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For Iowa's Daviyon Nixon, football means more than an NFL career. It's family.
IOWA CITY — Six-year-old Daviyon Nixon couldn't tackle.
Rodney Nixon Sr. watched him play with his older brothers, Edward (Teddy) and Louis, at the park down the street from his house in North Chicago, Ill.
Daviyon didn't like football. He was just in it to spend energy. Because his older brothers were in it, he started young, at age 4, playing for the North Chicago Flames, not wanting to be tackled or run through drills. At 6, Daviyon was tall, even thin. He was certainly fast enough to catch them, but ready to give up on the day's efforts.
'Daviyon comes to me and he's crying, he's like, 'I can't tackle him, dad, I can't tackle him,'' Rodney Sr. said. 'And I grabbed him, I said, 'You can tackle them if you want to tackle them. You gotta want to do it.''
The next play, Daviyon runs out on the field and tackles his oldest brother, Teddy. He runs back to his dad, a grin illuminating his face. He had to tell mom, Chwanda.
'We're like, 'Daviyon made his first tackle,' and his older brothers are laughing,' Rodney said. 'They think it's funny. Daviyon was on top of the world.'
Daviyon wore that same wide smile at Iowa Pro Day on Monday. The now 22-year-old, 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive tackle was adding numbers to his name for the NFL Draft list: 4.9-second 40-yard dash and 4.7-second 20-yard shuffle. He's fresh off a junior season as a consensus All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. All that he's been through — playing at Iowa Western, transferring to Iowa, getting his grades up to compete — has led to this moment.
It's not picture-perfect. He's not running down the white tape at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis like he should be. But he doesn't need that.
'Being able to come here back to Iowa with all the people that I've trained with for the last three years, still screaming and hollering with your brothers, there's no better feeling than that,' Daviyon said. 'We're all just trying to get to the NFL. What's better than just sharing that moment with each other? I didn't miss out on not being at the combine. We had our own little combine here and it was it was just as fun.'
To Daviyon, football is synonymous with family. That's the way he was raised.
Football was Chwanda cooking eggs, bacon and sausage sandwiches with cheese for game days.
Football was shoveling snow and cutting grass with his brothers, Teddy and Louis, to make money for equipment.
Football was his sister, Katherine, playing with him in the front yard of Chwanda's home in Georgia when his parents divorced.
Football was where his niece, the daughter of his oldest sister by his dad, Tinisha, began cheerleading on the sidelines.
Football was grandma's house in North Chicago, where Daviyon's 12 siblings and extended family members gather for every holiday.
Football is North Chicago. It's Kenosha, Wis. It's Jonesboro, Ga. It's Zion, Ill.
It's an NFL roster.
Chwanda Nixon has a shirt that reads 'I birthed the monster.' This year, on her birthday, Daviyon picked off Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford in the flat, running 71 yards for a touchdown. It was the 14th-longest return for a score in school history.
'I wasn't able to be there, but it was the best birthday gift ever,' Chwanda said. 'Of course he called me right afterwards. It was fun watching him turn into a massive monster this season.'
Daviyon always has been a monster, she said, in the sense that he's good at sports and because whatever he sets his mind to, he does.
But she also instilled in him the idea that when it comes to family, they don't take care of each other — they help each other.
Chwanda has four kids with Rodney, who she was with from 1993 until 2010: Teddy, Louis, Katherine and Daviyon. That's four of Rodney's 13 children. At some point, Chwanda said she's helped raise every one of those children.
But in North Chicago, where Daviyon was born in 1998, she raised him as a single parent until she and Rodney married in 2005. She worked shifts at the day care Daviyon went to with his siblings and night shifts at Taco Bell. She later got a job at Abbott Laboratories in production, still maintaining shifts at Taco Bell until she earned an administrative role.
While Daviyon was a good kid with a big heart, she said, there were times she needed Rodney to take him for a few hours from day care. She was willing to raise the kids for a little while as a single parent, as long as he was around to help when it was needed.
'Daviyon was a challenge as a kid growing up, he was always into something fun,' Chwanda said. 'He talked a lot and he liked to play around. He didn't like school, so he was bored in class.'
Rodney was always around to take the kids when she needed to work at Taco Bell, but it took a while before they moved in together in 2003.
Teddy, Louis and Daviyon played for the North Chicago Flames in a youth football league during this time, and Katherine cheered.
The three boys had to pitch in to earn the money they needed to buy equipment and pay the league fees. They shoveled driveways in the winter, cut grass in the summer. Daviyon was the savviest in finding the odd jobs to help, like sweeping the barbershop for a free haircut and an extra $20.
'Our family relies on us making it work because we don't like relying on other people,' Teddy said. 'He did all the odd jobs in the world. Ask him to go hammer in a screw, he's going to hammer in the screw, even though you should screw it in, he'll try the hammer first because that's what you asked him to do.'
