thinking it was something that wasn't that big of
a deal, it might clear up."

Because fluid retention is often associated with kidney problems,
team doctors sent Derrick to Jon Thornton, a Hattiesburg
nephrologist. Thornton ordered a kidney biopsy, and on Nov. 13
Derrick learned that he was suffering from membranous
glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease that causes a loss of
protein in the body. Swelling and lethargy were among his
symptoms, but the disease was treatable and wouldn't keep him off
the field. (Before he required a transplant in 1999, the San
Antonio Spurs' Sean Elliott played seven years in the NBA with a
more serious kidney condition.) "There is a small, slight chance
you can't cure this," one of Nix's doctors told him, according to
Bower. The statement sounded like a worst-case scenario, says the
coach, and everyone maintained a positive attitude, never
imagining that the condition could develop into a
life-threatening disease. "We just didn't think it was that
serious," says Bower.

Different medications were prescribed for Nix, and in time he
began to eliminate the fluid buildup in his body and, by his
calculation, was losing about 10 pounds per week. Over the winter
his strength started to return, and he went through spring
practice of 2001 without any problem except for decreased
endurance. Weeks later, Nix says, his doctor lowered the dosage
of his medication to see if his kidneys could work without it,
and he suffered a relapse. The swelling in his face got so bad
that when he reported to his summer job, he was met with stares.
"Who are you?" somebody asked him.

"I'm Derrick," he said.

In June 2001, Nix was training in the weight room when he began
to feel pain in his chest. He thought he'd put too much weight on
the bars and pulled a muscle, but then he began struggling for
breath. He was certain he was going to suffocate. As it happened,
he was battling the effects of a blood clot that, he says, had
traveled from his leg and lodged in his lung. This was likely a
result of his disease.

Tyrone and his wife, Toya, and young son, Tyvari, were
vacationing in Florida when they heard the news from Bower. They
immediately packed their bags and returned to Hattiesburg. "When
I saw Derrick, I realized how bad it was," Tyrone says, "and I
thought, He could be gone at any time."

Nix redshirted the 2001 season to monitor his condition. When
doctors cleared him to participate in spring practices last
year, he says he felt as though his life had been given back to
him. While teammates complained about the drudgery of practice,
Nix approached each day with gratitude for being able to wear
the Golden Eagles uniform. He dominated every drill, made long
runs and refused to be tackled by any one man. After watching
Nix in an early scrimmage, Bower shook his head in amazement and
said to one of his assistants, "It might not be possible, but I
honestly think Derrick is faster than before."

"He looked great," Bower recalls. "You had to really watch him,
though. He was as impatient as could be, trying to make up for
lost time. We had to tell him to slow down and remember the
doctors' orders." Nix entered the 2002 season in seeming good
health and excellent shape, although his stamina wasn't quite
what it used to be. To monitor his condition, he had blood drawn
every Monday and his blood pressure and urine checked three times
a week. Doctors told him that playing football was not likely to
aggravate his kidney condition as long as he continued to take
his medication.

In the Golden Eagles' second game of the season, against
Illinois, Nix rushed for 91 yards in the first quarter but had to
sit out the second after throwing up and briefly blacking out. He
had scored on a three-yard run and found himself on his back in
the end zone, too exhausted to move. "I had to force myself to
get up," he says, "and when I did, I got to the 10-yard line and
just let it go. I still had my helmet on, and it came through my
face mask."

Nix dropped to the ground and was helped off the field. He spent
several minutes on the sideline drifting in and out of
consciousness. "When it happened, I could see it in the eyes of
the coaches and my teammates: They were worried about the kidney
situation," he says. "But I just thought I was really, really
tired." Team physicians gave him intravenous fluids, and he felt
well enough to return for the second half. He rushed for 201
yards on the day and helped lead his team to a 23-20 upset over
the defending Big Ten champions.

Although Mary Nix had traveled to Hattiesburg that weekend, she
stayed behind at Tyrone's house and watched the game on TV, and
she saw Derrick throw up. Tyrone returned home later, and she
said to him, "Why won't you talk to Derrick and ask him to let
the game go?"

"Why would I do that?" Tyrone said.

"Because it's going to kill him," she said.

