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Ailing Tailback Fights On

May 15, 2003 | USA TODAY

The first player in Southern Mississippi history to rush for 1,000 yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Derrick Nix was talking about leaving school after his junior year for the NFL. But in September 2000, a sprained ankle put him on a medical roller coaster. He battled a 50-pound weight gain from fluid retention, blood clots in the lungs, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, anemia, light-headedness, exhaustion, vomiting and acute renal failure all while continuing to train and play, convinced he could manage the disease and make it to the pros.

Today Nix, 23, suffers from focal segmental sclerosis, a kidney disease that also hit Miami Heat All-Star center Alonzo Mourning and former San Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott. Nix is scheduled for a kidney transplant June 6 in Birmingham, Ala., the donor being his brother Marcus, 33. His playing career likely is over.

Nix blames his predicament on Celebrex and Vioxx, the prescription anti-inflammatory drugs he took for about a week each because of his ankle injury. He filed a lawsuit in April against Pfizer Inc., Pharmacia Corp. and Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical firms that manufacture the drugs, and their sales representatives (Pfizer and Pharmacia recently merged).

His nephrologist blames bad luck and, perhaps, a pre-existing condition and Nix continuing to play football for his situation.

His coach blames Nix and the doctor for not fully clarifying the nature of the disease to him.

Spokesmen for Pfizer, which makes Celebrex, and for Merck, which makes Vioxx, said their companies stand behind their products. There were 26 million prescriptions written for Celebrex in the USA in 2002, 21.9 million for Vioxx, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information and consulting company.

Where this leaves Nix today is on dialysis. He no longer thinks twice about having to be attached to a machine while he sleeps.

Last December, though, when dialysis first became a fact of life, he didn't handle the technology well. He had just had a dialysis catheter implanted in his lower abdomen, and because he was so accustomed to sleeping on his stomach, he'd wake up throughout the night completely entangled in his tubing.

These days Nix lulls himself to sleep on his back by watching several quarts of blood-cleansing solution drip into and out of his body.

"I like to see all the fluid bags run out and fill back up again," Nix said one morning last week as he concluded a treatment. He unhooked his catheter, rolled out of bed, reached beneath the dialysis machine and tossed three plastic bags, bulging with pale yellow fluid, onto the mattress.

"It was a scene the first time the medical supply truck dropped off all those boxes of solution," he says. "But I've got to do it. Dialysis sustains me."

Going from bad to worse

Before spraining his ankle, Nix had never been hurt playing football.

Celebrex was prescribed to ease the pain. A week or so later, when the swelling hadn't gone down, Vioxx was prescribed.

About a week after that, Nix says, he noticed swelling in his lower left leg. The team internist, Steve Beam, contacted Jon Thornton, a local nephrologist. Thornton ordered a urine test, which showed an abnormally large amount of protein in Nix's urine, an indication of kidney problems.

Nix stopped taking Vioxx. Thornton, who now gives lectures for Vioxx's manufacturer, Merck, about the careful use of anti-inflammatories, put him on prednisone a steroid used to treat kidney disease. And Nix, who had only been sharing his medical problems with his brother Tyrone, the Golden Eagles' defensive coordinator, finally let his parents in on what was happening.

Several days later, when the kidney functions didn't return to normal, Thornton did a kidney biopsy. It indicated Nix was suffering from either membranous glomerulonephritis or focal segmental sclerosis.

Thornton maintains he explained to Nix that having a kidney disease would probably preclude him from playing in the NFL.

Thornton says: "When he was diagnosed I told him that 30% of the patients get better if they stop the (anti-inflammatory) medication, that 30% get better with treatment but may need further treatment and that 30% do not get better but do get kidney dialysis or a transplant."

Nix heard something else. "He told me it was treatable, that it wouldn't affect my football, that it would eventually go away," Nix says.

Nix struggled over the next several months while working hard to return to the field, hoping his kidney function would return to normal. After deciding on his own to stop parts, if not all, of his kidney medications, according to Thornton, Nix who gained 100 yards in the intrasquad game that spring suffered a relapse and was hospitalized early that summer. He was not allowed to work out for six months and was redshirted for the 2001 season.

Once the training restrictions were lifted, he went at it full-bore.