Teddy is two years older than Daviyon, while Louis is one year older. This meant they all played in different youth football divisions. The rest of Rodney's older children would play the rest of the day.
'We had a Nixon on every team,' Rodney said. 'These were very long, long Saturday and Sunday mornings for our family.'
Chwanda said she cleared aisles at Sam's Club making food for the day.
'They would have some type of a sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches when you go to McDonald's, and we'd make those,' Chwanda said. 'We didn't have money to go out and buy everything. So, for those little league teams, they had the concession stand, they had the hot dogs, they had the nachos and we couldn't afford it, so I would buy everything in bulk, then cook it and keep it warm.
'If they said, 'Hey mom, I want nachos' and I'd say 'I've got it right here in this bag.''
The weekend football in North Chicago continued for years, even after the family moved to Kenosha in 2009. But Rodney and Chwanda divorced. Rodney added Kevin, his youngest child, to the family, and Chwanda met Kacey Frierson, who she married and moved to Georgia with in 2012. Frierson was the first woman Chwanda had ever dated, and thought it would be best if she moved away to start her new life.
Daviyon went with her, along with his younger sister, Katherine. Teddy and Louis stayed behind to continue their athletic careers.
'It was weird to them,' Chwanda said. 'Daviyon was pretty much like 'mom, whatever makes you happy.''
It was a time Chwanda said Daviyon still needed to be nurtured, especially since she was the more academic parent, and had to make sure he stayed on track. But Daviyon also grew closer to Katherine. He had always had her back as both the youngest and only girl in the house growing up, but now they were playing football after school together on the front lawn and trying to transition to a new life with two moms and new siblings.
After two years, Daviyon moved back to Kenosha to be with his dad. Rodney Sr. said God spoke to him, saying he needed to call Chwanda to bring him home. Katherine also knew her brother would be happier with his brothers.
'He wanted to stay, it was really hard with the whole transition of moving 12 hours away,' Katherine said. 'I felt like it was a better option for him because he grew up with our dad and the boys around, and now it was majority girls.'
Back in Kenosha
Daviyon arrived in Kenosha as a 6-1, 258-pound eighth-grader. 'I was like, 'oh dude, you've got to go work out,'' Rodney Sr. said.
Louis had missed his brother, knowing how much Daviyon wanted to make a name for himself in football. But it was an uphill battle getting back in shape. Daviyon played in Zion, Ill., coached by his stepbrother Rodney Jr., Rodney Sr.'s oldest son, who played semipro football.
To this day, Rodney Sr. said it was what created the Daviyon everyone knows before he played in high school. He was nicknamed, 'the truck.'
Louis and Teddy kept Daviyon going. Louis' football career ended because he struggles with seizures, and he didn't want to add trauma to the brain. He stayed in shape by playing volleyball. But he made sure nothing stood in the way of Daviyon's career. Even asthma. He'd make sure Daviyon had his inhaler.
'I'd push him, but I try not to push so hard, and one day he was yelling at me like, 'Why you go so easy on me, like you'll never yell at me?'' Louis said. 'Ever since then, I started yelling at him, and I carried his asthma pump. He'd be like, 'I can't do it,' and I'll tell him, 'No, you can do all things.''
College and the next level
Grandmother Audrey Nixon is who kept every piece of family together.
Every holiday, Chicago Bears game or major event was spent at her house in North Chicago. Daviyon's college games still bring members of the family to the house, or down the street at Fatmans.
Even after Rodney Sr. and Chwanda divorced, she remained a mother-like figure to Chwanda. The family stays in touch through various groupchats with siblings and cousins.
'They always used to tell us, 'yeah they're our step siblings, but we don't use 'step' in this house,'' Katherine said. 'Everybody is your brother or your sister, that's how it is.'
It was when Audrey died that Louis said they realized it was on them to keep the family together.
'God does things for a reason,' Louis said. 'We knew she was going to leave, we just didn't know the time. There were things where we weren't communicating at the time, we weren't all in the same group chat, texting each other all the time like we do now. When sad moments come, at the end of the day, there's more happiness.'
But it also was the first time Teddy and Louis ever saw Daviyon cry.
'Watching Daviyon cry is what broke me down all the way,' Teddy said.
To this day, Louis said Daviyon talks to his grandma before he plays and that it helps him.
At Pro Day, Daviyon was asked what he appreciated most about his journey so far. He smiled and said that he thinks about this a lot.
'Everything that I've been through in my life, just to get to this day, I wouldn't be able to make it without my family,' Daviyon said.
Behind this large, fast and menacing presence — one of the top defensive tackles in the nation — is a man who relies on his family and looks to the people around as family.
And that wide, glistening smile, is that little boy who wanted to make his family proud when he first tackled Teddy all those years ago.
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