Notre Dame football: Nix’s future comes with a big smile

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

The big picture for Louis Nix III has a fake mustache painted on it and a laugh track, rather than a soundtrack, running in the background.

It’s not that the future — a serious future — hasn’t opened up to the 6-foot-3, 347-pound bundle of punch lines. It’s just that the Notre Dame senior nose guard, arguably the best at his position in college football, refuses to ever let the drama of life overtake his zest for it.

Who else would beg for a uniform number change — from his Kyle Rudolph tribute No. 9 to No. 1 this offseason — for nothing more than a chuckle?

“I really wanted to be double-zero or zero, but they said they don’t do that in college football,” said Nix, sitting in Notre Dame’s South Dining Hall, where he’s the dining experience equivalent of Norm on the former long-running sitcom “Cheers.”

In other words, everybody knows his name — and his infectious smile.

Getting No. 1 took some smooth talk with the top-ranked recruit in Notre Dame’s incoming freshman class, prodigious outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (who will now wear 9), and daily pestering of Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly.

“He is not exaggerating when he tells you guys (the media) that,” Nix said. “I really do bug him about things every day.”

Nix even connived to the point of getting Kelly’s right-hand woman, director of

football administration Beth Rex, on board when he wanted the Irish head coach to give Nix a snap at quarterback in ND’s spring wrap-up, the Blue-Gold Game, last April.

“The original plan was for me to get a snap at running back,” Nix said.

Then a week before the Irish intrasquad game, Nix read where South Carolina’s all-everything defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, caught a touchdown pass in the Gamecocks’ spring game. So suddenly, running back wasn’t good enough.

“I said, ‘Coach, let’s get me in the shotgun and let me throw the ball.’ ” Nix said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know about all that.’

Then Rex intervened, and, well, Nix got his way on a two-point conversion attempt. Unable to read the defense on what was supposed to be a fade pattern, Nix tucked and stumbled into the end zone as would-be defenders cowered and scattered.

Several weeks later, at Notre Dame’s Fantasy Camp, Nix volunteered to help coach ... running backs, of course.

“They wanted to put an athletic guy over there,” he said smugly.

And perhaps, as well, they wanted a YouTube sensation, which Nix decidedly is after concocting a video series called “Chocolate News,” a sort of behind-the-scenes, slice-of-life look at the goofy side of Notre Dame football.

He constantly sprinkles his personality on Twitter, incorporates the catch-phrase, “Yada, yada, yada” into many of his narratives, admits to “probably” cheating at Monopoly and uses the same falsetto voice when recreating Kelly quotes as he does with his mother’s.

“He really always has been funny as far back as I can remember,” said Nix’s mom, Stephanie Wingfield, who has the giggle gene in strong supply herself.

Back in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., though, there are many who see Nix through a different prism. Especially the old guard from William M. Raines High School.

Some, like Greg Coleman, are scattered throughout the country in large part because of their athletic success.

Coleman, a former 12-year standout punter primarily with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, is one of more than 30 players Raines has pipelined into the league.

There are former NBA stars from Raines as well, including Leonard “Truck” Robinson, and ex-Major League baseball luminaries like Vince Coleman, Greg’s cousin and a prolific base stealer who pushed away his own promising NFL career not long after nailing a game-winning field goal for Florida A&M against the Miami Hurricanes in 1979.

The Kenny Burroughs, Harold Carmichaels and Brian Dawkinses of the Raines legacy share a brotherhood with their football contemporaries that went on to shine in law, medicine and the business world, guys like hedge fund manager and trader Renzer Bell.

They come back and give back.

They sponsor essay contests in the area for prize money to spark children’s interest in reading. They’ve provided college scholarships, funneled money to upgrade Raines’ once-primitive athletic facilities, bulldozed despair by showing the future what real-life heroes look like.

And they root for Louis Nix III. Oh, do they root for him.

“It’s a brotherhood, and Louis is the next generation,” said Greg Coleman, who counts his work with the Minnesota Vikings’ radio broadcast team as one of his many post-NFL functions.

“When I was coming through Raines, there was such a sense of pride. There was a sense of ownership. There was a sense of wanting to build a tradition. And these guys who are Louis’ age, they are standing on the shoulders of those who went before them.

“Some realize it now. Some won’t realize it until they are older and more mature.”

But the younger generation is also living in a different world, with different obstacles than the ones Coleman and his contemporaries transcended.

“The folly is the administration at Raines isn’t as good as it was in the early days,” Bell said, “because you still have extraordinary children there. They just don’t have the same support system and guidance.

