COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Daviyon Nixon sat in his backyard, gripped by fear, tears cascading down his face. He was so nervous he nearly shook, the uncertainty of his next five months surfacing all at once.
It was like a tsunami. His emotions taking down a 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle in a way an opponent never did.
His dreams of playing Iowa football were on hold. He didn’t qualify academically.
In the morning, he was heading to Iowa Western Community College. His concern and unease stemmed from a precarious future. He didn’t know what was next.
He didn’t want anyone to see him like this as he hid near a gate, doubt his only companion. Nixon understood it couldn’t sit next to him in the car. So he wiped his eyes and gave himself a pep talk.
“It’s the biggest thing you’ve ever done,” Nixon repeated to himself. “It’s the biggest thing you’ll have accomplished. You’ll have to go do it. No one else can.”
• • •
Nixon opened his eyes and didn’t believe what he saw. Motorcycles were riding in every direction around the car.
This was a long way from his Kenosha, Wis., home. In fact, it was almost 500 miles. His dad, Rodney, got lost on the way. They were somewhere near Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Nixon woke up from a nap in a new state, but it might as well have been a new world. His city life disappeared. In its place was suburban Omaha and the wide-open spaces of western Iowa.
His father went to find the coaching staff. Nixon sat in the car on this July morning once they located the junior college, full of new buildings, sports complexes and dorms, tucked off Interstate 80.
He realized why he was here. He didn’t take his academics too seriously his first two years of high school. Teams loved his rare combination of size, speed, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle. Teams weren’t so fond of his report cards. Most stopped recruiting him because of it.
Iowa stayed in contact and watched his grades improve over his final two seasons. The Hawkeyes flipped him from Northern Illinois and hoped his grades came through. There was improvement, but not enough for him to qualify. The NCAA, though, granted an appeal. Enrollment at Iowa for the spring semester was possible, but only if he maintained his grades.
He couldn’t think of January and his potential salvation. Not in July, not when he didn’t know what he was walking into. Would he make friends? Was he going to start? Were the players bigger than him?
The questions stopped once he met the Reivers staff because they didn’t let him think. They peppered him with demands at the pace a boxer hits a speed bag.
You must listen.
Focus is mandatory.
Learn the playbook.
We need you to get rolling.
After all, the team spent the summer working out. Nixon was arriving late and needed to catch up.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Nixon said. “All I could do was jump in.”
• • •
Failure is Nixon’s biggest fear. Football is his ticket to a college degree, a chance to live his dream of being a police officer and if things break right, a potential pro career.
He almost threw it all away before it even started as a young, dumb high school freshman whose football future was yet to materialize. Schoolwork took a back seat to acting like a star jock.
He didn’t know better then. He does now.
He isn’t just doing this for himself. It’s for his dad who woke up for early-morning workouts, and turned an overweight eighth grader into a football player. It’s for his old high school coach, Mike McKay, who forced Nixon to put academics before football. It’s for McKay’s wife, Heather, who served as a personal tutor.
So many people invested their time in him and success wasn’t guaranteed. Nixon didn’t succeed in making it to Iowa. He couldn’t fail, not again. He didn’t want any more nights like the one spent crying by the gate at home.
As he headed out for his first Iowa Western practice, he told himself failure wasn’t an option.
“I want to make my family proud,” Nixon said. “I want to make myself proud. That means I have to do anything and everything possible to be great.”
• • •
Nixon loves his swim move. It’s his best pass-rush move. It was at the center of him being a high school superstar.
Iowa Western told him to forget about it. Nixon wasn’t going to survive with one move. He needed to evolve. He needed to add the chop club to his arsenal. It’s a staple of the program.
The pass rusher starts by using his interior hand in a chopping motion to knock down the offensive lineman’s hands. He then uses his other hand, swung like a club, to hit the nearest elbow or hand to knock it aside. The defender swivels his hips and dips under the lineman’s shoulder to maneuver into the backfield.
Nixon worked on the move at practice for weeks and in the process learned he fit in. Fears of teammates towering over him quickly disappeared as Nixon earned a starting spot.
He also grew to love film sessions. The Reivers broke down tape of every practice. It let him see when he gave the proper effort, what a good rep looked like and how his chop club was coming along.
“The camera doesn’t lie,” Nixon said. “Numbers can lie, but cameras don’t.”
Overcome with joy, he turned to his coaches and screamed three words.
I got one.
“I was so excited I almost missed the next play,” Nixon said.
He didn’t even catch the most important part of that play. He successfully used the club chop. Nixon didn’t notice it until rewatching the tape. The impact caught him off guard. The move was second nature. His work paid off.
More importantly, it provided a blueprint on how to avoid failure.
• • •
The Reivers didn’t know what they were getting. Linebacker Colton Dinsdale saw something about the team landing an Iowa signee on Twitter. Others heard about it from coaches.
Linebacker Nick Anderson waited to size up Nixon in person. Nixon’s size first caught his attention. It didn’t take long for Nixon’s personality to stand out.
He’s a people person. He’s outgoing and quick-witted, always ready with a joke. It doesn’t take him long to make friends. Just like it doesn’t take anyone long to realize when he enters a room.
“He is outgoing and he is loud,” Anderson said. “You’ll know when he is around.”
