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Released September 9, 2003

DERRICK NIX IS "HEART OF THE EAGLES"
By Judy Smith

HATTIESBURG - Derrick Nix seemed to be living a charmed life.

The University of Southern Mississippi running back was playing the sport he had loved since third grade and was on the same team where his older brother, Tyrone, was an assistant coach.

In his first season with the Golden Eagles, Nix turned in the 19th-best rushing season by a freshman in NCAA history. He was selected to the All-Conference USA team and was named C-USA Freshman Player of the Year. In 1998, he turned in consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons as he ran for 1,180 yards, breaking a 50-year-old Southern Miss record for a freshman running back, and 1,054 yards in 1999. He was the only player to rush for more than 1,000 yards consecutively in their first two years as a Golden Eagle.

The Attala, Ala., athlete could do no wrong, until he suffered a setback in 2000.

Nix sprained his ankle in a game against Memphis, and the injury was treated with anti-inflammatory medication. But the swelling didn't decrease. Instead, Nix's body retained fluids, and he ballooned from 227 to 280 pounds. A kidney specialist diagnosed Nix with membranous glomerulonephritis and prescribed medication to reduce the swelling. As a result, Nix was forced to sit out much of the 2000 season.

Still determined to play the game he loved, Nix returned for spring training in 2001, but later that summer, he suffered chest pains when a potentially fatal blood clot traveled from his leg to his lung. Never one to be deterred from his goals, Nix received a medical redshirt for the 2001 season so he could return the next year to complete his collegiate career.

Back in the black and gold for the 2002 season, Nix appeared to have conquered all his medical setbacks. Coaches and fans alike were equally excited to have No. 43 back on the field, and Nix, who appeared to be in fine form, put up punishing numbers against opponents. He was finally getting the chance to prove he was an athlete to be reckoned with, and he sought to showcase his skills for NFL scouts.

And what a show it was. During his final season as a Golden Eagle, Nix put up another exemplary year. Even though he had painful shoulder and ankle injuries and was being treated for anemia, he didn't let that stop him. Showing trademark persistence, Nix ran for 139 yards against East Carolina during the team's last regular season game, racking up a total of 1,194 yards for the year and 11 touchdowns. Nix finished his career as the school's second-leading career rusher, with 3,584 yards - only 11 yards shy of the record - and 30 touchdowns.

Nix was sustained by sheer will and determination, but he began to feel weaker. At the end of the season, he was in the hospital once again. This time, Nix and his family received devastating news. Doctors diagnosed the athlete with focal glomerulosclerosis, a severe degenerative disease. While the news was bad, it seemed to get even worse when Nix learned one of his kidneys was not functioning, while the other was only operating at 10 percent. Still, there was more bad news - the disease was progressive and untreatable.

Nix said he was overwhelmed when he heard the news. "It was really shocking, and I was just trying to understand what was happening," he said. "It really hit me hard when I first found out."

Nix's coaches were equally stunned by the news. "It really floored everybody," said Southern Miss Head Football Coach Jeff Bower. "You see this guy who does everything right and gets hit by something like this. It doesn't seem fair, but Derrick is a strong person who can overcome just about anything."

Initially, Nix and his family were distraught over the diagnosis, but true to form, they rebounded quickly. "[Derrick] never complained and always had a great attitude," said Southern Miss Athletic Director Richard Giannini.

"No question about it, he has been an inspiration to everybody," Bower said. "Everyone admires him for what he's accomplished and the way he has battled through all of this and hasn't let the illness change him. He's just been first class in the way that he has handled everything."

Nix's optimism and courage resonated with the university and the Southern Miss community, and fans nationwide have offered their support. To help defray the cost of Nix's medical bills, the athletics department established the Southern Miss Student Athlete Medical Fund in his honor. Richard Vogel, executive director of the Southern Miss Eagle Club, said that while Nix was the inspiration for the medical fund, it has been needed for some time to help athletes with medical costs. Nix will also receive proceeds from the Kristen Bower Golf Tournament.

The support of the university and community has been humbling to Nix. "It really shows that they care a lot about me," he said. "They cared more about me the person than the athlete out there carrying the football."

Another well of support came from Nix's family, who rallied around their youngest child. "My family has really helped me through all of this," Nix said. "I couldn't have handled it by myself. With them, I never felt that I had to handle everything by myself. I was never alone in the situation."

In fact, as it became apparent that Nix needed a kidney transplant to survive and began to undergo dialysis three to four times a week, his brothers were tested to see if their kidneys were compatible. Marcus, Nix's eldest brother, was a perfect match.

"Anytime someone gives you one of their organs to help you out, that really is special," Nix said. "That lets you know how much you're loved. You must really love that other person if you're willing to give a part of your body to him. It really just shows how much my family cares about me."

On June 5, Nix successfully received his brother's kidney, but now he faces the toughest challenge of his life - the long road to recovery. While facing a life-threatening illness may have devastated many people, Nix has not let being sick get him down. "I hope that when others look at me, they see that having an illness doesn't mean the end of the world," he said. "I still want to be an active person, and I've got a lot of things that I still want to do."

These days Nix is enrolled in graduate school at Southern Miss and works as a graduate assistant coach for the football team. Whether as a coach or in any pursuit, Bower is confident that Nix will be a success at any endeavor he pursues. "Derrick is a very religious person, and his faith and family have helped him through everything," Bower said. "I'm confident that he will excel at whatever he sets his mind to. If anything, having the illness has made him an even stronger person. Derrick is going to be a success at whatever he puts his mind to."

For that determination and devotion, Nix received the Heart of the Eagles Award at the 2003 Black and Gold game, an award selected by the coaching staff for the player who best typifies the Golden Eagle spirit and dedication to the team. "The heart of the Eagles - that's what he's all about," Bower said. "You can definitely see where his heart is."

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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