School of Hard Knocks: Three-Sport Gamer Mike Nixons Tried It All, But Can the Whip-Smart ASU Defensive Star Make It to the NFL?
Mike Nixon walks through the front door of his Tempe home and drops a maroon-and-gold Arizona State University gym bag to the tile floor. A piece of ill-torn plastic wrap holds an ice pack flush to his left forearm.
Nixon closes the door, and part of the plastic flutters. His dark, buzz-cut hair — which shows a silver dollar-size bald spot in the back — matches the length and color of his facial hair. He looks emotionally spent yet strangely calm, as if he's been through this before. There aren't any hints of woe-is-me in his gait as the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder takes a couple of steps toward the front room, where about 20 friends and family members are watching college football on ESPN.
Next to the television are two of Nixon's number 25 ASU football jerseys, which hang on the wall near a display of photos depicting his days as a minor-league baseball player in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He takes a deep breath, lets out a long sigh, and says, "That was a tough one."
He refers to a just-completed Homecoming game heartbreaker at Sun Devil Stadium. Facing the nationally ranked California Golden Bears on a daytime ABC regional telecast, the underdog Devils lost 23-21 on a field goal with 21 seconds to play. The game would have been more lopsided if not for Nixon's extraordinary performance as ASU's starting outside linebacker.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
The defensive captain and the Sun Devils' best player this season was all over the field against Cal. On the game's opening possession, Nixon stuck quarterback Kevin Riley in open space and caused a fumble. Later, he sniffed out a screen play to Jahvid Best — an early-season Heisman Trophy candidate — and dropped the running back for a four-yard loss. He also broke up a pass and nearly intercepted another. All in all, a bang-up job for a guy many people thought was too small and too slow to succeed in big-time college football.
Indeed, Nixon has taken an unconventional trajectory to ASU football stardom. The Phoenix-born three-sport standout at Sunnyslope High School — where he graduated as one of Arizona's best high school athletes of all time — was drafted in 2002 by the Dodgers, with whom he spent four seasons in the organization's farm system. Despite his best efforts, he never made it to the bigs. So after nearly five years away from football, he took the unprecedented step of walking onto the Arizona State Sun Devils.
In this, his senior season, the 26-year-old starts at linebacker and pilots a defense that's one of the best in the nation — even though he's undersized for his linebacker position and old by college-football standards (some of his teammates are only 18).
This means that despite his on-field successes, professional-football prognosticators tend to think the mild-mannered, straight-A student is a long shot to make it to the NFL, even considering that one pro-football guru has uttered Nixon's name in the same breath as the late Pat Tillman's.
It's a 100-degree-plus evening in late August 2001 at Sunnyslope High School, a public school eight miles north of downtown Phoenix. The home team Vikings, led by senior Mike Nixon, line up in the shotgun formation against the Scottsdale Chaparral Firebirds, winners of 28 straight. Because football players are so scarce at Sunnyslope, nine of the Vikings play both offense and defense. Nixon, the squad's starting quarterback, safety, kicker, and punter, is one of them.
Nixon takes the snap from center and outruns the Firebird defenders around end for an 87-yard score. The undermanned Vikings take the lead against the elite Firebirds.
As Nixon's best friend, K.C. Arnold, the Vikings' 160-pound fullback and holder, lines up for the extra point, he notices something isn't quite right with the team's star athlete.
"He's dog tired and can't even talk because it's so hot. I'm looking at him, and I'm like, 'Mike, are you okay? Are we ready to do this?' He shakes his head no," recalls Arnold. "Right before the snap, he starts puking from the run he just took — while standing there about to kick. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' We snap the ball and his face is covered in puke. Sure enough, he makes the extra point like nothing. I was like, 'Good God, dude. You're crazy!'"
On Sunnyslope's ensuing kickoff, Nixon runs down the field on kick coverage and then starts playing defense. He doesn't miss a play the entire game as Coach Dallas Hickman's underdog Vikings go on to defeat Chaparral 23-12, ending the Firebirds' historic winning streak. Nixon, who won the 2001 Gatorade Arizona High School Football Player of the Year award, credits Hickman as one of his top influences as a developing athlete and human being. The two remain in touch today.
The 57-year-old Hickman, a warm-hearted guy who teaches U.S. history at Sunnyslope, quit coaching two years ago with plans to forever stay away from the game. But after a year of retirement, he had to get back on the field, so he began instructing linebackers at Chaparral High School. He admits that working with kids like Mike Nixon and Nixon's older brother, Matt — who played football at Sunnyslope and then bucked the odds as an under-recruited athlete by starting for three years at middle linebacker for Cal-Berkeley — made him come back to the game.
