He had it all figured out.
Then life happened.
Nix, a 2000 Sandusky graduate, had grown up just off the corner of the crime-riddled Reese and Hancock streets in downtown Sandusky. Through athletics, he earned a scholarship to play college football in the Big Ten at Northwestern University.
But before his career could ever get started at NU, a knee injury ended it. At a crossroads, there was one route Nix refused to let himself consider: coming home.
“The biggest thing was, growing up here, I knew the options,” he said. “Come home and do what? I’ve seen great football and basketball players from Sandusky who didn’t make it this far. There’s a few who made it, but growing up you start to measure yourself to those guys.
“There were other options,” he added. “You are a student first, an athlete second. I’m at Northwestern University, what do you do? I’m a competitor, so I made education and academics my sport.”
When Nix learned his playing days were over far earlier than he had anticipated, his mother, Catherine, offered comforting, yet prophetic words.
“I’ll never forget her saying that God had something in store for my life, and it will be bigger than any football game I could ever play in,” Nix said.
She was right.
Over before it starts
As it turned out, by the end of basketball season as a senior at Sandusky in 2000, Nix and a lingering knee issue were on borrowed time.
Deep down, he knew it.
After signing with Northwestern in February, the school had him go to the Cleveland Clinic in April to get his knee scoped. The results weren’t good: Nix had torn his lateral meniscus, and had been playing sports ‘bone-on-bone’ the entire time.
He was told to continue his athletic career, at some point he would need a meniscal transplant. But he went to NU in the summer and gave it a shot anyway. After all, he was projected as a possible starter as a true freshman for the Big Ten champion Wildcats. Eventually, the pain was too much.
After missing the entire season, Nix had the transplant in December of 2000. Despite a lengthy rehab, he never returned to the field, or played a down for Northwestern.
“The biggest reason for that was the fact that I went bone on bone for nearly a year, and even with the new meniscus, the knee would never be stable enough for me to compete at that level again” Nix said. “The type of injury I had and the procedure of surgery and rehab was just so new at the time. There were only two other athletes in the country who had tried it at that point, and collectively we were had an 0-for-3 success rate”
Nix was crushed by the injury, and wore it on his sleeve.
“I think I cried for hours, because it was over,” he said. “It took me back. I had worked so hard to get to that point where I’d be able to do stuff for my city and put them on my back with national attention in the Big Ten, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like I let myself and the city down”
Without football, Nix quickly let reality smack him in the face. There is much more to life than football, especially at an academic institution of Northwestern’s prestige.
Nix went to study sessions, and viewed them as if he was catching a pass in the middle of the Ohio State defense at Ohio Stadium.
“I figured most of the people at NU came from better schools and better neighborhoods than me,” he said. “I just worked and worked, and finished with a 3.5 GPA and made the Dean’s list three times. It felt good. It became my sport, and it felt like I won the Super Bowl.”
Life after college
The day Nix walked across the podium to get his degree from Northwestern, he had a job offer to work at the Rice Child and Family Center in Evanston, Ill.
He was the lead mental health professional at the residential facility for teenagers suffering from mental and behavior disorders. After two years there, he moved on to an after-school program called the Youth Organization Umbrella Inc., also in Evanston.
About a year later, Nix moved on to become the director of social services at the Evanston Community Defender office.
But his next job stop proved to be Nix’s true calling. He accepted a position as the administrative coordinator at Cabrini Connections, a mentoring and tutoring program for students in grades 7-12 who live in and around the sometimes deadly Cabrini Green housing projects.
“Cabrini Green was the largest and the most notorious housing projects in the entire world,” Nix said.
Nix was the executive director at Cabrini for nearly four years, and in 2011, he moved into his current role as the director of program operations at the Beyond Sports Foundation. He has also been serving as the interim executive director of the program since June.
BSF provides academic, athletic, social and career development resources to high school and collegiate student-athletes throughout the Chicago area.
“We go through the city and recruit high school athletes who have the desire to play at the collegiate level, but may not have the particular resources,” Nix said of BSF. “They may be pretty smart, but they’re not getting the exposure they need. Parents can’t pay for camps or showcases. Or maybe a student who is a gifted athlete, but academically they struggle and their parents can’t afford tutoring or prep school”
Over the past four years, 17 student-athletes have graduated from college with the aid of BSF. All 17 are on the path to career success, with more than half earning some NFL experience. Every graduating high school student in BSF has been accepted into college.
The students go to BSF’s facility in Highland Park and get tutored in all standardized test prep subjects. There is even a fitness facility to allow kids to train and get bigger, faster and stronger.
“It’s all to assist kids getting into college,” Nix said. “Socially, we do different workshops. We want well-rounded student-athletes, so we may do something on money management or CPR and first aid. We also work on personal presentation. If you can speak to your peers, you can speak to a college coach or a future employer”
Dean Swain has known Nix his entire life. He grew up with him and played basketball with him at SHS. He was also the best man in Nix’s wedding. Swain said the man Nix has grown into from Hancock and Reese to success in Chicago is because he never took no for an answer.
“People always flocked to him,” Swain said. “Everybody knew him, older people, younger people … He knew how to inspire people, how to have them dig deep in themselves and be the best they could be.
“He’s a really good person that cares for others,” he added. “The type of care that gives him a fueling fire of passion to actually put forth the effort to make a difference. El Da’ Sheon is a very determined individual”
While he missed out on potential glamour or fame of a professional career in the NFL, Nix said in a lot of ways, the injury was a blessing.
“I always knew I wanted to put myself in a position to be successful so that I could better the lives of my family, my community and friends and those that I work with” he said. “My goal was to make it to the NBA or NFL and use money and the ‘fame’ to do it ... but with the knee injury, it was just a shortcut to get to where and what I was going to do anyway.
“Obviously it was less money than an NFL or NBA contract, but also more time to do what I love,” he added. “It’s almost an even trade-off, to be honest”
Today, even though he is five hours away, Nix thinks of Sandusky often, and comes back as much as he can to help give back.
“My Sandusky experiences play a part in nearly everything I do, and the decisions I make” he said. “The good, the bad and the ugly from Sandusky are with me daily and have shaped the man I am today.
“I play off of those experiences in my interactions with the youth and the families in the Foundation,” he added. “The programs and activities I design, the goals I look to set in my profession … They are all connected to Sandusky in some way.”