This is all part of the super-connected, small-town, diverse atmosphere of Sunnyslope, where students and athletes aren't exactly a pampered bunch. Mike's parents, Jim and Debbie Nixon, moved to the area from South Dakota in 1973. As Matt and Mike grew up, they became undying supporters of their sons' athletic pursuits. After Mike's Friday-night football games, they would hop on a Saturday-morning flight to wherever Cal and Matt were playing.

Even today, Jim, an ex-football and baseball player at the University of South Dakota who now is chief financial officer of Marco Crane & Rigging Company, and Debbie, an independent healthcare consultant, attend every single Sun Devils contest.

At Sunnyslope, Mike Nixon started for four years in football, leading the school's undersized teams to two state semifinals. According to Hickman, Mike — who was recruited by big-time programs at Notre Dame, Stanford, and Washington — was a "Division I player at all the positions" he played. His 8,091 career passing yards ranks second all-time in the 4A division of Arizona high school football.

Nixon has a tribute to former Sun Devil Pat Tillman in his house.
Jamie Peachey
Nixon has a tribute to former Sun Devil Pat Tillman in his house.
Nixon prepares mentally for the 1999 state quarterfinal game.
photos courtesy of Dallas Hickman
Nixon prepares mentally for the 1999 state quarterfinal game.

As a 6-foot-3 center in basketball (his professed worst sport), Nixon's "calming effect on the team," says Sunnyslope basketball Coach Dan Mannix, helped the school win its first state championship. During the 2002 title game against Page, Nixon locked down 6-foot-11 Matt Haryasz, limiting the future Houston Rocket and first-team Pac-10 player at Stanford to two points and one rebound in the decisive fourth quarter.

All this athletic success led his longtime buddies to call him "The Virch" in reference to an Arizona Republic article that labeled him "The Virtuoso."

But success and accolades didn't inflate Nixon's ego. He never drank alcohol in high school. When he went to parties, he would always drive to make sure his friends didn't do something stupid. After football games, he headed to a seating area behind the end zone to visit Chase Pilon, a severely disabled, wheelchair-bound student dubbed "Sunnyslope's Number One Fan." He even dedicated his touchdowns to Pilon.

Off the field, Nixon, who graduated sixth in his class, could've been valedictorian, Hickman recalls, but instead of enrolling in certain honors classes, he opted to take more culturally fulfilling courses like woodshop and beginning guitar.

Says Arnold, the holder who was nearly doused by Nixon's projectile puking, "You think of high school quarterback and you have this image of a cocky guy who takes advantage of people. It always amazed me that Mike never let that get to his head."

In May 2002, it seemed Nixon was set to tear it up at the luxurious athletic facilities at UCLA, which offered him a full-ride scholarship to play football and baseball — but then the Los Angeles Dodgers began their aggressive sales pitch just before the June draft.

On selection day, the Dodgers picked Nixon in the third round and offered him a $950,000 signing bonus. Not wanting to go back on his word, but jonesing to give professional baseball a shot, Nixon decided to ditch UCLA and sign with the Dodgers.

That led to telephone a call from Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda to Nixon's worried mother. The former manager and current Dodger executive calmed Debbie Nixon's fears about the travel her son would soon face as a minor-leaguer going from small town to small town playing ball.

Three days after the baseball draft, Mike Nixon returned a fumble for a touchdown, tallied another score on a run, and intercepted three passes in leading the 4A squad to an upset victory over the 5A team in the inaugural Arizona High School Football All-Star game.

A week later, bags packed, he reported to the Dodgers' team in the rookie league.


Eighteen-year-old Mike Nixon swings at a pitch and rocks a hit into the outfield at Legion Park in Great Falls, Montana. The 1,000 fans attending the game on an early-summer eve erupt — then hustle toward the concession stands. The reason for the beeline: When the home team's designated "beer batter" gets a hit, fans are entitled to dollar beers during that inning. Nixon, the starting catcher for the Single-A Dodgers, is now everyone's new best friend in Great Falls.

Such is life in the Electric City, where nearby hydroelectric dams generate power along the Missouri River. There's not much to do here in the economically depressed heartland, aside from cheering on the 18- to 22-year-olds who play for the minor-league club. Many players, like Nixon, are away from home for the first time.

Nixon's pro-baseball career began with a bang here. Playing alongside future Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Delwyn Young (Nixon and Young roomed together with a host family in Great Falls) and future Dodgers stars Jonathan Broxton and James Loney, the team won the Pioneer League championship.

From there, Nixon played in places like Columbus, Georgia, and Vero Beach, Florida, where he continued to develop as a strong-hitting catcher with good skills behind the plate. At just 21 and in his fourth season, he ascended to the Triple-A ranks in Las Vegas. However, the marathon bus rides across America and Nixon's daily $20 pittance began to take their toll.

With four games left in the Triple-A season, in which Nixon batted .226 in 46 games, he was demoted to Double-A Jacksonville, Florida, for the playoffs. Nixon says, "At that point, I wanted the season to be over. I was shutting down mentally, and all I could think is, 'Just get me out of here.'" Nixon barely saw action for the talented team (which included Loney, Broxton, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, and Russell Martin, all key contributors to the 2008 and 2009 National League West-champion Dodgers) that won the Double-AA Southern League title.

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2 comments
huh
huh

looks like he made it!

Ken Brickley
Ken Brickley

Who's got the film rights? I am sure someone like Kevin Costner would love to read this Guy's story. It is also good to say the name of Nixon appearing as a good guy instead of tricky Dicky. Well done Steve, it gives a honest impression of sport in the USA from the overpaid to the underdog. It is hard out there, I just wonder what sort of career all these guys will have when their bodies are worn out. I am sure there would be a good article in looking at the fortunes of the players after they retired.

Ken

 

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