In the next game, against Memphis, a Conference USA rival, Nix was dominant again, gaining 196 yards on 21 carries, a 9.3-yard average. And after the first few games of the season he was playing as well as any running back in the country, but he could feel his health deteriorating. Even as he appeared on early-season lists of Heisman Trophy candidates, he wasn't entirely himself: His weight was up again, his speed down, and he often felt sluggish and tired. Some days he played at 80% of his ability, he says, others at as high as 95%. On Sept. 22, the day after the Alabama game, the fourth of the season, he threw up violently after eating a hamburger.
"I wanted to think it was a virus," he says, "but I knew it was the kidney syndrome acting up again." That night he checked into a hospital and stayed there until the following Thursday. Doctors cleared him to play against Army on Saturday. "I wasn't the same guy," Nix says of that game, though he rushed for 87 yards and scored a touchdown in the Golden Eagles' 27-6 victory. "I really started to struggle then. It was never the same after that."
Two weeks later, in a loss to South Florida, Nix gained 126 yards on the ground but reinjured his right ankle. Neither he nor his doctors and trainers could determine exactly how he hurt it. "It wasn't a sprain, and they couldn't find anything broken," says Nix. "It just gave me pain. I couldn't push off with it." His shoulder had also been hurting since the Illinois game early in the season, and he had no recollection of injuring that either. He was mystified by how much time it was taking him to heal. "It would take until about Thursday for me to get rid of the bruises from Saturday," he says.
"As the season went on, you could see him getting sicker and sicker," says Torrin Tucker, the offensive guard with whom Nix shared an apartment last season, "but he never showed it to the team, and he tried to hide it from me. I'd notice he was sleeping a lot. I'd ask him if he was all right, but he'd never say something was wrong. He'd change the subject. He never complained."
"All I kept thinking about was what we had at stake as a team," Nix says. "I knew there were a lot of guys counting on me. That's where my 'want to' came from."
On the Thursday before the regular-season finale, against East Carolina, Nix stood in front of his teammates and made an emotional speech about how blessed he was to have been a Southern Miss Golden Eagle. By now he sensed that this might be the end for him. Perhaps because he'd grown up the son of a preacher, listening to his father rehearse sermons at home, Nix understood the importance of telling it straight. If ever he owned an audience, it was this one. "Appreciate what you've got," he said. "And take pride in wearing that black jersey. I wouldn't trade it for nothing."
After rushing for 139 yards against East Carolina, Nix became so sick that he finally lost his will to play. Southern Miss would have to do without him in the Houston Bowl. One night he called Tyrone's cellphone. "What's going on?" Tyrone asked. "What is it, brother?"
"Sorry to bother you," Derrick said. "I know you're busy."
"What is it, Derrick?"