On Saturdays in the fall the Southern Mississippi football players, still dressed in street clothes, come walking in procession past great crowds of fans cheering them on. When they reach 33,000-seat M.M. Roberts Stadium, known to all as the Rock, and start along the promenade called Eagle Walk Drive, the roars come louder, and to a man the players sense at long last that the game is upon them and it's time to be animals again. � They are in the shade of the double-deck stadium now, with about two hours remaining before kickoff, and up above them painted metal placards celebrate the school's football history. The placards recognize championships and bowl victories and former players whose performances made them famous and the Hattiesburg school proud: Ray Guy, Louis Lipps and Sammy Winder, to name a few. Because he is the most recent luminary to have graduated from the program and become an NFL star, Brett Favre, who played for the Golden Eagles from 1987 to 1990, is the last name the players see before they move on to their locker room in the athletic center.
During his recent undergraduate days at the school, a tall, powerfully built running back named Derrick Nix looked up at the placards every time he passed under them and wondered about his future. Would he be good enough to go pro? Better yet, would he make a mark that so impressed the school that it remembered him with a placard after he was gone? Rare was the Saturday when Nix, filled with a dream of greatness, didn't acknowledge that anything was possible, if only fortune continued to smile on him. He was arguably the finest runner the school had ever produced, and he was willing to give all to be even better. I'm going to have my name up there one day, Nix would say to himself, never imagining the horror that would end his brilliant career before he could finish out his senior season.
Today the campus slumbers in the torpid spring heat, and football season seems a long way off—both the one upcoming and the one recently past. Nix makes his way into the stadium and starts for a sunny spot in the seats across from the side where some of his former teammates are working out. Nix is 23 years old now. He wears baggy jean shorts and a sleeveless basketball jersey with the name JORDAN printed on the back. The shirt reveals dense knots of muscle at his shoulders topping a chiseled, T-shaped torso. Around his neck hangs a gold chain with the number 43. It is the number he wore when he ran the ball with such determined ferocity that everybody called him Baby Bull.
Nix's old mates are running the stairs of the stadium's lower deck, shoes tapping the concrete as they climb to the top, then descend one after the other to the bottom and the playing field. In the end zone Nix stops to watch them, and they in turn pause and watch him, silent but for their breathing. "Bull," somebody says finally. Then the players start up the stairs again.
Back in his days as a Golden Eagle, Nix was always out in front leading his teammates, exhorting the stragglers onward, finishing first in every drill. He considered it his duty to show them what was required of a man who meant to win every time he strapped it on. Not many possessed his size, speed and power; few were as tough either, and in the end it likely will be his toughness they remember best about him. "A heart this big," says Jeff Bower, the coach of the team, holding his hands apart the width of his chest.
By the end of the regular season last year, Nix was playing despite the fact that his kidneys were barely functioning. The kidneys are fist-sized organs that filter waste and extra water from the body, and Nix's were shot. Although doctors monitored his health throughout the season, they were unaware of how serious his condition had become. When asked how anyone could play college football while experiencing full-blown renal failure—and play well enough to rush for more than 1,000 yards—the most common answer from people who know Nix is a shrug. "Don't ask me," Bower says. "Just guts, I suppose. Knowing what we know now about his condition, and looking back at what he accomplished last year, it's absolutely amazing."
Before his health problems Nix had often seemed indestructible. He stands a shade taller than 6'2", and at his peak he weighed 223 pounds and had only 6% body fat. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, and he could bench-press 225 pounds 28 times and squat 600 pounds, more than most college linemen. He liked to pound the ball into the line, but his explosive speed allowed him to take it around the comer and outrun many defensive backs. "He did everything well," says Bower. "And nobody worked harder. Derrick was determined to squeeze everything he could out of his God-given ability."
Nix appeared destined to be a second-or third-round NFL draft pick this year, although he might have been selected in the first round had he ever been well enough to play at his full potential. "Derrick had it all," says Dan Rooney, a college scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He reminded me a lot of [former Mississippi and current New Orleans Saints running back] Deuce McAllister. He had a gliding style, but he also had great running ability. He could break tackles with power, but he also had good enough feet that he could be elusive in open space. And once he broke loose, he could finish a run. He was a can't-miss prospect, the kind any NFL team would love to have."
Nix finished out his career with 3,584 rushing yards. In the 2002 season he ran for 1,194 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, becoming the only player in Southern Miss history to carry the ball for more than 1,000 yards in three seasons. But even as he was battering defenses, he wasn't at his best. "Sometimes I'd wonder how well I'd do if I was 100 percent," Nix says. "I never let myself dream too much about the NFL, because as I was getting sick, I began to wonder if God had other plans for me. I believe in fate. I know now that God's plan for me is to help other people. It's not about money or fame. It's not even about football, really. It's about being a good example and giving people hope."
Nix's girlfriend, Allison Story, a forward on the Southern Miss women's basketball team, says, "Derrick has never once said that what's happened to him isn't fair. Other athletes go out and party and drink all the time, yet they get their chance to play in the NFL. Well, Derrick did everything right. He was the hardest worker this school has ever seen, yet he's the one who won't get to play again. Derrick's never said it, but I'll say it: Not fair."