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.
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.
Stuck behind a stacked lineup was bad enough, but it would get worse. Following the championship run, Nixon was asked, for the fourth time, to play in the instructional league, a place for the undeveloped and injured to get up to speed. The Dodgers organization — which returned to family ownership in 2004 after Rupert Murdoch had controlled the franchise for six years — was cryptic about its intentions for Nixon. Plus, it wanted him to try his hand at third base, a position he had never played.
He began to soul-search: "I got to the point that, once I felt I wasn't going to make it, it wasn't worth sticking things out. Would playing in a handful of major-league games be worth 10 years of grinding and being up and down and unhappy? [This] was my breaking point. I was ready to move on. I was frustrated."
Nixon says his aggravation had begun to mount a year earlier in Columbus because his professional-baseball experience wasn't jibing with the team-first approach he was used to from his days at Sunnyslope.
"At first, I would feel good if I went 0-for-4 [and] we still won the game. Then I got older and started to look at the big picture. As selfish as it sounds, it's no longer about the team. It's about you trying to get to the next level. Everybody [wants] those 25 roster spots in the big leagues," Nixon says.
"The minor leagues are the opposite of team sports. You're going from high school — where it's all about representing your school and playing for your best friends — to a situation where, if your best player is playing well and your team is winning, then he's moving on to the next level. You're happy for him, but your team just lost their best player, and now you're getting your face beat in everyday."
Then there's the stuff you don't think about at first, like salary. Nixon was fortunate to get that near-million-dollar bonus because many of his Great Falls teammates were college seniors who signed for just $5,000. Once on the team, they made about $850 per month. ("After rent and food, you're essentially paying to play," Nixon says.) Couple that with half-day bus rides through the boondocks, he says, and it adds up to an inglorious existence.
"I feel like the experience desensitized me to being competitive," Nixon says. "I feel like that's one of my best qualities."
During the off-season, Nixon would come home to Tempe. Because he wasn't immersed in the college experience, like many of his friends, he would try his best to let off steam before going back to the long days on the road and late nights at the ballpark.
"[The baseball experience] definitely hardened him," says high school buddy K.C. Arnold. "He was more cynical. He was surrounded by the hard-ass baseball mentality. He was less carefree than he was before. He had his two to three months of hanging out at home, then he would have to go back to the 10-hour bus rides."
While Nixon felt committed to the Dodgers, something had to change.
Inside the ASU football team's indoor practice bubble on Rural Road in Tempe, the Sun Devils' first-team defense takes the field against the scout offense. Nearby on the sideline, a trainer hammers bolts into a tackling dummy as the drone-like hum of industrial-grade air-conditioning units keep the yard cool from the sunny, 105-degree weather outside.
The right-handed quarterback of the scout team rolls to his left. He spots a receiver 10 yards downfield on a curl pattern and unleashes the ball. Mike Nixon — who sports a dirty, white practice jersey and maroon shorts that hug the tops of his white knee-high socks — kicks up a piece of sand-and-rubber FieldTurf, and then breaks in front of the intended recipient. He intercepts the pass, no problem.
Nixon has arrived at this point thanks to Dirk Koetter, the Sun Devils' former head coach. Koetter was one of Nixon's most persistent recruiters. Even while he played minor-league baseball, Koetter checked in with him three or four times a year.
After leaving the Dodgers system, Nixon decided to take up Koetter on his offer to play for ASU, and he arrived on campus in spring 2006. He was 22.
Koetter wanted Mike to play quarterback. But ASU already had two good QBs in Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter, who would get embroiled in an epic, who's-going-to-start controversy that fall. Nixon wanted to get onto the field right away, so he entered training camp as a safety.
The transition wasn't easy. He had bulked up from 190 to 235 pounds, but his knees had endured four years of squatting in the catching position, so he had lost much of his speed. As a result, he switched to linebacker.
After playing a reserve role during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he started all but one game his junior year. Though considered small for that position, as a junior he tied for the Pac-10 lead in interceptions, led the Sun Devils in tackles, and shared the team's award for Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Year. He was also recognized as a member of the Pac-10 All-Academic First Team.
As a full-time starter this season, Nixon is the adhesive (the quarterback of the defense) who holds together the top-flight unit, ranked 15th in defense among major colleges. He leads the team in tackles and is tied for interceptions. In the 2009 opener against Idaho State, Nixon picked off three passes, taking one back for a score, and blocked a punt.
All this despite being "marginally athletic," according to ASU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Craig Bray.
