Brian Kelly, Notre Dame ‘Devastated’ About Louis Nix III
In 2010, Louis Nix III at a listed 350 pounds arrived as one of the two or three heaviest football players ever to enroll at Notre Dame. But there was a far greater weight — or burden — in the overall Fighting Irish program at the time.
Notre Dame was 16-21 the three years before Nix and head coach Brian Kelly arrived together, and even in Kelly’s first two seasons the Fighting Irish finished with back-to-back disappointing 8-5 records.
Nix didn’t play that first season in 2010 while redefining his body, but by his second season his personality began to take hold on the team. Once Kelly saw that Nix could make even star senior wide receiver Michael Floyd laugh, he began seeing a transformation within the infrastructure.
Even without first-round pick Floyd in the lineup in 2012, Nix became one of the most powerful personalities on a team that finished 12-0 during the regular season and reached No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in 19 years.
“He cut a lot of the tension in the program,” Kelly recalled on Monday afternoon of Nix, who died this weekend in his native Jacksonville, Fla., at age 29. “When I got on board, there was a big weight on Notre Dame's shoulders relative to winning.
“Louis took a lot off of the shoulders of the players. … In a very short period of time, this program went undefeated and Louis’ personality — plus some really good football players — had a lot to do with that. The way he interacted with people, in particular older players like Michael, had a lot to do with transforming the program early on.”
Nix’s car was pulled from a retention pond in Jacksonville on Saturday after he had been reported missing earlier in the week. His mother, Stephanie Wingfield, told The Florida Times-Union that the police indicated “it didn’t look like foul play.”
It takes all kinds of personalities to comprise powerful team chemistry: grizzled veterans, hungry youth, serious leaders to maintain focus, cocky, on-the-edge personalities who can back it up, comic relief to keep the program loose. Nix was an amalgamation of all of them at Notre Dame during an amazing turnaround campaign in 2012.
He might have not fit the classic Notre Dame profile on the exterior, but he was just what the program needed in the interior, not just with talent that made him one of the nation’s most dominant defensive linemen, but a personality that became infectious. It was somewhat akin to legendary nose tackle Chris Zorich from Chicago Vocational School in the late 1980s.
“Louis kind of began to unravel that myth that you needed to go to a ‘profile school’ [to enter Notre Dame]. No, you didn’t,” Kelly emphasized. “What you needed was the want and the desire not only to prove you were capable, but that you wanted something more — and he did. He came here with the purpose of wanting something more: a degree from Notre Dame and wanting to prove to a lot of people that somebody could come out of a non-profile school, or just the inner-city public school, and he made that statement.
“… We’ve been able to see more and more players come through our program that are not part of those profile schools and do exceedingly well here. I think Louis began to open that pathway for many of the student-athletes.”
Nix demonstrated just how much he was committed to proving skeptics wrong about “profiling” when he pledged his verbal to Notre Dame when it didn’t even have a head coach during the search after Charlie Weis (2005-09) was axed. The lone staff member at the time was running backs coach Tony Alford, who recruited in Florida.
“When I walked into the office, Tony Alford was waiting for me and said, ‘Listen, we have to get on a plane to Jacksonville, Florida,” Kelly said of his initial day as the head coach. “We have to go see this man named Louis Nix III. … We have to get there immediately because he’s probably one of the best players you’re ever going to sign here.’”
Nix had Kelly even before “hello.”
“Big fella, big personality big smile, at that time just relayed to me why he was coming to Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “He wanted to do something nobody else ever thought he would do — and that was leave Jacksonville, leave the city and graduate from Notre Dame.”
Beyond his 122 career tackles that made him a third-round draft pick despite ailing knee issues his senior year, Nix fulfilled his graduation goal — and even a fantasy to line up at quarterback and score during the 2013 Blue-Gold Game.
“I lost a bet,” Kelly explained of the fond memory. “We had a bet relative to some of the things I needed Louis to do a little bit better around his weight. He did it. … Some people kidded me at the time and said he lost a little weight in his wrist. He lost some weight and maintained it.
“I said if you did that, we were going to give you an opportunity to run the football.”
Last December, Nix nearly lost his life when he was shot at a Jacksonville gas station while merely pumping air into his automobile tires, and a groundswell of support from the Notre Dame football office and former teammates ensued.
“There was some texting we had back and forth,” Kelly said. “Somebody from within our office had been texting with him just up until a couple of weeks ago. We all sent a couple of texts back and forth wishing him good health and he seemed to be in good spirits.
“We weren't getting any negative reports in terms of where he was. We weren't tipped off to anything that gave us a sense that he was in a bad place. We're certainly on guard for things of that nature. There’s a pretty strong network out there if we felt like there was something, and we certainly would have reached out.”
There are no concrete answers or insights yet from Jacksonville on the hows and whys of the death, but the preference is to honor Nix’s impact and legacy.
“We can look back on his time here and know that there was a spirit, an energy and a vibrant young man that passed through these hallways here,” Kelly said. “That's what we choose to remember. When he came back, there was always a smile and there was other-centeredness that he was about.
“We know we’ve lost somebody way too early. We’re certainly devastated by it. We’re all asking the same questions. There will be peace for him, and we're doing all we can to help the family at this time.”
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