Too many football players are lost too soon.
Content warning for today’s post: Contains disscussions of mental illness and suicide
Louis Nix III inspired a lot of my current interests. He committed to a Notre Dame football team with no coach on December 1, 2009.
Three years later, he anchored a defensive line that led to an undefeated regular season and Notre Dame’s first national championship appearance in the 21st century.
Going by the handle @1irishchocolate, Nix joined Twitter the same month he committed to Notre Dame. In 2021, a college athlete with a vibrant Twitter presence is hardly noteworthy, but this was decidedly not the case 10 years ago.
In an era before Twitter gained widespread acceptance, when fans still expected college athletes to operate quietly as an extension of their coach and school, Nix stood out in all the right ways.
Nix was a big person with a bigger personality, and his Twitter reflected this. As a young teenager obsessed with the idea of getting into Notre Dame and similarly enamoured with the idea of working in social media, his tweets were must-see content for me.
Flash forward six years, and I was running Notre Dame football’s social media on game days. A dream come true for 14 year old Ben. A dream that was inspired by athletes like Nix who were unafraid to show that, while they dazzled on Saturdays in the fall, they were also people who wanted to share their voice with the world.
By all accounts, Nix was as real in-person as he was on Twitter. He frequently volunteered on campus and in South Bend, even playing Santa for kids while the rest of the football team attended an early season upset of Kentucky in basketball in 2012. His profile picture remained the Autism Awareness ribbon, in honor of his younger brother Matthew, from the time he set foot on campus through his NFL career and beyond.
Louis Nix III was found dead this weekend. The details of his death are not yet public, but he was found in his car, submerged in a body of water near his apartment. Foul play is not suspected.
When I found out Nix had died, I was stunned. How could this jovial man who continued to interact with Fighting Irish faithful on Twitter be dead at just 29?
I was also reminded of George Atkinson III, another member of the legendary 2012 team, who passed away in December 2019.
Atkinson was the football opposite of Nix. An All-American kick returner, Atkinson also appeared as a sprinter for Notre Dame track and field in the off-season. Fighting Irish fans likely remember Atkinson for his freshman season, when he had kick return touchdowns against the hated Spartans of Michigan State and the Trojans of Southern Cal.
Like Nix, Atkinson was an inspiration to me for off the field reasons.
For my entire life, I have struggled with my mental health. I have always taken solace in sports, both as exercise and entertainment. In the last few years, athletes across all sports and levels of play have opened up about their struggles with illnesses like depression and anxiety, serving as excellent role models for kids everywhere who dream of being college or professional stars but feel weighed down by their own mental illnesses.
In October 2019, Atkinson released an open letter about his experiences with mental illness.
In his letter, George was brutally honest about how hard his life had been as a result of mental illness. His mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and drug addiction, putting the twins in situations no young children should ever experience. His twin brother Josh, who committed to Notre Dame with George and also played on the 2012 team, committed suicide after the twins lost their mother to Crohn’s disease in 2018.
After Josh’s death, George was committed involuntarily to a mental institution after he made an attempt on his own life. He struggled to find motivation to live.
George closes the letter by talking about how his daughter, then two years old, became his“why” to live. He was also honest about seeking help from a mental health professional.
Reading these words (and I fully believe everyone should stop and go read his letter) had a momentous impact on me.
At the time the letter was released, I was struggling mightily. It was hard enough to get out of bed in the morning, let alone apply for jobs for after my rapidly approaching graduation. To read such inspiring words from not just another athlete, but a star I grew up cheering for every Saturday on NBC, provided me with the boost I needed to attack the second half of my senior fall semester.
When I read that Atkinson had died in December of 2019, I was shaken. The cause of death has not been released. As with Nix, out of respect for him and his family, I do not want to speculate as to how Atkinson died, but I hope he found peace and realized how much he helped other people who were struggling with depression.
There are, sadly, more former Notre Dame stars who died far younger than is right or just.
In 2016, Greg Bryant was shot and killed in West Palm Beach. The five-star recruit was cited by many members of the 2018 and 2020 playoff teams as the guy who convinced them they too could find success at Notre Dame.
While Bryant transferred out of the program in 2015, he left an indelible mark on the Fighting Irish and coach Brian Kelly. Coach Kelly continues to reserve Bryant’s #1 jersey for the player who “exemplifies himself both on and off the field in a manner that represents all the things we want a Notre Dame football player to represent.” The #1 rotates weekly throughout the course of the season and earning it is considered a huge honor by current and former players.
In 1999, San Diego police shot and killed former Notre Dame defensive star Demtrius DuBose while responding to a report of a robbery. DuBose was shot 12 times, including five shots to the back. Protests, not unlike those of the summer of 2020, erupted in San Diego.
Despite witnesses involved informing the responding officers that the misunderstanding had been cleared up when they arrived, the cops on scene grilled Dubose about his arrest record, handcuffed him, and sprayed him with Mace. DuBose then fled and was shot and killed.
The District Attorney, federal Justice Department, and Federal Bureau of Investigation cleared the San Diego police of wrongdoing. San Diego’s Citizens’ Review Board noted that the officers did not exercise “sufficient discretion” but were “within department policy” when they killed DuBose. A film about DuBose’s death is being produced by a former Notre Dame teammate and is expected to be released in 2021.
DuBose, Bryant, Atkinson, and Nix all died before the age of 30. This is far too young for anyone to die. Their early deaths are particularly jarring when considering all four were fewer than 10 years removed from their time on the field as members of the Fighting Irish.
Atkinson and Nix were inspirations to me personally. It is not a stretch to say that, without their influences, I would not be where I am today. I hope other people struggling with mental illness can take some comfort in Atkinson’s beautiful letter. I hope that Nix’s family can find peace in the aftermath of their sudden loss. And I hope we don’t lose anymore Notre Dame football players for a long, long time.