Tre Nixon scored two touchdowns in the UCF Knights’ victory over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Sept. 19. But Nixon’s most indelible memory from that day may have been his ride to a hospital before the game’s end.
Through nearly the first full half of his senior season. Nixon looked like one of the best players inside Bobby Dodd Stadium. He ran a perfect post route on a 49-yard catch during UCF’s opening drive. Three plays later, he scored the Knights’ first touchdown of 2020 on a slant route where he took a hard hit from a Georgia Tech defender but, unfazed, held on to the ball. He added a 14-yard catch in the second quarter, cutting off his route and creating nearly 10 yards of separation from a cornerback who was paying a lot of respect to No. 16 and his blazing speed.
In a time when the question of which player would step up most to fill Gabriel Davis’ shoes remained open. Nixon was making a statement. This was his time.
Then came his second touchdown of the day.
Georgia Tech foolishly left Nixon in one-on-one coverage against a cornerback playing press coverage. He easily tore past his defender, and quarterback Dillon Gabriel delivered an over-the-shoulder dime which Nixon pulled in for a 21-yard score. But as Nixon was tackled to the ground, he landed hard on his left shoulder. There was no celebration. Nixon stayed on all fours and bowed his head against the turf in the back of the end zone.
“I went down and I felt a sharp pain in my chest area,” Nixon recalled Thursday in his first media availability of the season. “Initially, I thought I just got the wind knocked out of me. I remember telling Ms. Mary [UCF Football’s head trainer Mary Vander Heiden], ‘I think I’m good, I’m good.’ when I got up and walked.
“As soon as I took two steps, I just knew something wasn’t right.”
The fall had dislocated Nixon’s collarbone. He was in the back of an ambulance before long with assistant athletic trainer Edmeston Woodley. It was a trip with layers of emotional and physical anguish.
Nixon admitted: “I’ll be honest, I was in a dark spot because I was really thinking, ‘Why me?’ Why this kind of timing, coming into my senior season?’”
Yet that ambulance ride was also when Nixon began to think about his return to the field. As his tears began to subside, he asked Woodley two critical questions: How long does it take to come back from a dislocated collarbone, and how much time remains until the Cincinnati Bearcats, the 2019 AAC East Division champions, come to Orlando to play UCF? Eight weeks was the response to both.
“I just think my mindset from that point on — I said, ‘I’m coming back for Cincinnati.’”
Nixon attacked his rehabilitation as if it was that cornerback playing press. No matter if it was what he needed to eat, when he needed to sleep, what he needed to accomplish each day in rehab, Nixon’s focus on getting himself physically right never wavered.
The time away also helped sharpen his football intellect, too. Nixon said watching the games on TV instead of from the field gave him an expanded perspective of what unfolds on every play. He was able to really dig into how defenses set up against the Knights and what players such as wideouts Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson do on each snap.
“I really got kind of a spectator view of how the games go,” Nixon said. “I was on my couch every game, screaming and shouting like I was a fan in the stadium for my teammates.”
What he saw from his teammates during this time revved his determination as well.
“Every game that I saw — seeing Marlon ball out, seeing Flash (Robinson) ball out — it kind of motivated me just to work my butt off and rehab to just get back out there and do the same things that they’re doing.”
Nixon could not and did not travel this road all of this by himself. He received a lot of support from friends, family and UCF players. One bond that proved especially crucial would have seemed rather unlikely just a year prior.
Nixon said Thursday that he spoke “maybe two or three words” to redshirt senior Alex Harris throughout the entire 2019 season. Harris is a wide receiver, but most of his playing time comes on special teams. However, the two men were paired up as roommates for the 2020 season, which proved to be emotionally beneficial for both.
Harris suffered a torn ACL during the offseason. His rehab was in full swing by the time Nixon’s collarbone dislocated. With each man beset by a debilitating injury, they leaned on one another as they worked to repair their bodies.
“Me and Alex both lifted each other up,” Nixon said. “He couldn’t use his legs; I couldn’t use my upper body. So, we were helping each other day in and day out. ... I’ve gotten so close with him. I love the guy now.
“I feel like that just goes to show that God puts people in your life for a reason.”
Nixon gives a lot of credit to the power of his faith for pulling him through this. But his rehab also crystalized for him the power inside one’s own mind. He was adamant in that ambulance that he would be ready to face the Bearcats on Nov. 21. When the Knights’ offense took the field for the first snap against Cincinnati, there was Nixon, active for the first time since the Georgia Tech game, lined up wide to the right of Gabriel.
“I found out about myself how mentally strong I really can be because I was in a dark place and I just told myself ‘I’m coming back for Cincinnati.’ And I made that firm. Day in and day out, that’s the only game I was looking at — Cincinnati, Cincinnati. Ultimately, I came back and I was able to play in that game.”
Nixon caught five passes for 24 yards in a loss to the Bearcats. The following week, he caught five more passes for 94 yards in a victory over South Florida.
“It’s great having Tre back,” Gabriel said last month. “Love the guy. Think the world of him and know that he can make a bunch of plays.”
Nixon admits he didn’t truly feel like himself against the Bearcats. He needed these past two games to get back into football shape. Now, as the Knights prepare for the BYU Cougars in Tuesday’s Boca Raton Bowl, Nixon is “really getting back to how I felt mentally and physically” at the start of the Georgia Tech game.
“The biggest thing I want to do against BYU is go out there and prove to myself that I’ve still got it. I can still play at a high level and compete.”
The thought of returning to UCF in 2021 and taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA has afforded all athletes has “absolutely” crossed Nixon’s mind. But at this moment, that’s not his main focus; the Cougars are. Once this trying season has finally concluded, he says he will get together with those closest to him and make a decision regarding his future.
This senior campaign obviously did not unfold the way Nixon desired. It hurt him deeply in multiple ways back on Sept. 19. But in the end, this experience strengthened his love for football. It taught him to take nothing he loves for granted. It taught him the strength of his will. It forged at least one deep friendship. And ultimately, Nixon is back where he wants to be.
“I feel like everything worked out how it was supposed to, and I feel like God has a plan for everybody,” Nixon said. “That was just the route that I ended up taking. It’s just a blessing just to be back out there with my teammates, practicing again and ultimately playing again.”