Driven to make it work

In spring 2002, with NFL scouts watching, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. But the impressive result gave a false sense of security. By August, Nix was struggling to keep up in two-a-day practices.

He tired more quickly, bruised more easily.

In a Sept. 7 game against Illinois, he ran for 201 yards and scored two touchdowns. After one of those touchdowns, he says, "I threw up in the end zone. I was really, really tired. I'd asked to come out two plays before. I was so tired I couldn't get up. But I told myself I had to because we had to kick the extra point."

Southern Mississippi coach Jeff Bower says he doesn't recall Nix asking to come out of that game.

"I don't remember that, no," Bower says. "He and I talked a number of times that if you got to come out, pull yourself out. He typically won't do that. He has so much pride. We had to take a role. We monitored him the best we could."

Two weeks later, after rushing for 57 yards against Alabama, Nix threw up after eating a fast-food meal. He got chills. His girlfriend, Allison Story, rushed him to the emergency room. "I was so dehydrated they couldn't find a vein to give me an IV," Nix says.

Nix was in acute renal failure. And Thornton gave him a heart-to-heart talk.

"I told him that playing in the NFL was not something he'd be able to do," says Thornton, who adds he also told Nix that continuing to play might worsen his condition. "The difficult things with kidney disease in an athlete is not the playing itself but all the practice and the eating. Lifting weights breaks down a lot of waste products that have to move through the kidneys. Eating protein, a lot of waste products through the kidneys. If you bruise, that tissue has to be broken down and removed through the kidneys.

"He wanted to play. He was driven. It was all explained to him."

Thornton doubts Celebrex or Vioxx caused the kidney disease. "I think there may have been some underlying kidney disease, that he already had it when he took the drugs," Thornton says. "Just because something was aggravated by Celebrex doesn't mean the drugmakers caused it. It's just extremely bad luck. He's just an extremely unlucky person."

Nix believed he could fight his disease's progress. "I figured I'd get through the final game of the year, the doctors would bolster my dosage a couple weeks before the bowl game, and I'd get better," he says.

It didn't occur to Tyrone Nix to stop his brother from playing. "He loved the games," Tyrone says. "He had goals and dreams. I'd never want to discourage that."

Their father, the Rev. Preston Nix, didn't try to stop Derrick. "To try and take that away from him, even if he knew what would happen to him at the end, I couldn't do that," Nix's father says.

Richard Giannini, the Southern Mississippi athletics director, didn't try to stop him, either. "Oh, you couldn't tell him not to play," Giannini says.

And Thornton, having explained the risks to Nix, didn't sideline Nix. "It's always the patient's decision if they're not a minor," Thornton says.

Nix played in 11 of the Golden Eagles' 12 regular-season games. In the finale, he rushed for 139 yards and one touchdown in a 24-7 victory against East Carolina that helped Southern Mississippi gain a bid to the Houston Bowl. The performance gave him single-season career bests of 1,194 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. It also left him 12 yards shy of setting the school's all-time career rushing record. He did not get the chance to gain those yards in the bowl game.

Thornton ran some more tests a few days after the East Carolina game, and the news wasn't good.

"We'd scheduled an appointment for the Monday before the East Carolina game, and he'd skipped it," Thornton says. "Derrick told me after the East Carolina game that he knew he was sick. He told me he knew the lab work wasn't going to be good so he didn't keep his appointment."

Asked why he'd played Nix in the East Carolina game after Nix had skipped his doctor's appointment, Bower says, "I wasn't aware of that. We look to the doctors to tell us whether players can play. They never told me that he could not play."

Nix's father decided it was time for his son to see a specialist. This time the news was worse. Nix needed a transplant. In hours he was undergoing dialysis.

Facing the future

The transplant surgery will cost about $150,000, and Nix faces thousands in continuing medical costs.

What won't be covered by his father's medical insurance or by Southern Mississippi's insurance may be covered by the Derrick Nix Fund. It was established in January after the school's athletic department began receiving donations from fans across the country; the fund has $100,000 in it, according to Giannini.

Nix is also banking on the lawsuit.

"I hope to get a part of what I could've done, a part of what I could've been, a part of where I could've been at," Nix says. "It still won't replace my kidney or my being in the NFL, which is something I deserve."

He says he has no regrets. "I was doing something I liked. I can live with myself."

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