A Heralded Walk-On

Players such as Adam Archuleta and Levi Jones joined ASU's football team in relative anonymity and without a scholarship offer, and ended up as first round NFL draft picks. Walk-on freshman Mike Nixon, a former star at local Sunnyslope HS, is joining the squad with as much publicity as any scholarship player set to join the maroon and gold in 2006. The safety is happy to be coming home and realizes that the expectations on him will be unusually high compared to any other player in his status.

The list of football accolades for Mike Nixon stretches as far as the distance between his Tempe home and Westwood, Calif. where he was scheduled to join the UCLA football team in 2002. He was rated as the 11th best safety in the nation by Scout.com and was PrepStar's no. 1 athlete player in the West. At the time he was the state's high school best player and career passing leader (8,091 yards), and was also twice selected first-team All-State as a safety.

"I committed to UCLA out of high school," he recalled. "It was one of those things that when you're 18, being ten minutes from the beach…everything looks pretty good and I kind of wanted to get away from home. When you're 18 you have a very different outlook. I wanted to be away from home, but close enough so my parents could come to my games. We (UCLA) had a top-5 recruiting class that year, and to be part of that sounded great." Nixon chose UCLA over Arizona State, and added that Stanford and Notre Dame were also his suitors mainly because of Coach Tyrone Willingham who at the time left the Cardinal and joined the Fighting Irish.

Nevertheless, Nixon was also an accomplished basketball and baseball player, and the later sport presented him with an opportunity that few 18-year olds get to receive. "Come baseball season I played pretty well and I started to hear from a lot of scouts," said Nixon was played as a catcher. "Things got pretty heated up come draft time, and it came to the point when scouts went from ‘will he play baseball in college to will he play professional baseball and how much will it take to sign him?' The day before the draft the Los Angeles Dodgers came in and were really interested and I kind of agreed that if the price was right I was going to play baseball for them and forfeit my scholarship to UCLA."

Nixon was at a football All-Star game the morning of the Major League Baseball draft, and it was there that he learned that he got selected in the third round. "We did some negations that evening," he said, "and we came to the conclusion that this is what I'm gonna do – play baseball for the rest of my life."

The catcher played rookie ball that summer (2002), proceeded to play two years in Low A league in Georgia and this past year he was a member of the High A league in Florida. Due to injuries, he was promoted to the team's AAA team in Las Vegas last summer. "It was one of those things that if you're 21 and you're in AAA it's a real good thing," Nixon remarked. "But when I took a step back I realized that I was backing up and I really didn't like the direction where my baseball career was going. I talked to them (Dodgers) and asked ‘what are your plans for me?' If they look at you as a prospect they'll tell you and they were very non-committal. For the first time in my life I was just sitting there not playing and I just didn't enjoy it and was not playing well. I told them that I would have to take some time and figure out what was best for me."

Nixon returned home to Phoenix and realized that he missed playing football. ASU Head Coach Dirk Koetter kept on writing him letters all through out his baseball career, and that ultimately was one of the factors that led him to donning the maroon and gold this season. "I spend the off-seasons in my house in Tempe," he stated. "The more I'm in this area the more I like it, I got my family still in Phoenix and it's just the combination of everything. I grew up going to Sun Devil games and I want to be part of this."

Spreading his wings was something that Nixon wanted to experience, as evident in his reasoning to initially commit to UCLA. By choosing a professional baseball career, he did get his wish and much more. "I was 18, three weeks out of high school and I'm gone from home," he said. "I'm living with another guy in an apartment. When you're a football player, you live in a dorm and you have a lot of things taken care of for you. Nine months of the year I was gone, and when you play football, you're back for Christmas break, spring break…the only chance I got to see my family is if they came out for a three-game series on the weekend. You just really learn to grow up and take care of yourself. "

When he signed with the Dodgers, Nixon's agreement was a two-sport contract, that stipulated that he wouldn't be able to play football until five years (from the time he signed with the Dodgers) were up, which would be this upcoming June. "When I contacted the Dodgers and told them my plans, I said I'm for sure going back to school and not coming for spring training," Nixon explained. "I was honest with them and didn't want them to hear it from anyone else. We came to an agreement and we went our own separate ways and they were classy about it. They let me come back to school and participate in football right away."

During his Letter of Intent press conference, Koetter quipped that he told Nixon during his recruitment that he could be the next Jake Plummer and thus scared him into signing with UCLA. Ironically, Nixon was going to play safety at UCLA, and will now play that same position at ASU. "If I'm coming back at 22, I'm coming back to hopefully make a difference," he explained. "There are two studs already here at quarterback. It would be a situation where I would sit three years for a chance to maybe play one. If you play defense, even if you're not starting, you can play special teams. I'm here to hopefully make a difference."

Due to the fact that he played professional sports, Nixon will always have to maintain a walk-on status and can never be awarded a scholarship. Part of his initial signing bonus, was allocated for education purposes when he would decide to attend college. There aren't too many 22 year-old freshmen on ASU's campus and Nixon has noticed that early on. "Most people don't take three and half years off before they enroll in their first college math class," he commented. "I'm sitting in the class on the first day of school, and they're going around the room and everybody is introducing themselves, saying ‘I'm so and so and I'm 18.' and that's when I realized that I was making an adjustment."

Needless to say that the bigger transition will be on the field, after being out of the game for three years. Furthermore, some can argue that maybe Nixon's passion for football isn't what it used to be. However, Nixon claims that this theory will never be a factor with him. "Whatever season it was in high school was my favorite sport," he said. "Obviously, I went to UCLA to play football and maybe baseball. The situation with the Dodgers came up and it was too hard to turn down. It wasn't that I liked baseball more than football. Once I got drafted, four days later I still played football and probably putting my baseball career at risk. So a part of me wasn't ready to give up football then for baseball."

As a senior at Sunnyslope Nixon tallied 109 tackles and eight interceptions, and was voted the state's High School Player of the Year. Granted, that was back in 2001 but that hasn't stopped the maroon and gold faithful, let alone the new ASU safety, from having high aspirations for his Sun Devil football career. "I expect a lot of things for myself, probably more than other people," said Nixon. "I'm not where I want to be (football wise) and I could have waited out my contract until June. But I said to myself that if I wanted to play football, I would like to be in spring ball. It's been four years, and I know I'm not in football shape and I'm rusty. I'd rather get it all out now, instead of the fall and make a bad impression then." He joked and said that he hoped that the squatting motion of a baseball catcher didn't take too much off his speed.

Nixon claimed that "When I did play baseball, I played hard. It just didn't work out." These days he's putting a lot effort in the weight room to add to his 6-2 215 frame (Koetter jokingly described his weight as "baseball weight'). In the weeks leading up to spring practice, Nixon will start diverting some of his attention to the football classroom.

"I'm gonna get together with the coaches and learn as quickly as possible," he said. "Half the battle is knowing what you're suppose to be doing just as much as being able to do it. It doesn't help if you're the most athletic person, if you can't be at the right place at the right time."

Mike Nixon is appreciative of the "great experiences playing pro baseball", but is equally as content to leave that sport on his own terms and go back to football. A new set of challenges is awaiting him on the gridiron, and coming in as a heralded hometown hero isn't a sure recipe to concur all those obstacles. Hard work and great effort on and off the field will be the initial necessitates for the revival of his football career. At some point, his natural abilities are bound kick in and hopefully make Mike Nixon's homecoming one for the ages and perhaps culminating with the same fairytale ending as once fellow walk-ons Archuleta and Jones.

Sun Devil Source Top Stories