In the next game, against Memphis, a Conference USA rival, Nix was
dominant again, gaining 196 yards on 21 carries, a 9.3-yard
average. And after the first few games of the season he was
playing as well as any running back in the country, but he could
feel his health deteriorating. Even as he appeared on
early-season lists of Heisman Trophy candidates, he wasn't
entirely himself: His weight was up again, his speed down, and he
often felt sluggish and tired. Some days he played at 80% of his
ability, he says, others at as high as 95%. On Sept. 22, the day
after the Alabama game, the fourth of the season, he threw up
violently after eating a hamburger.

"I wanted to think it was a virus," he says, "but I knew it was
the kidney syndrome acting up again." That night he checked into
a hospital and stayed there until the following Thursday. Doctors
cleared him to play against Army on Saturday. "I wasn't the same
guy," Nix says of that game, though he rushed for 87 yards and
scored a touchdown in the Golden Eagles' 27-6 victory. "I really
started to struggle then. It was never the same after that."

Two weeks later, in a loss to South Florida, Nix gained 126 yards
on the ground but reinjured his right ankle. Neither he nor his
doctors and trainers could determine exactly how he hurt it. "It
wasn't a sprain, and they couldn't find anything broken," says
Nix. "It just gave me pain. I couldn't push off with it." His
shoulder had also been hurting since the Illinois game early in
the season, and he had no recollection of injuring that either.
He was mystified by how much time it was taking him to heal. "It
would take until about Thursday for me to get rid of the bruises
from Saturday," he says.

"As the season went on, you could see him getting sicker and
sicker," says Torrin Tucker, the offensive guard with whom Nix
shared an apartment last season, "but he never showed it to the
team, and he tried to hide it from me. I'd notice he was sleeping
a lot. I'd ask him if he was all right, but he'd never say
something was wrong. He'd change the subject. He never complained."

"All I kept thinking about was what we had at stake as a team,"
Nix says. "I knew there were a lot of guys counting on me. That's
where my 'want to' came from."

On the Thursday before the regular-season finale, against East
Carolina, Nix stood in front of his teammates and made an
emotional speech about how blessed he was to have been a Southern
Miss Golden Eagle. By now he sensed that this might be the end
for him. Perhaps because he'd grown up the son of a preacher,
listening to his father rehearse sermons at home, Nix understood
the importance of telling it straight. If ever he owned an
audience, it was this one. "Appreciate what you've got," he said.
"And take pride in wearing that black jersey. I wouldn't trade it
for nothing."

After rushing for 139 yards against East Carolina, Nix became so
sick that he finally lost his will to play. Southern Miss would
have to do without him in the Houston Bowl. One night he called
Tyrone's cellphone. "What's going on?" Tyrone asked. "What is it,
brother?"

"Sorry to bother you," Derrick said. "I know you're busy."

"What is it, Derrick?"

"It's nothing."

"No, you don't call me at night like this for nothing."

"Well, I'm screwing up a little bit. I think this might be it."

He immediately returned to the hospital, and a new biopsy
revealed that he was suffering from focal glomerulosclerosis, a
disease that had left his kidneys scarred and permanently
damaged. The news meant that one of the nation's best young
football players would be sidelined forever. "His kidney function
... had started tapering off," Thornton later told reporters,
acknowledging that the newly diagnosed condition had been present
to a small degree in the results of the first biopsy. "Playing
... could have caused some damage from the standpoint that he was
dehydrated, and that put a workload on his kidneys." Nix needed
to begin dialysis at once. He also needed a new kidney in order
to survive. Doctors placed him on a national transplant waiting
list.

Had Nix stayed on the team against Oklahoma State in the Houston
Bowl, he likely would've gained the 12 yards he needed to break
the Golden Eagles' career rushing record, held for 25 years by
Ben Garry. "The way that kid ran the ball?" says Karl Dunbar, the
Cowboys' defensive line coach, who had studied hours of Southern
Miss game film. "He probably would've gained that much or more on
his first few carries."

"Playing was Derrick's decision, and whether to give it up was
his decision too," Tyrone says. "We never really understood what
kind of pain he was going through each day, just to keep going,
to keep continually fighting."

As soon as the news began to circulate that Nix needed a kidney
transplant to survive, several of his teammates and coaches
offered to give him one of theirs. Calls and letters arrived for
Nix at the Southern Miss football office from childhood friends
and casual acquaintances, as well as from people he'd never met,
among them a 66-year-old widow named Christine Cochran. A
resident of nearby Ellisville, she had read about Nix's struggles
in her local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American, and offered him
one of her kidneys. "He's a young man, and I'm getting older each
day," Mrs. Cochran says. "If he needs one of my kidneys--and
they're in perfect condition, by the way--he's more than welcome
to have it."

