Brian Kelly’s memories of former Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix, a program changer on and off the field

Louis Nix Brian Kelly
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune-Imagn Content Services, LLC
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Louis Nix did not go to Notre Dame because of the coach. The Irish did not even have a head coach when he committed in December of 2009, less than two months before he would sign his National Letter of Intent.

After Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly, he quickly flew to Florida to meet his future defensive tackle. Nix made it clear to Kelly why he wanted to move to South Bend.

“He did not disappoint, big fella, big personality, big smile,” Kelly said Monday when reflecting on the first time he met Nix, who was found dead over the weekend at the age of 29. “At that time, (he) just relayed to me why he was coming to Notre Dame. He wanted to do something nobody else ever thought he would do, and that was, leave Jacksonville, leave the city and graduate from Notre Dame.”

Nix was a highly-sought recruit — as Tony Alford said to Kelly right after he was hired, “We have to go see this man named Louis Nix III. We do not have any time and we have to get there immediately because he’s probably one of the best players you’re ever going to sign here.” Nix could have gone anywhere. His thought process behind leaving Florida for a challenge at Notre Dame stuck with him, though.

Entering his senior year, the 2013 season, Nix avoided any media obligations throughout training camp and for the first few weeks of the season. The outgoing crowd-pleaser was not trying to avoid the media. Rather, he needed to make sure his ducks were in a row so he could graduate in 3.5 years.

“Just get my mind right,” Nix said that September. “A lot of stuff, home, school, trying to get out of here by December, have my credits, just getting my work in order and stuff like that.”

Then, of course, as always, Nix needed to get his laugh.

“It wasn’t — I miss you guys (the media). It wasn’t anything against you guys, just getting a lot of stuff off the field in order.”

To paint with a broad brush, that kind of focus would not have been expected of a Nix in previous eras. A recruiting profile develops when seeking players who can handle fitting in on a cold campus in a relatively small town on a rather homogeneous campus with considerable academic expectations. That profile unfairly excludes players from public high schools not necessarily offering all the academic requirements Notre Dame seeks, from diverse programs that made Black players feel more welcome, from warmer climates not familiar with the concept of a permacloud. An 18- to 22-year-old can usually handle only so many drastic changes before they begin to affect the tasks at hand.

Not for Nix, and Kelly made note of that.

“Louis began to unravel that myth that you needed to go to a profile school,” Kelly said. “No, you didn’t. What you needed was the want and the desire not only to prove you were capable but that you wanted something more and he did. He came here with the expressed purpose of wanting something more, wanting a degree from Notre Dame and wanting to prove to a lot of people that somebody could come out of a non-profile school or just the inner-city public school and he made that statement. … Louis began to open that pathway for many of the student-athletes.”

No two backgrounds are identical, so any list of such players following in Nix’s footsteps would be both imprecise and incomplete, but a name that comes to mind as someone else Kelly often described as not the usual profile would be Chase Claypool, a Canadian’s familiarity with the cold notwithstanding. Though not from a historical Black high school as Nix was, Dexter Williams also came from a Florida public school.

Those comparisons are far from exact, but regardless, Nix proved to Kelly early on that the traditional and expected Notre Dame profile was unnecessarily limiting. He may have been a unique individual in every other manner conceivable, but exceeding that expectation was something others could and would do, as well.

“We can look back on his time here and know that there was a spirit, there was an energy, and there was a vibrant young man that passed through these hallways here,” Kelly said. “That’s what we choose to remember.”

When Nix would return after graduation, including the 2014 season opener, his defining characteristic remained unchanged in Kelly’s interactions. Lou’s “other-centeredness” had been clear since he arrived on campus in 2010 and brought joy to hardened veterans.

“I knew he was special when it was easy for him to cut up Michael Floyd, joke with Michael Floyd,” Kelly said. “… As a young guy coming in, [Nix] cut a lot of the tension in the program. When I got on board, there was a big weight on Notre Dame’s shoulders relative to winning. Louis took a lot off of the shoulders of a lot of the players.

“You have to understand, in a very short period of time this program went undefeated, and Louis’ personality, plus some really good football players, had a lot to do with it. The way he interacted with people, in particular older players like Michael, had a lot to do with transforming the program early on.”

Nix’s impact on Notre Dame football was clear on the field early on, including when he didn’t play as a freshman as he lessened the psychological load of many others. Nix’s only want on the field was to win. When in All-American conversations later in his career, he insisted, “I just do my job. If that helps us win, then I’m all for it.”

His impact off the field took longer to be clear, but Nix set a precedent for what the “out-of-profile” could accomplish when given the chance.