“In the neighborhood, the homes have kind of turned over in some ways. The older people have kind of died out or moved away, but the athletes are still coming from the same blocks, the same streets that they did back in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s what’s interesting to me.

“I see them and I empathize and I understand. And when I look at them, I see me. And when they look at Louis Nix, they see potential. And I hope someday Louis looks at himself that way.

“From the first time I met him as a sixth-grader, I thought he’d be a special person, not just a special athlete. I’ve told him for years, ‘You’ve got brains, and your brains will take your further than football ever will.’ He makes everyone proud, but I think there’s a lot more in his tank.”

* * *

So flippantly resistant was the Jacksonville/Duval County School District about the 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case that still 11 years later, Raines High didn’t even have a dignified name or dignified purpose in its first year of existence (1965).

It was simply “School No. 165.”

Seven years before Jacksonville finally pushed through a loose interpretation of a desegregation plan, Florida statutes not only required that the students be separated by race, but even their books could not be stored together.

As Bell and so many others remember it, the school was built with the sole intention of keeping black students out of Jean Ribault High, located — as the crow flies — less than 10 football fields away on the other side of the railroad tracks ... and, at that time, the color line.

“A lot of this area used to be farmland and pastures for horses and stuff like that in the county,” Bell said. “When African-Americans moved out here, they moved from being renters in the city to home owners in the county. So Raines was conceived to, I guess, service the burgeoning African-American population.

“Right from the start, there was a pride of neighborhood. People had these little, flimsy screen doors, that they’d leave exposed, that you wouldn’t dream of doing today. You could just punch a hole in the screen and get into people’s houses. But nobody did that, because people respected each other to the degree that you weren’t going to do that.”

Meanwhile at Raines, Dr. Andrew Robinson, the school’s first principal, asked the school board if he could pick his own teachers.

“He had a vision for the school,” Bell said. “And he picked the best African-American teachers in the various disciplines that he could find. I suspect this was supposed to fail. ‘OK, we’re going to give him the teachers he says he wants, and we’re going to let him essentially hang himself.’ ”

Instead, from day one, Raines flourished.

To this day, Raines is the only Jacksonville public school to win a state championship in football since the state instituted a playoff system in 1963. The Vikings won the Class 4A title in 1997 and were runners-up in 1973.

The school has also won three boys basketball state titles, most recently in 2004, and three in boys track. They were persistent winners across the board in between the long tourney runs.

“Even now, when Raines kids step onto the field, they expect to be successful, and that started with a sense of community, where people looked out for children,” Bell said of the evolution of the Raines mystique. “If you did something wrong, you might get two or three butt whippings before you got home.”

“Right from the start, there was an attitude from the students who went to Raines and their families that they were going to be successful,” said Burroughs. “You felt like it was OK to dream there.”

But institutional racism pruned some of those dreams. The early generation of Raines’ athletic standouts had to play up North or at historically black colleges if they stayed in the South since football opportunities at the Florida’s FBS colleges and many other pockets in the South were limited or didn’t exist.

People look at Florida, Florida State and Miami now and go wow,” Bell said. “The demographic didn’t change. These are the sons of the same guys who couldn’t play there 30 years earlier.”

Those doors were wide open by the time Nix arrived at Raines as a freshman, roughly four decades after his father, Louis Nix Sr., did the same, but closed minds pocked his road to Notre Dame.

Those who ran the Notre Dame admissions office weren’t among them, though. The mythology has been consistent over decades — when Irish football fortunes begin to ascend, the presumption is that the academic bar has been lowered, a tenet ND associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment Don Bishop says does not match reality.

What former Irish head coach Charlie Weis and now Kelly have done is mine talent at high schools that had been out of Notre Dame’s profile loop. Nix, with the exception of a hiccup his freshman year at Raines, has been an honors student since elementary school. He’s also the only student from his high school since at least 1980 (when ND’s admissions records were computerized) to attend Notre Dame.

Bell first met Nix when he was in elementary school and the latter had entered one of his sponsored essay contests. Their paths continued to cross coincidentally, then later purposefully, and Bell became a mentor for Nix, especially when it came to educational opportunities.

“I never told Louis where he should go to college,” Bell said. “But I did tell him, ‘Don’t go to sleep on the academic schools. When the band stops playing, do they know you? Is there a network that’s going to embrace you and help you get on your way as a man in the world, starting in business and in life?’