Another to make the offer was Charlie Dudley Jr., the Golden
Eagles' strength coach. "I don't know anyone who knows Derrick
who wouldn't want to do this," Dudley says. "As far as I'm
concerned, it's the same as if your wife or mother needed one.
Derrick is family."

Marcus and Tyrone Nix also immediately stepped up, and tests
determined that Marcus, who lives with Preston and Mary in
Attalla, was the best match. The surgery is scheduled for June 6
in Birmingham. "The truth is, that [national] waiting list is
just a waiting list for somebody to die," Derrick says. "Marcus
is doing a brave thing."

In April, Derrick filed a lawsuit against the companies that
produce the anti-inflammatory drugs Celebrex and Vioxx, which
were given to him by team doctors after his original ankle injury
and which, he alleges, are responsible for the onset of his
disease. Named as defendants in the action are pharmaceutical
giants Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., Pharmacia Corp. and their sales
representatives, who, according to the lawsuit, provided Southern
Miss team doctors with samples of the anti-inflammatory drugs and
"encouraged said physicians to prescribe the drugs in a method
for which the drugs were not approved." (Pfizer and Pharmacia,
which recently merged, say they "stand behind the safety of
Celebrex." Merck says the same about Vioxx.) While the suit does
not specify a monetary amount for damages, it states that the
"plaintiff's future career as a professional athlete has been
severely compromised" and asks for compensation for loss of
future income, among other things.

Nix's wages as an NFL running back likely would have been in the
millions, although he says money was never his goal. "Derrick
never once said his dreams are ruined," says Story. "He can do
something else. He can coach. He was never the sort of person to
say, 'I'm good enough to play in the NFL.' I've heard people tell
him, 'Derrick, you're the best running back ever to play at this
school.' And Derrick would say, 'No, I'm not.' That's the kind of
person he is. He's humble--too humble sometimes."

Nix lately has been reconsidering his future and planning a
career as a college football coach. Bower has offered him a
position as a graduate assistant, and Nix, who is studying for a
master's degree in coaching, intends to begin work in the fall,
after he recovers from the transplant.

In the meantime he still dreams about playing the game and
fantasizes about a return. He has contemplated contacting
sporting-goods manufacturers to find out if they might create a
piece of protective equipment to cover the area where his new
kidney will reside. He has broached the subject of a comeback
with Tyrone many times. After all, Derrick says, three years ago
Sean Elliott played in the NBA with a transplanted kidney. Why
can't Derrick Nix play with one in the NFL in 2004? Tyrone, who
admires his brother's heart, is never certain how to reply.

"After I get this transplant, if there are two or three doctors
who say there is something I can wear that makes it at least 99
percent safe for me to play, I'll give it a shot," Derrick says.
"It's probably just wishful thinking, but football is in my
blood, and playing again is in my head."

By now the players have completed their drills and left for home,
and a wash of gold illuminates the Rock. Derrick Nix is staring
out at the field where on Saturdays in the fall he once was as
good as it got in Hattiesburg. The great players come and go,
their achievements recounted on the placards that hang in the
shade under the stands of the old stadium, but the best of them
are those whose example inspires others to fight on and to win
when winning requires everything. Nix believes this.

"I feel that people here love me," he is saying. "I get stopped
all the time on my way to class by students I've been seeing for
years but who've never been introduced to me. They'll stop me and
ask me how I'm doing. I never get tired of people coming up and
being nice to me. I hope I don't sound like I'm bragging, but I
really do think I've come to mean something to people."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFERY A. SALTER SIDELINED Back at the Rock wearing his dialysis tube, Nix is as buff as he was when he ran for more than 1,000 yards a season. COLOR PHOTO: DANNY RAWLS PYRRHIC VICTORY Against Illinois last season Nix led the Golden Eagles to an upset win but also became ill and briefly blacked out. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFERY A. SALTER BROTHER'S KEEPER Derrick, having dialysis in his bedroom, will receive a kidney from Marcus early next month. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFERY A. SALTER STILL HUNGRY Nix, with Story, says he harbors thoughts of playing in the NFL after the transplant.

"Derrick had it all," says the Steelers' Rooney. "He could break
tackles with power, but he also could be elusive in open space.
He was a can't-miss NFL prospect."

"He was the hardest worker this school has ever seen, yet he's
the one who won't get to play again," Story says. "Derrick's
never said it, but I'll say it: Not fair."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)