Playing a position that rewards intuition and intellect, Nixon seems magnetized to the ball, almost always in the right spot. He's an old-school type whom storied ASU football coach Frank Kush would have suited up during the Border Conference days. The lead-by-example Nixon never performs a celebratory spasm after making a tackle, which would cause him to go unnoticed if it wasn't for all the plays he makes.
Nixon's situation as an older guy jumping the pro-baseball ship for college football is a rarity, but not unheard of.
Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy-winning Florida State quarterback, played minor-league baseball for six seasons out of high school. Quan Cosby — whom Nixon competed against in the 2002 Pioneer League Single-A championship — toiled for four years in the Anaheim Angels organization before becoming an elite wide receiver for the Texas Longhorns. Currently, David Shinskie, a six-year minor-league-baseball veteran, is a 25-year-old freshman starting at quarterback for Boston College.
When Nixon's freshman season began in 2006, he was older than most of the seniors on the team. This year, there's an eight-year age gap between 26-year-old "Uncle Mike" and some of his teammates. Also, ASU graduate assistant coach Alex Hamill is close to two years Nixon's junior.
Nixon says, "Age comes up a lot. Anytime we're arguing and I prove a point, they say, 'You know what, if I were 50, I would know that, too.' That's literally the comeback I hear on everything. Or, 'I'm sorry I'm not 35 and haven't experienced that yet.' I like hanging out with the younger guys. I feel like I'm stuck in arrested development when I'm around them."
Nixon's often ridiculed for his taste in music. Instead of the hip-hop that pounds in Sun Devil Stadium before each game, Nixon prefers listening to rock-oriented Sublime, Rise Against, and Finch. Because these bands feature impassioned male lead singers, Nixon's teammates lump his music into the dreaded "emo" genre.
"I'm past the point of defending myself," jokes Nixon.
On top of football demands, he's managed to earn a 4.0 GPA as a political science major on track to graduate in December. (To wrap up his undergrad coursework, he's taking three online classes: criminal justice; Sex, Violence, and Media; and, no joke, the History of Pirates.)
Getting back into the classroom was a big deal for Nixon when he gave up on his Dodgers dream. As a professional player, the clock on NCAA athletic eligibility begins upon enrollment in a course. Because of the rule, Nixon (who wanted to leave the door open for a college career) hadn't taken a class since high school.
Though he remains a walk-on, his college tuition is paid for. That's because, before inking that baseball contract, his parents had the foresight to insist on a provision that the Dodgers pay for his college education.
Nixon lives solo a few miles from campus, an indulgence he didn't have during those years on the road. A serious competitor on the field, he is the opposite at home, where he often mellows out in his well-kept, two-story house with his three-year-old golden retriever Tobias, out-of-town visitors from his baseball days, and fellow Sun Devil linebacker Travis Goethel. So many people are in and out of his space that it's been dubbed "Hotel Nixon."
He definitely likes to let loose on occasion. For instance, on Halloween night, just hours after the Cal defeat, he and his buddies dressed up as the Village People. Nixon was the cop, complete with handcuffs, a billy club, and aviator sunglasses. But he and his friends weren't satisfied with the costumes purchased at Easley's Fun Shop; they cut the sleeves and shorts much shorter, the goal being to make the beefy Mill Avenue-bound crew extremely uncomfortable to look at. It worked.
Nixon's an avid reader, whether it's the latest Harry Potter tome or news on ESPN.com and CNN.com. He's also dating but has no plans to start a family anytime soon. "I feel like I'm pretty clear with the people I date that there are things I want to get done. I'm not 26 looking to get married within a year. The people I date either say, 'That sounds good' or 'I better move on.' If that's the case, that's fine. Nothing personal," says the finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, which recognizes humanitarian, academic, and athletic achievements.
One of the things that he wants to get done could happen on Sundays.
"Even if Nixon pulled in 100 tackles and eight interceptions [this season], he still may not improve his draft position," says Michael Abromowitz of www.thefootballexpert.com. "Nixon had three interceptions in a game this past year, but it was [against] Nobody State."
Abromowitz, a member of the Football Writers Association of America, is referring to the game of Nixon's life, earlier this season against Idaho State. He's one of many skeptical football experts who think Nixon is too this and not enough that to play with the big and/or fast boys of the NFL. For example, a search for Nixon's name in the ESPN.com Scouts Inc.'s mock draft comes up empty.
Says Abromowitz, "What hurts Nixon is linebackers start to slow down by their early 30s, so unless a team believes he can make an impact right away, they would rather not invest a pick on him and [instead] take someone maybe with less talent but more potential."