“So often with schools that didn’t take academics seriously, when the band stopped playing, it was like, ‘We appreciate your services, but we don’t need you anymore.’ I said, ‘Do you want this kind experience for yourself?’

“Ultimately, I felt the comfort zone of Florida schools is probably what he would settle with.”

Nix initially did commit to Miami, but left a back door open for the Irish. What ensued over the months that followed illustrates just what Kelly and his staff now face (and Weis in this instance) when they try to extract a prospect out of SEC/ACC country.

Nix took a couple of visits to Notre Dame with financial and logistical help from Bell. That included an appearance at the Irish football camp the summer before his senior year at Raines.

As Nix’s perceived interest in the Irish swelled, the recruiting got more contentious, especially close to home. According to Bell and Nix’s mother, members of Raines’ coaching staff and administration tried to sway him back to Miami.

One assistant even showed up at Nix’s house to tell Nix’s stepfather the defensive line standout would be ineligible if Nix attended Notre Dame, because Bell had become “a side agent.”

Bell allayed Nix’s fears and confronted the Miami-smitten contingent at the school.

“You had people he trusted trying to talk him out of Notre Dame and telling lies to justify it,” Bell said. “You may not like Notre Dame, and that’s fine, but it shows a lack of depth in their thinking to try to do what they did.

“The kids on the team and in the hallways looked at him strange, but they were taking their cues from what adults were saying.”

Nix held strong and privately verbaled to Weis weeks before the head coach was purged and Nix’s commitment became public in December — mere days before Kelly was hired.

“Greg Coleman was one of the guys that talked to me about that and helped me keep my head on straight through all of that,” Nix said. “He told me that if you just do the right things, you can make it, and Notre Dame’s a great school. Stuff like that.

“That gave me the motivation that I could make it, because coming out of Florida, people in Florida will tell you, ‘If you go to a school like this, you won’t make it. You’re going to be right back down in Florida.’ And at one time, I thought that, too.

“But I kept pushing at it, and my family was behind me. And now, when kids see I went to their high school and I’ve been successful at Notre Dame, I think it helps the kids out a lot. It lets him know you can make it here, or you can have the same opportunities. You’ve just got to work at it.”

* * *

Nix said he wants to go back to Raines to stir the next generation of success, to see his family, maybe even to change that corner of the world, but the timing isn’t right in his mind. Not now.

During ND’s roughly four-week interlude between the end of the spring semester and the start of summer school, Nix headed to the Phoenix area with Irish teammates Kendall Moore and Prince Shembo to train with former Irish wide receiver Davonte’ Neal’s dad, Luke Neal, a personal trainer, and to keep a low profile.

“I didn’t want to go home, because nothing good could have come of that,” Nix said. “You do your best to stay out of trouble. It’s my last year at Notre Dame. I don’t need to get into nothing.

“Jacksonville’s a great city, but there are sides of town that are not so good. I happen to be on one of those sides of town. At first, you want to go home all the time, because you want to see your family. But you’re also going to see the same guys on the same steps. Stuff is bad. My mom understands that.”

All too well, in fact.

Bell acknowledges the neighborhood around Raines has decayed. He blames crack and the trickle-down toll the drug takes on the family structure.

“During the time I would have been home in May, a guy got shot in the face on my street,” Nix said. “There are people I went to high school with who are already dead. I’ve seen too much death, been to too many funerals.”

And none more painful than that of his oldest brother, Louis Anthony Nix Jr., who police still consider a murder victim. Nix Jr. was 30 years old at the time. Nix III was just finishing up middle school.

“People heard about it on the radio, and some of them thought it was me at first,” Nix III said. “I laughed it off, until I found out it was my brother. I had just seen him the day before. He had given me a couple of bucks to get a snack at school.

“I didn’t cry at the funeral, but when I got home, it hit me and I broke down in my room. I still think about him a lot.”

And he thinks about his family still living in that environment. That’s one of the reasons Nix strongly considered putting his name into the 2013 NFL Draft and leaving college eligibility and his degree on the table.

He wanted to pay for a knee replacement for his mom, who works at a hospital bistro, and to move her out of harm’s way.

Nix’s mom, Stephanie Wingfield, swiftly and decisively vetoed the notion of Nix walking away from South Bend without a degree.

“Education is important,” Wingfield said. “I realize he’s a good football player, but the NFL is still going to be there in 2014. Why not get your degree and have that with you?

“He knows I don’t play. If he would have even considered it, I would have gone on every TV station and talked to every newspaper in this country telling people he should stay in school. I want him to be an example for his little brothers. Education is the way to change your life, change the world.”

