Longform

School of Hard Knocks: Three-Sport Gamer Mike Nixon’s 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.

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.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen