After a while the players finish their conditioning drills and leave the stadium, and Nix stands and looks out at the empty field, the grass a carpet mixing winter gold and spring green. His eyes track to a spot about 10 yards away. "That's where it all started," he says, pointing. "This sideline here."
It was Sept. 30, 2000, his junior season, and the Golden Eagles were hosting Memphis. As Nix rushed toward the sideline he suddenly found himself in a swarm of defenders. They gang-tackled him, one of them locking on him from behind, and he felt a sharp pain radiate through his lower right leg. "I knew what it was," he says now of the high-ankle sprain. "When I hurt my ankle back in high school, it took about two weeks for me really to go again, so I was saying to myself, Well, I'll need to speed this up."
He says he began taking the anti-inflammatory pills that a team doctor gave him to reduce pain and swelling in the ankle. He asked what the drug was for, he recalls, but he didn't bother to find out its name. "You don't care about that," he says. "All you do is take what they give you. Then you just wait on the medicine to start to work so you can get back on the field." In fact, after a brief appearance the following week against Louisville, his season was over.
Soon after the injury, Nix's other ankle began to swell. There was so much fluid under the skin that it felt mushy to the touch, and the ridges of his socks left marks. His knees also began to swell, and he had difficulty bending them. Nix couldn't figure it out. "You're getting bigger," teammates told him. In only a week he had gone from 227 to 235 pounds.
As his body began to expand, Nix experienced excruciating pain in his abdomen, and headaches that kept him in bed. He says he took the anti-inflammatory drugs for about three weeks. (After two weeks he had been switched from one drug to a second one.) Meanwhile, he continued to put on weight, gaining "maybe 10 pounds a week," he says. Finally team physicians became alarmed and removed him from the medication.
Nix began to wonder if he was putting on weight simply as a result of overeating and not exercising. "I told myself I needed to start running more," he says. He restricted his diet to green salads, yet friends still joked that he looked like the Michelin Man. "The highest I ever got was 280," he says. He reached a point where he couldn't bear to look at himself in the mirror, and he occasionally skipped class to avoid being stared at and peppered with questions by fellow students. "He looked like he'd gone 15 rounds and had his butt whipped," says Bower. "His face was so swollen you could hardly tell it was Derrick."
Nix's brother Tyrone, 30, is the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss. A former star linebacker for the Golden Eagles, he was the defensive backs coach when Derrick's problems began. "We were getting ready to play Houston [four weeks after Derrick's ankle injury], and Derrick woke up the day of the game and could barely get his eyes open," says Tyrone. "I was in a position meeting, and he stuck his head in the room, and I immediately got up and left. I knew something was wrong with him. So Derrick and I missed the pregame meal. We just sat up in a room, and we prayed and cried, I guess, trying to figure out what was wrong."
Not wishing to upset their parents, Derrick and Tyrone conspired to tell them little of what Derrick was experiencing. Preston and Mary Nix live in Attalla, Ala., a town of about 6,800 in the northeastern part of the state, where they raised Derrick, Tyrone and their older brother Marcus, now 33. Preston worked for more than 30 years at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant before retiring and becoming a minister. Today he is the pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Oneonta, Ala.; Mary works as a teachers aide. "All they knew was that I had a sprained ankle," Derrick says. "We were still thinking it was something that wasn't that big of a deal, it might clear up."
Because fluid retention is often associated with kidney problems, team doctors sent Derrick to Jon Thornton, a Hattiesburg nephrologist. Thornton ordered a kidney biopsy, and on Nov. 13 Derrick learned that he was suffering from membranous glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease that causes a loss of protein in the body. Swelling and lethargy were among his symptoms, but the disease was treatable and wouldn't keep him off the field. (Before he required a transplant in 1999, the San Antonio Spurs' Sean Elliott played seven years in the NBA with a more serious kidney condition.) "There is a small, slight chance you can't cure this," one of Nix's doctors told him, according to Bower. The statement sounded like a worst-case scenario, says the coach, and everyone maintained a positive attitude, never imagining that the condition could develop into a life-threatening disease. "We just didn't think it was that serious," says Bower.
Different medications were prescribed for Nix, and in time he began to eliminate the fluid buildup in his body and, by his calculation, was losing about 10 pounds per week. Over the winter his strength started to return, and he went through spring practice of 2001 without any problem except for decreased endurance. Weeks later, Nix says, his doctor lowered the dosage of his medication to see if his kidneys could work without it, and he suffered a relapse. The swelling in his face got so bad that when he reported to his summer job, he was met with stares. "Who are you?" somebody asked him.