Notre Dame football: Nix’s life a magical journey -- with a laugh track

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Because Louis Nix learned to keep life in perspective when it matters most, we get to see how warped he can be when the spotlight softens and the mood does too.

Like when the Notre Dame senior nose guard recently turned a simple conversation about a Karaoke video on YouTube that Nix co-stars in into a mini-dissertation of why Notre Dame Stadium needs a JumboTron.

Or how bittersweet the experience of snow might be for Nix’s mother, Stephanie Wingfield, who plans to take in what could very well be Nix’s last home game for the Irish, Nov. 23 vs. Brigham Young.

“Being from Florida, you see (the movie) Home Alone and stuff, and you see the snow falling and it looks magical,” the 6-foot-3, 357-pound senior from Jacksonville offered. “You get here, and my first time picking up a snowball, I’m like, ‘Ah I’m freezing,’ and I threw it down.”

But there is something magical about Nix himself and the journey he’s been on the past four years and how there were so many more ways this could have ended in disappointment. Instead it’s playing out like a dream unfurled. Well, a dream with a laugh track.

“I wasn’t this wholesome guy you see right now my whole life,” Nix said, “but when I got to Notre Dame, that all changed. I met people. I got along with people. I make people laugh, and that’s what I like to do. I just like to be a friendly, cool guy now.

“I just think when you go out and be yourself, just be one of those guys that you can be a role model for kids or put a smile on somebody’s face, you can just give them a hug or a high five. I think that’s being at Notre Dame.”

As talented as Nix was coming out of Raines High in Jacksonville in 2010, he was far from can’t-miss on several fronts.

For starters, Nix may have been a strong student, but his high school hadn’t produced a single Notre Dame student in at least the three decades that preceded his arrival. It was “out of profile,” as ND head coach Brian Kelly terms it, meaning a tougher sell to the ND admissions office.

On the football side, Nix had a history of struggling to finish what he started. By his own count, the eventual four-star prospect quit his high school football team six times, including once when he failed an audition he begged for to be the team’s fullback.

His freshman year at ND, which Nix redshirted, tested that trend. His lack of stamina kept the ND coaches from experimenting with putting him on the field at any position for games. On the practice field, he was constantly but constructively criticized, which Nix admitted was met with immaturity mostly — alternately pouting and fuming

His intermittent homesickness, which extended well beyond that freshman season, was met by Wingfield’s promise that if Nix did come home with the intention of transferring, she would not let him in the house. Maybe the toughest stretch of that came when fellow Floridian, five-star defensive end Aaron Lynch, bolted for his home state during spring practice in 2012, 10 months before the Irish would play for the national title.

Nix, at the time, described his experience at ND as a roller-coaster ride in atypical- for-Nix, melodramatic fashion. In the rear-view mirror, it probably looks closer to the Tea Cups.

“I always have people around me who push me to just do better,” Nix said. “(They say), ‘You have an opportunity,’ and I’m lucky enough to have those type of people in my life.”

Kenny Burrough, one of a gaggle of former Raines stars who transcended their tough Jacksonville northwest side neighborhood to embrace their academic opportunities AND forge an NFL career, is one of those people.

The former Houston Oiler/New Orleans Saint all-pro wide receiver has been quietly cheering on Nix his entire ND career. Recently, he reached out to Nix on the telephone just to tell him how proud he was of him and to offer a listening ear anytime Nix needed someone to talk to.

But that’s not always enough, as the attrition numbers during the Kelly coaching era shows. Thirteen players have found a trap door out of ND since Kelly succeeded Charlie Weis as head coach in December 2009.

Only four of those — Shaq Evans (UCLA), Dayne Crist (Kansas), E.J. Banks (Pitt) and Alex Bullard (Tennessee) — were signed by Weis. The other nine were Kelly recruits. And seven out of the 13 who left came to ND from either Florida or California. Two others, Chris Badger (BYU) and Davonte’ Neal (Arizona) played their high school football at least 1,400 miles away from South Bend.

Kelly, in turn, has been roundly criticized for bringing in players who cite — sometimes exaggeratingly — a desire to be closer to home when they pull the ripcord on their exit from ND.

And in another time, perhaps that would have curtailed taking a shot at a guy like Nix. Lou Holtz, for instance, was pounded by the ND administration about attrition so much during the latter part of his 11-year run as head coach (1986-1996) that the animosity over that very issue helped eventually lead to the separation between Holtz and the school.

