Battling in the trenches, lineman follows military parents' example
Left tackle Xavier Nixon grew up with two parents in the military
He led Jack Britt (Fayetteville, N.C.) to the Class 4AA state title game
He will play in the U.S. Army All American Bowl on January 3
NEW YORK -- At three years old in 1993, Xavier Nixon was already saluting soldiers. By four, he was putting them at parade rest. An army brat trailing his drill sergeant mother, Fotini, around the Fort Jackson barracks in Columbia, S.C., he learned the family business early. "I consider myself part of the Army," said Xavier, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound left tackle from Jack Britt High in Fayetteville, N.C. "I've put in 18 years of service."
As Nixon knows well, the call of duty can come at anytime. Born in Maryland and having lived in the Netherlands for a short while, he has learned how mobile soldiers must be. From June 1999 to June 2000, both his mother and father, Kenneth, were deployed to Seoul, South Korea. While they were away, he was uprooted to Chesapeake, Va., to live with one of his aunts, Despina Parker.
Back at Fort Bragg four years later, Xavier saw his father deployed to Kuwait in October 2004 and returned stateside for a brief stay before rerouting to Iraq. Meanwhile, his mother left for Iraq in November 2004, and came back the next fall. In between, he lived with his maternal grandmother. "It's rare in the military that Xavier would get to spend his high school years in one place," said Kenneth Nixon, a battalion command sergeant. "But it has come with a price, namely my being sent overseas."
Last fall, leading into his son's junior season, the father, who has risen to the highest position an enlisted soldier can reach, received word that his unit, the 189th CSSB airborne, would be deployed again. Sitting in the family's living room with his wife one afternoon, he informed his son of his soon-to-be departure. Curious whether his father, who has been in the military 27 years, could retire, the 18-year-old listened to an explanation of the Army's "stop-loss, stop-move" policy, which stipulates that no soldier can retire after being informed of an upcoming mission. "I really didn't want him to go," Nixon said. "But I understand the reasoning."
Though the father won't be home for Christmas this year, his gifted son, who is considering scholarship offers from LSU, Florida and Miami, sent him presents each Monday. Following Friday night games, Laura Bailey, the wife of Britt coach Richard Bailey, would prepare game tapes to mail to Nixon's father as well as to the dads of a tight end and reserve quarterback who are similarly separated. "We're a military town," said Richard Bailey, who has been a coach for 18 years. "Most people assume running backs are just so great, but linemen's parents are the ones who look [at the action] in the trenches."
Chubby as a youth, Nixon played flag football and then strapped on pads in local leagues, but he hit a wall when he couldn't make weigh-ins. To discipline himself, he did pushups, earning a reputation as a top talent in middle school. Hearing of Nixon and his classmates, Bailey, whose varsity team reached the state final while Nixon was in the eighth grade, told the group that they had the potential to be state title contenders in their time.
The road back to the Class 4AA state title game was not easy. Treating basketball as his passion and football as his hobby, Nixon skipped summer football workouts for AAU circuit games. When the football season started and Nixon was on the junior varsity as a sophomore, his mother asked the coach why he was not playing up with classmates who had been promoted. "Fotini, being a military woman, understood when I told her that I would not reward him for not doing his part in the offseason," Bailey said.
Six games in, Nixon was called up not just to stop gaps, but to start. Bowling over competition, he drew attention from outsiders, but he later considered leaving football due to torn cartilage in his left knee. That offseason, Bailey had a sitdown with the rising star and his parents in their living room. For the first time in his coaching career, he appealed to what he saw in a player's future. Armed with graphs and charts mapping a possible route to a professional career, the coach persuaded his pupil to continue playing. They also agreed on Nixon attending a handful of camps, including at Notre Dame, UNC and elsewhere. In fact, UNC offensive line coach Sam Pittman told Bailey he showed the biggest jump from his sophomore season tape to junior year.
Since entering Jack Britt, Nixon has grown at least five inches, and his physique suggests he will become more forceful. During a game against E.E. Smith (Fayetteville, N.C.), he helped double team a defensive tackle and put him on the ground instantaneously. Still hungry, he de-cleated a linebacker before the play's end. "Two pancakes on one play," Bailey said. "Physically, you're not supposed to see abs on an offensive linemen, but he's a specimen."
Two weeks ago, Nixon's protection helped Britt gain another state title game appearance, but it lost 38-35 to Richmond Senior. While watching the game at UNC's Kenan Memorial Stadium, Nixon's mother was a popular figure as recruiters representing the Tar Heels, N.C. State and Florida stopped by. "I'm used to the calls at all hours because it's like the military, where soldiers want to talk at odd times," said Fotini, who's a master sergeant.
Enjoying the postseason award circuit, Nixon, who some expect to announce Florida as his college destination, attended the Heisman Trophy trust's black-tie dinner the Monday after Sam Bradford won the coveted prize. In attendance that night was West Point alumnus Pete Dawkins, who won the 1958 Heisman, for his 50th anniversary. Offered an opportunity to meet the retired brigadier general, Nixon said, "His handshake was strong like a good military man's."
Awake by five o'clock most mornings in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Nixon's father starts his day 9 ½ hours before his wife and son. After five-mile runs, he comes back to his containerized housing to watch American television and sift through e-mails, which typically come with well wishes from college recruiters back home. Keeping odd hours to stay in touch, the father sets an alarm clock to be awake for calls from family.
Granted a release to be home when his son plays in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 3, he is expected back Dec. 28. Afterward he will return to the Mideast to finish out his tour, which ends in April. "Xavier understands the sacrifices," said his mother. "To live [the military family life], he has his father's duties in perspective."