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To know Drew Hixon is to love him

Published September 17, 2004

TAMPA - He is the toddler you see in the family photographs, the young son with a toy mower trailing behind as his father mows the lawn.

He is the teenager you see in the greeting card section of the department store, the one studying every card to make certain he gets the right one for his mother.

He is the young man with the 1,000-watt smile, the one with the playfulness behind it, the one that makes you like him right away.

He is popular and smart, honest but mischievous, quiet yet funny in a sneaky sort of way. He loves football, family and a soft-spoken Kennesaw State senior named Terramani Collier.

He is Drew Hixon, and really, you should get to know him.

After all, you have spent much of the last week praying for him.

Six days ago, Hixon was a stranger, another player for another opponent in another game. That was before Hixon, a wide receiver from Tennessee Tech, cut across the middle of the field and caught a football, a simple act he had done thousands of times. That was before the hit, the clean but fierce collision with two defensive backs from the University of South Florida, that left him crumpled on the field.

Since then, Hixon has lain in a silent, sterile room in the intensive care unit on the second floor of St. Joseph's Hospital. He remains in the coma caused by the hit, then medically maintained so he would remain calm as he healed. His condition has not changed. He remains critical.

He is a part of us now. With every day that passes, with every hour that his eyes do not open, we share more of his family's hopes, more of his doctor's fears. We have become part of each other's history and, perhaps, part of each other's future.

Who, then, is Drew Hixon?

He is a fighter, his father says.

He is a son and a student, a brother and boyfriend, a teammate and playmaker. He was named in honor of Drew Pearson and Andrew Young. As a baby, his mother remembers, he was "a little lazy" when it came time to nurse. When he was 8, he suggested his parents name his baby sister "Avis." They did.

Once, when he was in the seventh grade, he cut school to hang out at a friend's house. The school called his mother, Rebecca.

"I wanted to wring his neck," she remembers, laughing softly. "I remember rushing to the mall to look for him. I was so worried about him. That was one of the longest days."

Rebecca Hixon catches herself. All things considered, maybe that wasn't such a long day after all. Not compared with the days she has spent lately.

She was in the stands when Hixon caught the 19-yard pass and was hit by cornerback Javan Camon and safety Mike Jenkins. She did not see his helmet fly off. She did see the ball bounce loose.

"My initial thought was that it wasn't that serious," she said. "My concern grew pretty quickly when he didn't get up and the medical staff ran onto the field."

For most of their lives, the existence of the Hixon family has orbited around football. Stan Hixon was a wide receiver himself back in the day. One afternoon, he noticed a pretty coed walking across campus. He decided to introduce himself.

They married, and after graduation, the Hixons began the nomadic chase of an assistant coach. From Richmond to Wake Forest to South Carolina to Georgia Tech to LSU, Hixon spent a career sending receivers across the middle. Never was there an injury such as this one.

They are a strong family, the Hixons. They are more composed than most would be in their situation. They remain confident their son will awaken and return to his life.

They read Scripture to him. They sing and they pray and they talk to him about his medical condition. They joke about the cut the nurse left in his chin while shaving him, or the way his sisters are going to tickle his belly button.

They believe he hears them. They believe he responds. They take comfort in the fact he has moved both legs and both arms.

"At first, it's a feeling of grief and loss," Rebecca said. "At first, it's a shock. There is disbelief. Then there is a realization that this is real, that you aren't dreaming. Being strong, I guess, is the next stage."

His brain is bruised, to put it simply. Front and back. As Tim Holt, a physician at St. Joe's, explains, the brain is not a perfect fit in the skull. It can be thrust violently forward, and violently backward. It is possible for the trauma to cause death. After a couple of days, the fear changes, and doctors wonder, when the patient does come out of the coma, whether his mental acumen will be the same.

"We're encouraged," Stan Hixon said. "Drew is a very determined young man. He's 22, and he's in football shape. We feel confident he will pull out of this.

"It was a clean hit. It's a collision sport, a tough sport. We know, as players and coaches, you're one play away from getting hurt. But you never think it will happen to your son."

Who is Drew Hixon?

He is his father's son, says his mother.

One of the earliest photos of Drew is standing beside his father's film projector, as if he is going to help him break down an opponent. When his father coached at Georgia Tech, Hixon was the kid who raced onto the field to get the kicking tee, then raced off again. Later, Drew was in charge of the headset cord that kept his father in touch with the coaches upstairs. He was the teenager who badgered his father for an earring until, finally, Stan said he could get one when he turned 18. He got two. Stan still scowls when he tells the story.

There was the night in January when Stan Hixon was on top of the world. He was the associate coach at LSU, and the Tigers had just beaten Oklahoma to win the BCS title.

Later, when Drew congratulated him, Hixon could not help but needle his son.

"You could have been part of this," he said, laughing.

Oh, that had been the plan. Drew always wanted to play football for his father. When Stan was at Georgia Tech, he was going to be a Yellow Jacket. When he went to LSU, that was where Drew signed.

There were bigger receivers, though, and Drew didn't move up the depth chart. After two years, he decided to transfer. His father wanted him to stay.

"Drew was a competitor," said the Bucs' Michael Clayton, who played at LSU. "He wanted to go somewhere he could play."

Clayton left Bucs' practice Thursday and headed toward St. Joseph's to see Stan Hixon, his old position coach. Clayton remembers eating Thanksgiving and Easter dinners at the Hixon home.

"That family is so strong," Clayton said. "I remember all the moral lessons I learned, all the one-on-one conversations. Coach is strong, but you know he has to be hurting. That's his son, man."

At the time of the accident, Hixon was in Washington getting ready for a game of his own. He is in his first season in the NFL as the receivers coach for the Redskins, who played the Bucs the next day.

Hixon boarded the plane the next morning still hoping the injury was not serious. "Maybe it's a concussion," he remembers thinking.

Instead, the doctors told him this, plainly, when he arrived at St. Joseph's.

"Your son is fighting for his life."

Who is Drew Hixon?

He's a survivor, said Ben Shannon, a baseball player at Tech who is one of Hixon's oldest friends.

He loves video games and driving his mother crazy with his choice of music, rap, and his volume, loud. He's the kid who, unhappy with the barbecue sauces he had tried, invented his own. He's the kid who, for some reason, snacks on dried pineapple.

Also, if you can spare a prayer, he's worth remembering.

"Don't stop," Rebecca Hixon says. "Please don't stop."

[Last modified September 17, 2004, 02:35:25]

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