Wingfield seems to have the same effect on people, with her heart.

“My mom is a strong, God-fearing woman,” Nix said. “She loves to go to church. One thing I love about my mom is she loves to help everybody out. At one point in time one of her friends at church, they didn’t have rent for their apartment. They were about to get kicked out.

“My mom, who doesn’t even have money herself, gave her the rent money. My first reaction was , ‘Mom, don’t do that. You need it.’

“She’s like, ‘I’ll be all right. God got me so many blessings’ ... stuff like that, so she’s a spiritual person. She would help anybody out if you need it, no matter what. Sometimes I feel like people use her. She doesn’t feel that way. She thinks she’s doing her Godly deed, and I can’t stop her.”

He can’t stop her from calling every day, either — not that he’d want to.

“If he doesn’t pick up, I’ll call 10 or 15 more times and leave messages every time,” she said.

And Nix can’t stop her from befriending fans who want to get close to her son. Once, during one of the few times Nix did get back to Jacksonville, a stranger reached out to him on Facebook and wanted to get together.

Nix politely declined, but his mom saw the invitation when Nix left the page up on his computer. Later that night, she asked Nix to take her out to dinner.

“I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m tired. Please. I was running, I’m sore.’ ” he recounted.

“She’s like, ‘Do it for me.’

“So you’ve GOT to do it. So when we get to Applebee’s, I find out she invited the guy from Facebook to dinner. I didn’t have a problem with it. I thought it was real nice. ‘All right mom, I’ll let you slide on this one.’”

And he admits, he may have to let the whole idea of moving her slide as well.

“When I tell her I’ve got to get her up out of here, she says, ‘Knock down my house and build another one right where it’s at.’ ”

“She loves where she is. She loves her friends and neighbors. She says she’d needed there. It’s a fight with her I’m not sure I can win.”

* * *

The papers from the NFL Draft Advisory Board arrived in the mail two days after Nix announced he was returning to Notre Dame for the 2013 season. Technically, he could return for the 2014 season as well, since he redshirted as a freshman, but he doesn’t even present the pretense that might happen.

“I open that letter,” Nix said, “and it says, at the most first round. I’m like, ‘Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, whoaaaaaaaa!’ I was thinking second or third, but first? I told (then-ND director of football personnel) Tim McDonnell, ‘I’m going to have another talk with coach Kelly.’ I was just playing around, though.

“Then it was on my mind for a while. At the end of the day, I still have that paper with me. I keep it on my desk. I just look at it from time to time. It just showed me I can play and I can still make it to the first round if I just keep playing hard and keep balling out. And I feel like my game elevates every year. Hopefully, it skyrockets this year.”

It certainly did in 2012. Nix ended the spring of that year second on the depth chart to converted end Kona Schwenke, then accelerated into a season worthy of All-America recognition, though somehow it escaped him until the preseason magazines started coming out this summer.

“He’s one of the most ferocious competitors,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered. “Watch the Alabama game. He was competing on every single play.

“He’s trying to impact every single play. He’s forcing the offense to do things that they’re not necessarily going to have to do against other teams because of the way he plays. He’s a very important player who can change the game at any time. And he changes the mind-set of those offensive linemen across from him. They really have to pay attention to him.”

“Honestly, I always thought I had talent, but never knew where it could take me,” Nix said. “I had no clue I’d be in college. I had no clue I’d end up playing college football. I had no clue I’d be at Notre Dame. I never knew it existed. Hunchback of Notre Dame was all I knew.

“When I look at it that way, it makes me think about wanting to influence people, more than just my little brothers. I guess Mr. Bell was right about that, too. He’s kind of like your parents. Sometimes you hear stuff from them that you know is true, but you either have to hear it from someone else too or think about it for a while before you take it in and believe it.”

Then the seriousness leaves him for a moment, and you can see the comedic wheels turning in his mind.

“You know what my real goal is?” he poses. “To be able to walk when I’m 35.”

He laughs at the mental picture of that, takes another bite of his lunch, and smiles big.

“You know as much as I want to do good things, I have to tell you I have done my share of bad things,” he said. “Things I shouldn’t have said or did. Luckily, I didn’t get in trouble for most of it.

“The older guys from Raines who have talked to me, they showed me why trying to do good is important and how much that can spread and what good it can do. But like any other dream — being a first-round draft choice, getting a degree from Notre Dame — you’ve got to fight for it. Well, I’m ready for the fight.”

Notre Dame's Louis Nix leaves the field following a 17-14 win over BYU at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend last season.