Scott Bordow: Mike Nixon was on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, Arizona State’s strength coach yelling in his ear. The Sun Devils were running 12 100-yard sprints during their first spring workout in 2006, and by the fifth repetition, Nixon’s body had given out. He collapsed on the grass, unable to move.
Mike Nixon was on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, Arizona State’s strength coach yelling in his ear.
The Sun Devils were running 12 100-yard sprints during their first spring workout in 2006, and by the fifth repetition, Nixon’s body had given out. He collapsed on the grass, unable to move.
“I literally couldn’t keep my body up,” he said. “As I was getting screamed at I remember thinking, ‘Wow, did I make the right decision?’ ”
Baseball certainly was easier on the body. It was profitable, too. The Los Angeles Dodgers gave Nixon a $950,000 bonus when they signed him out of Phoenix Sunnyslope High School in 2002, and after just three seasons he was in Class AAA ball, playing catcher for Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League.
He was 21 years old. His future was right in front of him.
But something was nagging at Nixon. His offensive numbers weren’t great – he hit just .226 with two homers and 17 RBIs in 46 games for Las Vegas – and he wondered if his dream of playing in the major leagues was just that – a dream.
That winter, the Dodgers asked him to play third base in the Instructional League. Then, after a month, they moved him back to catcher.
Nixon loved baseball but he knew a dead end when he saw it.
Did he want to spend eight, nine years bouncing around the minor leagues, waiting for a phone call that might never come?
“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” he asked himself.
And that’s how he found himself on ASU’s practice field, embarrassed and so exhausted that when he went home, he joked, he slept for three straight days.
“Not a great first impression,” he said.
Ah, but what a lasting impression Nixon is leaving. After a junior season in which he tied for the Pac-10 lead with five interceptions, Nixon had the game of his life against Idaho State on Sept. 5.
A career-high three interceptions. The first blocked punt of his life. Four tackles. And, afterwards, about 25 texts from friends and family members who wondered if something nefarious was going on.
“A lot of people thought I had paid the quarterback off,” Nixon said. “After the third pick, I was getting text messages that said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Nixon isn’t ASU’s most celebrated linebacker. That would be freshman Vontaze Burfict, whose violent hits wind up on YouTube. But make no mistake: Nixon is ASU’s best linebacker.
He’s 26, his hair is thinning and he’s not particularly fast or strong, but he might have as good a feel for the game as any Sun Devil defender since Pat Tillman.
“He’s got such a high athletic IQ,” coach Dennis Erickson said … “He makes plays that I just shake my head at because it doesn’t look like that’s where he’s going to be and he ends up there.”
Nixon gets there because of the work he does during the week.
The linebackers are required to watch 90 minutes of film every day, but Nixon usually spends an additional hour studying the opposing offense. By Saturday, he feels he has as good of a grasp as possible on a team’s schemes and habits.
Take his third interception against Idaho State. Nixon recognized a “wing doubles” formation he had seen on film in part because ASU’s offense runs it as well. He also knew from his film study that the Bengals only threw a couple of routes out of the alignment, and that the receiver he was supposed to follow across the field likely wouldn’t get the ball.
So he hung in the middle of the field and, sure enough, Idaho State’s quarterback threw the ball right at him.
“A lot of great players who play that position, they bait you a little bit,” Erickson said. “Mike does that.”
Nixon plans to treasure every minute of this season. He knows the NFL will be reluctant to draft a 26-year-old linebacker, and he’s not sure he wants to pursue a football career if he’ll be nothing more than a training camp body.
His alternative: Law school, with the hope of either becoming a sports agent or working for a pro franchise.
“My first true job interview might be when I’m 30 or 31,” he said with a laugh.
Nixon sometimes wonders what would have happened had he stuck with baseball. He does know this: Had he gotten one major league at-bat, just one, he likely would have stuck with the sport far longer than he did.
“You get that taste, you want it again,” he said.
ASU is thankful he never took that first bite.