It’s not something earned overnight, and once set, good or bad, it’s very hard to change. No matter where you stand at the corner of Hancock and Reese streets in downtown Sandusky, it’s an intersection that resonates a picture of what once was, and still is.
The abandoned Knotty Pine Bar building sits side-by-side with the former Automotive and Marine Supply, two worn-down staples of yesteryear.
But cars still flow over the tar-filled cracked asphalt streets to visit the Flash Drive Thru, and a steady stream of customers cycle through the Belle’s Carryout store.
When it comes to reputation, the area carries a well-known stigma of high crime.
But when El Da’ Sheon Nix stands at the corner and looks around, he simply sees home.
“I see the foundation of where I’m at today,” said Nix, a 2000 Sandusky graduate and former standout Blue Streak athlete. “Through sports, I’ve been a lot of different places, but there’s no place like home. This is home”
Nix spent his high school days sleeping in an empty apartment five nights a week, because his mother Catherine had to work third shift at Tenneco Automotive in Milan. He used a pink lunchbox for summer football practices at Sandusky High School, because it was the only one he could find in his home.
He also used his athletic abilities to land a football scholarship at Northwestern University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. But before it could get started, an injury derailed ambitions of an NFL career.
Yet through sports off the field, Nix grew up from the crime-riddled neighborhood in Sandusky to become arguably a bigger success story than he could have ever dreamed.
Nix spent his formative childhood years living in a small home on Reese Street, just beyond the corner of Hancock Street. He grew up like most children, with an innocent but powerful dream of reaching the NFL — just like Orlando Pace, the 1994 Sandusky High graduate — and giving back to his city.
But all around him were drugs and criminal activities.
He watched several friends over the years get arrested and serve jail time for crimes such as drug possession, armed robbery and rape, as well as various gun and assault charges.
“It was disappointing, because being around everyone, you know what their potential is,” Nix said of watching some of his closest friends go to jail. “People can do much more, but sometimes you make decisions based on circumstances. I see it both ways. It sucks this person is doing this kind of thing, but also understand, did he eat that day? He may have a younger brother and sister who doesn’t have clothes."
“Not just those situations, but even now, I can sit down and have a conversation with a city commissioner, but also sit down and have a conversation with the so-called biggest drug addict in the city” Nix said. “And I’m blessed to be in that situation, because I understand both worlds”
While it appeared he grew up in a two-parent household, Nix acknowledges his father wasn’t the figure his two siblings and mother needed him to be.
“His situation with alcohol just shows how powerful addictions can be,” Nix said of his father, who now lives in Mississippi. The two haven’t talked in two years.
“The alcohol and other things he has been doing over time did not allow him to directly teach me right from wrong,” Nix said. “Or help me with my homework, assist me with my athletics, or just teach me about life the way that children need their parents.
“But indirectly, I use him and the situation as motivation in nearly everything I do in life, he said. “We’ve always communicated off and on throughout my life, but there have been some really important events that I really, really needed and wanted him to be a part of, and he didn’t show. And because of that, I can honestly say that it’s been very hard for me to forget and forgive him”
Through seventh grade, there were different periods when people were packed into the Reese Street home. Nix lived there with his mother, along with his sister, Pamela, and his brother, Frederick, as well as his sister-in-law and niece.
It was a tight fit in a tough neighborhood.
He used to look under every couch cushion and every drawer in the house as a kid, trying to find pocket change to buy a 50-cent pack of Kool-Aid from the Carryout.
“I’ll never forget how good that Kool-Aid tasted” he said. “Even if it only lasted about 10 minutes”
After his other siblings moved out, Nix and his mother moved across town to McKinley Street. She’d work third shift to help provide for her son and pay the bills. Nix remembers seeing her for an hour or two, at most, five days a week, while sleeping by himself in the apartment as she worked the overnight shift.
That also meant eating a lot of spaghetti, salad and buttered bread.
“Not because it was my favorite meal, but because it was cheap to make and it could last a couple days” he said.
But there were never any complaints. He always had a roof over his head and always had shoes on his feet, even if they weren’t the latest Air Jordan’s.
“Poverty, to people who stay here, you don’t really know you are living in poverty conditions because everyone lives the same way,” Nix said. “Everybody had a similar financial situation, so as kids, we just thought that was life. I think our families all were just trying to survive and make our ends meet.
“As kids, we were just happy to be running around, playing sports and being kids” he said. “We didn’t have the newest shoes or clothes. We weren’t going on summer vacations, and there weren’t too many of us who had family cars and cable TV, but we were just living life”
Survival was the biggest theme of Nix’s childhood, on several levels.
“As far as this area goes, the bad connotation comes from that it was, and still is, a high-crime-rate neighborhood” he said. “This fourblock radius is the hub of the city when it comes to negative activity. That’s on the outside looking in.... but for the people who are here and stay here, that’s just trying to survive and live life”
Blue Streak star
It was easy to see why Nix — at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds — was a standout on the football field and basketball court at Sandusky.
On the football field, he caught 98 passes for 1,580 yards and 16 touchdowns in 20 games. As a junior in 1998, he set singlegame Sandusky records with 16 catches for 278 yards in a 49-28 loss against rival Fremont Ross. His 98 catches are also the career mark at Sandusky High, and his 928 yards receiving in 1998 is a single-season best, along with 11 career interceptions on defense.
In basketball, Nix was a standout in the last great stretch of Blue Streak basketball, as the threeyear starter finished his career with 887 points, good for ninth all-time in school history. In that span, Sandusky was 51-16 with two league championships and a trip to the Division I Sweet 16 regional.
It was a good time to be a Blue Streak athlete.
“The buzz about high school sports, I loved it,” Nix said. “It just seemed like most of the city was buzzing for the football and basketball teams. As far as being a player, you almost felt like a rock star. You’d go to the mall, or somewhere to eat, and you got that letterman’s jacket on and you just felt important”
While a very good basketball player, football was what it was going to be for Nix. He chose Northwestern over Ohio State, Duke and Miami University.
Also a 4.0 GPA student in the National Honor Society, as well as class president twice, Nix had refused to let perception of who he should be keep him from moving on to bigger and better things.
That wasn’t lost on his head football coach, Larry Cook, who won 111 games in 17 seasons at Sandusky.
“El Da’ Sheon did it the right way,” Cook said. “He was a very intelligent young man who has done a tremendous job with his life. He’s a worker. Nothing was handed to him. But you see, that’s the difference. He used the ability he was given. I saw a lot of players with ability — they just didn’t apply themselves and use it.
“His mother, Catherine, was very supportive, a nice lady” Cook said. “She did a great job raising him, no doubt in my mind. But give him a lot of credit. The Lord gave him ability ... he didn’t have to use it, but he did. And now look at him”
Although trouble was always around, Nix said he made sure to avoid it.
The end result: a scholarship to Northwestern.
Because of that, Nix almost felt protected in some ways, even from some of the area residents who had a bad reputation.
“It happens a lot in inner cities or in neighborhoods like Hancock and Reese,” he said. “There are special kids that the whole neighborhood just finds ways to protect them, because people feel like they have what it takes to ‘escape’ the neighborhood and make it somewhere in life. I think in a way, I fit that role and I’ve always been protected from a lot of things and people growing up, even to this day”