Nixon would be 27 by the time the first preseason cuts are made. According to a February 2009 ESPN The Magazine survey, the average age of retirement for NFL players is 30. Take away the kickers and punters, who tend to stick around longer, and the age is younger.
That is, professional football is a young man's game. Just ask Chicago Bears fans. In the first game of the 2009 season, the team's seemingly invincible 31-year-old linebacker Brian Urlacher went down with a season-ending wrist injury. After winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Urlacher had suffered a toe injury and was dealing with a chronically arthritic back before dislocating his wrist. And Urlacher is a prototypical linebacker — unlike Nixon — at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds.
To become draft-worthy, Abromowitz thinks, Nixon should switch from linebacker to safety, a position Nixon played in high school. Even if he doesn't get drafted, he could still make the league as an undrafted free agent or a practice-squad member. (The latter pays, at minimum, $5,200 per week for 17 weeks.)
"I could see Mike possibly playing strong safety," Abromowitz says, "like another former linebacker at Arizona State."
Of course, he's talking about Sun Devil, Arizona Cardinal, and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Though his controversial death has been well publicized, some people may not remember that he, too, was a relative long shot to make an NFL roster.
As a 5-foot-11 linebacker in college, Tillman was drafted near the end of the final round in 1998 by Arizona, and then moved to the safety position. During his four years as a pro, Tillman played his way into a $3.6 million contract offer by the Cardinals, which he turned down to enlist in the military.
Tillman's influence remains strong in the ASU football community, as current Sun Devils run through Tillman Tunnel entering Frank Kush Field. Nixon has a personal story about Tillman.
In December 2001, when Nixon was a senior at Sunnyslope, Tillman spoke to the team during its football banquet. The Arizona Cardinal had just returned from playing the New York Giants, and the trip included a visit to Ground Zero. Tillman's "very profound speech," according to Coach Dallas Hickman, included his experiences at the former site of the World Trade Center towers. Tillman also addressed Sunnyslope players personally, accidentally referring to Mike as older brother Matt.
When Tillman received word of the error, he handwrote Mike Nixon a letter in blue ink, which is framed at Nixon's home. It reads: "Mike, Sorry for the 'Matt' slip up, I'm somewhat of an idiot at times. Best of luck to you at UCLA, Stanford, wherever. From the brief film I saw, you're quite an athlete. Take care of yourself. Pat."
Nixon hasn't investigated whether he could get picked in the 2010 NFL Draft, scheduled for April 22-24 at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. (That would require signing with an agent, which NCAA athletes are forbidden to do.)
Nixon says, "If I were to get an opportunity to play in the NFL, I would be a 27-year-old rookie, which usually doesn't happen. I don't know if that's something scouts will be, like, 'Hey, he's a little more mature' or 'Hey, he's already this old, and we should pass on him.' I obviously would like to get a feel for my chances after the season. If there's a [strong] chance I could get drafted and make a team, I would obviously pursue that. If it's one in a thousand or one in a million, I'm content to do other things with my life."
If the NFL doesn't happen for him, he may apply to law school at New York University, Columbia, UCLA, USC, or Tulane with the goal of getting into front-office sports management. Another plan is to travel to South America to learn Spanish or pursue a career as a sports broadcaster.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler's Hail Mary into the desert night is intercepted by USC in the Sun Devil Stadium end zone, and college football's program of the decade escapes ASU's defense-led upset bid 14-9 on November 7.
Coupled with the Cal game, it's the second consecutive heartbreaking loss for Coach Dennis Erickson's team. Yet again, the turgid offense couldn't punch it into the end zone to win a close one. But this one especially hurts; it's obvious from the look on Nixon's face as he walks away after shaking the hand of a Trojan player.
The loss — in which ASU's defense allowed USC to score just one touchdown on 258 yards of total offense — and the loss that followed against Oregon (44-21) mean the 4-6 Devils must win out to be eligible for a bowl. This includes the season-ending home game against the University of Arizona Wildcats. If the Sun Devils falter this Saturday against UCLA in Pasadena or against their bitter Territorial Cup rival on November 28, many of the seniors will never play competitive football again.
Nixon, who clutches his helmet by the face mask with his right hand after the USC loss, continues toward the field exit as the ASU marching band launches into an upbeat ditty. Players from both teams congregate in a prayer circle at the interlocked "AS" logo at the 50-yard line while the bright lights of an ESPN camera crew huddle around Trojans Coach Pete Carroll.
As the battle-worn linebacker walks through the south end zone, he looks up at cheering fans in the bleachers 15 feet above and walks into the shadows of Tillman Tunnel.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.