The more they learned about Nixon, the more the Reivers liked him. That included on the field.
He was the perfect defensive tackle for Dinsdale and Anderson, future walk-ons at Iowa.
Nixon was a disruptive force inside. He recorded 44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks while controlling the line of scrimmage and taking on double-teams as needed.
“He frees up the linebackers,” Dinsdale said. “He makes us look good.”
His play caught the attention of Alabama defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. The Crimson Tide offered a scholarship in late October.
— DaviyonNixon (@DaviyonNixon) October 25, 2017
The offer floored Nixon. Nothing beats an offer from the top program in America. Nixon didn’t want to do anything rash. He informed Iowa of the news and he chatted with his parents and his Iowa Western coaches.
Shortly before his early December bowl game, Nixon sat and thought about the Hawkeyes. They stood by him in high school. They helped him with the NCAA. He knew what he had there. He didn’t know what awaited at Alabama.
He learned fit is important at Iowa Western, and he fit in at Iowa.
“I had to come and realize this is where my family is,” Nixon said. “This is where my home is. This is where I have to go.”
• • •
Football success is nice, but Nixon never forgot why he is in junior college in the first place. His GPA was more important than his number of sacks.
Like with football, he didn’t know what to expect on the first day of class. The last thing he figured to hear was a teacher telling him there was no reason to receive anything but an “A.”
It was an odd thing to say. Then another said it. And another.
The message was simple. Come to class. Ask for help when you need it. The teachers will work with you as much as you need.
The news caught Nixon off guard, but by the end of the first day it started to make sense.
“I know a lot of people say professors don’t like athletes, but my professors love athletes,” Nixon said. “It’s a great fit. It’s a great feeling. I have so many people trying to help.”
Athletic director Jeremy Capo refers to an Iowa Western diploma as a golden ticket. It’s a way for a student to help themselves, get ahead in life and help them build traits to become leaders. No one can take it away, but it requires teenagers to buy into study halls as much as lifting sessions.
“We don’t owe you anything,” Capo said to a room of potential recruits during a signing ceremony on Wednesday. “Failure to succeed is not on [the staff]. Look in the mirror at the end and if you want to blame someone you can only blame yourself.”
Everything is there. It’s on the individual to succeed. It’s the unofficial motto at Iowa Western. Nixon gravitated toward it and a path of positivity over the last five months.
He no longer dwells on the negative or his fears. He wakes up every morning ready to be the embodiment of a Tony Robbins motivational speech.
Nixon views every day as a chance at attaining perfection. He applies it in every aspect of his life.
“It’s always a possibility of failure, but you have to keep pushing through it,” Nixon said. “You have to face your fears once or twice and keep going.”
The mindset is working. He thinks straight A’s are possible in his intro to criminal justice, intro to corrections, theory of coaching II and comp II classes.
The changes extend beyond his school work. Nixon is more self-aware. Possibly, the most helpful aspect of junior college was seeing others like himself.
He’s not the most important person on the field like in high school. There is a target on everyone’s back playing for a top-5 team.
Honestly, it’s a relief for him, especially when understanding he controls his success.
It’s as simple as go to class, work hard, and, of course, aim for perfection.
He sees this now. Six months ago, he didn’t recognize the entire picture.
“So now my eyes are open,” Nixon said. “I’m not just Daviyon Nixon the superstar out of high school from Kenosha. Now, I’m just Daviyon Nixon and he’s playing for Iowa and he has to get the job done.”
• • •
Nixon strolls to the podium with a confident gait only an athlete possess. He grabs it, smiles and leans in to give Iowa Western a signing ceremony speech on Wednesday.
Within seconds, a room full of a hundred-plus coaches, teammates, recruits and their families sit on the edge of their seat, following his every word.
He draws the audience in with a joke, saying he fell asleep in the car and just woke up in Council Bluffs.
“It’s a true story,” he said.
Nixon is open and honest, mentioning Iowa and this being his backup option. He speaks of his uncertainty about moving a few hundred miles to a town and team full of strangers.
He explains his relief when teammates showed him around and asked his name, quickly realizing this was a team and brotherhood. Yes, he fought with them, even screaming with defensive line coach Aaron Terry after games. It was their way of figuring out how to fix mistakes.
He could argue with the Reivers, but not anyone else. That’s how he knew this became his family.
“Coming here was one of the best things I ever did with my life,” Nixon said. “I don’t think I would have been ready for Iowa if I didn’t come here first. Coming here changed a lot of things from my perspective. It made me get my right mindset coming into college. It made me visualize things in a different way.”
His eyes are wide open now and confidence oozes from him as he speaks for 2 minutes, 37 seconds. He says 527 words about the benefits of Iowa Western and personal growth. Nixon displayed his newfound maturity when mentioning the 11-1 season and missing out on a national championship appearance.
He, like everyone in the football facility, believes they deserved to face East Mississippi for the national title. Instead, Arizona Western got that shot.
Both teams lost one game. The Reivers finished third in the final coaches’ poll and went to the Graphic Edge Bowl instead.
It’s not fair, he tells everyone, but life moves on.
He’s moving on to Iowa and he knows he’s better off for his time in junior college. This truly was his golden ticket.