The Lou I knew: Notre Dame and the world lost joy and laughter with Louis Nix’s death

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I do not often spend time in this space reminiscing about my college days; rarely do I even reference that I went to Notre Dame. That is not an attempt to “remain professional” or “appear unbiased.” I have been clear my Irish fandom ended in the Notre Dame Stadium concourse during the second lightning delay of the 2011 South Florida sitcom. Rather, the personal moments of my college experience are so rarely applicable to the Irish in the 2020s, but after the tragic death of Louis Nix III this week, I cannot keep my personal reflections to myself.

I knew Lou a bit, and not just as a student-journalist. My junior and senior years overlapped with his freshman and sophomore years, living only doors apart in Alumni Hall those two years. My memory says our rooms were quite literally 20 feet apart in 2011-12.

We never buddied up, partly because of the natural differences between a senior and a sophomore and partly out of my intentions to not put a young student-athlete in a bad position of navigating a friendship with a reporter. He knew he was free to act as he wished in the dorm, and I would do so as well, both just being college students, not a football player and a reporter. He absolutely saw me in more “college” moments than vice versa.

That mutual respect is how I got to see Lou spend many Friday nights playing video games because he enjoyed his roommates, how I comically pinned myself against a hallway wall so Lou and Stephon Tuitt could walk by me shoulder-to-shoulder, how I got to know Lou the person a bit.

He enjoyed those roommates because it was a change for him. Lou did not go into his upbringing much, but the shift from the rougher parts of Jacksonville to northwestern Indiana was a significant concern for many in his recruitment. Yet he knew he wanted to move away from Jacksonville, not flinching when Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis, committing before Brian Kelly was even hired. Nix wanted to go to Notre Dame just as much as he wanted to spend time with the guys in the dorm, a change from every other hangout he had known.

He spent so much time with Tuitt because he wanted to see another Florida guy make it. Already by his sophomore year, Lou was taking on a quiet leadership role like that, endearing himself to so many whenever he had the chance.

That was who Lou was, fully committing to everything. He could not comprehend doing anything less than entirely.

When Kelly privately criticized Nix’s weight during his freshman season, Lou owned it and committed to becoming a force. He proved himself to such an extent that Kelly had no choice but to lean into Lou’s persistent exuberance heading into his senior year, not only giving him the absurdity of the No. 1 jersey on his wide torso, but also letting Lou take a snap at quarterback in his final spring practice.

When Lou wanted to laugh, he found reason to. That happiness led to so many of you knowing him as “Irish Chocolate,” but the lie of that alternate persona was that it was not an alternate at all.

Lou did not go trick-or-treating or to a prototypical college party on Halloween. He donned a mask, grabbed a rubber knife prop and went to the dorm next door to scare the living daylights out of the unsuspecting. He hid in bathroom stalls until he heard someone washing their hands, and he stood behind them, loomed over them in the mirror until they noticed.

When that dorm staff chased him back to the friendly confines of Alumni Hall, we learned of his treachery as a dormmate’s screams echoed through the building, accompanied by Lou’s laughter. His trick worked only once among those who knew that 6-foot-3 house was obviously Lou. The neighboring dorm asked Alumni Hall staff to discipline Lou, a request met with only understanding smirks. If you knew Lou, you loved him for his mischief, even when it toed across the line.

When I broke my nose my senior year, rather than cover my dorm room carpet as I tried to stanch the bleeding, I held a shirt to my nose and stumbled to the handicap stall in the bathroom. The expected blood flow combined with my attempts to blow my nose clear led to a pretty ugly scene across those tiles. Walking by, without hesitation, Lou asked me, “Who’d you kill?” with his smile spreading wide. If I had responded with more than a smile through blood and tears, he was undoubtedly ready to ask where I wanted to bury the body.

Two years later, as a defensive leader in his senior season, Lou would gladly sidetrack interview sessions with TV conversations. I believe it was Pete Sampson who (understandably) asked Lou for an update on how far he was into “Breaking Bad,” and when Lou said he was into season four and really enjoying the character of Gustavo Fring, Pete responded something to the extent of, “Ohhhhh–,” at which point Lou cut him off lest Pete slip into a spoiler.

Lou fully committed to everything — bettering himself on and off the field, hijinx, television binges — that would elicit some joy in him or others, almost always both.

I last spent time with Lou at a South Bend bar in the spring of 2014. Not intentionally, we just happened to be at the same establishment and he sidled up next to me to place a drink order. I vaguely asked him about his knee, the one with a torn meniscus that had needed surgery and thus cut short his senior season. He gave a non-answer. Perhaps I should have known then that his full commitment to the 2013 season had already adversely affected his professional career, eventually needing two more knee surgeries by the end of the September of his rookie season.

Instead, I kept the conversation moving and learned Lou had spent that afternoon signing memorabilia for his agent to sell. A common pre-draft moment — part of an agent fronting a client money so he can focus on working out and improving his draft stock instead of on that month’s rent — Lou expressed great relief.

“It’s just great. I know how I’m paying for this drink.”

Lou had never been able to sit down socially with his friends and know that night would not lead to financial stress. He was thoroughly and genuinely relieved. What he had worked for had come to be reality, even if so much still hung in the balance in the future.

That is how I knew Lou, and how I will remember Lou. “Who’d you kill?” has brought me a few chuckles even this week as we worried about his well-being. It is not the first time Lou made me smile through my tears.