Because Louis Nix had the courage and conviction to chase, no stalk, his dreams, he may very well have kept the door open, if not coaxed it wider, for others.

“I think when you come on campus and you breathe the air at Notre Dame, it has a tendency to help you,” Kelly said of why the Nix situation worked where other similar ones fizzled. “So just being on this campus, being around the students, being around the faculty, being around the staff, you’re in an incredible environment of successful people.

“Let’s not forget Louis’ goals, because I think that’s central to this. Louis chose Notre Dame, because he wanted more. He could have gone anywhere, but Louis Nix wanted a degree from Notre Dame, and he’s going to have one. And I think when you cut right to it, it worked, because Louis Nix wanted it to work, ’cause there are other stories that came in and it didn’t work for them, and I think it’s a great story.”

Donald Bishop, vice president for undergraduate enrollment, the gatekeeper for Notre Dame admissions, looks at numbers in evaluating fit among potential Notre Dame football players, but he interviews each football prospect personally when it gets to the deeper stages of recruiting, and heart counts for a lot, too.

And perhaps when he looked into Nix’s he saw how he gravitated to being an honors student at an early age and how he constantly transcended situations that seemed to be stacked against him, even in athletics.

Like when he was a husky middle school basketball player who one day was pitted against a prodigy named Milton Geddes, a 6-2 center at the time whose skills were so advanced, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he was on an NBA trajectory (that changed over time, but Geddes did play college hoops).

“Louis made a move with his back to the guy,” recalled Renzer Bell, a Raines grad who eventually became a mentor for Nix. “He faked left, drop-stepped right on him, and Louis was to the basket before the guy could even touch him.

“I’m like, ‘My God, this guy is quick. He’s huge and he beat this guy with speed.’ He didn’t bump him like Shaq does. He just turned on him and scored. And he kept doing it. Louis had like 30 points on this guy, and Geddes was supposed to be a prodigy. I left that gym saying that guy there is special.”

Those moments have manifested at Notre Dame as well. This Saturday, for instance, when Nix’s teammates have the day off, Nix will be taking a one-day course that will give him the 19th credit hour he needs this semester in order to graduate next month.

On the field, he’s played through pain of tendinitis and a torn meniscus in his left knee that first surfaced in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama on Jan. 7.

“It’s something that bothers me all the time,” said Nix, who had platelet-rich plasma treatments for two weeks before returning to action after two missed games and playing 63 of a possible 76 snaps last Saturday night in a 28-21 loss to Pitt.

“Sometimes you can’t even sit in class. You have to stand up, because your knee can’t be at a 90-degree angle and you always have to move it and stuff. I randomly stand up in class or kick and stuff, and people be looking at me. It was a problem and I’m glad we got it taken care of, and I’m feeling a lot better.”

Nix, who declined to take out an insurance policy to protect him from an injury affecting future NFL earnings, will likely have surgery after the season.

“I just wanted to get back out and play,” he said of the Pitt game, “and I wasn’t thinking about injuries. I just go out and do my job and play.”

And that, in essence, is Louis Nix — so refreshingly uncomplicated.

When he talks to exiled quarterback Everett Golson, the latter suspended for the fall semester for academic misconduct, they don’t talk about the comeback or how QB guru George Whitfield Jr. may be helping him. They tell jokes. They tease each other. They laugh.

And when Nix was asked recently how he wanted his legacy to look, he simply said “I just want to be remembered as a nice guy.”

Because Louis Nix became so much more than that, perhaps Notre Dame fans won’t miss him as much. They won’t have that chance, because likely other Louis Nix types will come through the door in the coming seasons.

“I had a lot in my life to deal with,” Nix said. “Growing up, my brother (Louis Nix Jr.) got killed. I had cousins die in car accidents. I had classmates get shot and killed. I don’t let that hold me back. I just keep pushing forward and try to make life happy. I just like to make people smile and smile myself.”

And someday he’ll go back to Jacksonville’s northwest side and do exactly that.

“I rarely go home, because I’m always here or there,” Nix said, “but when I get a chance to, I definitely will take the opportunity to go back and talk to people and do what I can to make somebody’s life better than what mine is.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III (1) pressures Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (7) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER