"No, you don't call me at night like this for nothing."
"Well, I'm screwing up a little bit. I think this might be it."
He immediately returned to the hospital, and a new biopsy revealed that he was suffering from focal glomerulosclerosis, a disease that had left his kidneys scarred and permanently damaged. The news meant that one of the nation's best young football players would be sidelined forever. "His kidney function...had started tapering off," Thornton later told reporters, acknowledging that the newly diagnosed condition had been present to a small degree in the results of the first biopsy. "Playing...could have caused some damage from the standpoint that he was dehydrated, and that put a workload on his kidneys." Nix needed to begin dialysis at once. He also needed a new kidney in order to survive. Doctors placed him on a national transplant waiting list.
Had Nix stayed on the team against Oklahoma State in the Houston Bowl, he likely would've gained the 12 yards he needed to break the Golden Eagles' career rushing record, held for 25 years by Ben Garry. "The way that kid ran the ball?" says Karl Dunbar, the Cowboys' defensive line coach, who had studied hours of Southern Miss game film. "He probably would've gained that much or more on his first few carries."
"Playing was Derrick's decision, and whether to give it up was his decision too," Tyrone says. "We never really understood what kind of pain he was going through each day, just to keep going, to keep continually fighting."
As soon as the news began to circulate that Nix needed a kidney transplant to survive, several of his teammates and coaches offered to give him one of theirs. Calls and letters arrived for Nix at the Southern Miss football office from childhood friends and casual acquaintances, as well as from people he'd never met, among them a 66-year-old widow named Christine Cochran. A resident of nearby Ellisville, she had read about Nix's struggles in her local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American, and offered him one of her kidneys. "He's a young man, and I'm getting older each day," Mrs. Cochran says. "If he needs one of my kidneys—and they're in perfect condition, by the way—he's more than welcome to have it."
Another to make the offer was Charlie Dudley Jr., the Golden Eagles' strength coach. "I don't know anyone who knows Derrick who wouldn't want to do this," Dudley says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's the same as if your wife or mother needed one. Derrick is family."
Marcus and Tyrone Nix also immediately stepped up, and tests determined that Marcus, who lives with Preston and Mary in Attalla, was the best match. The surgery is scheduled for June 6 in Birmingham. "The truth is, that [national] waiting list is just a waiting list for somebody to the," Derrick says. "Marcus is doing a brave thing."
In April, Derrick filed a lawsuit against the companies that produce the anti-inflammatory drugs Celebrex and Vioxx, which were given to him by team doctors after his original ankle injury and which, he alleges, are responsible for the onset of his disease. Named as defendants in the action are pharmaceutical giants Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., Pharmacia Corp. and their sales representatives, who, according to the lawsuit, provided Southern Miss team doctors with samples of the anti-inflammatory drugs and "encouraged said physicians to prescribe the drugs in a method for which the drugs were not approved." ( Pfizer and Pharmacia, which recently merged, say they "stand behind the safety of Celebrex." Merck says the same about Vioxx.) While the suit does not specify a monetary amount for damages, it states that the "plaintiff's future career as a professional athlete has been severely compromised" and asks for compensation for loss of future income, among other things.
Nix's wages as an NFL running back likely would have been in the millions, although he says money was never his goal. "Derrick never once said his dreams are ruined," says Story. "He can do something else. He can coach. He was never the sort of person to say, 'I'm good enough to play in the NFL.' I've heard people tell him, 'Derrick, you're the best running back ever to play at this school.' And Derrick would say, 'No, I'm not.' That's the kind of person he is. He's humble—too humble sometimes."