Cherie Poll had settled into her aisle seat on a return flight to Pensacola when she saw two large men coming towards her.
“Excuse me ma’am, we have the two inside seats.”
Poll, the director of Student Services for Pensacola State College’s Adult Education program, moved aside and let the men take their seats. The flight was uneventful until Poll politely offered the men her pretzels (they declined) and struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to her. The man, as it turned out, was New York Giant’s wide receiver and return specialist Domenik Hixon, who was headed to Florida to rehab an injury at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze. Poll and Hixon were suddenly on common ground. Poll had recently recovered from shattering her wrist and months of physical therapy.
“Aw, P.T. (physical therapy). In the locker room, we say it means pain and torture,” Hixon joked. As they continued talking, he went on to share the story of his journey to the NFL.
As the flight neared landing, Poll asked Hixon if he would share his inspirational story with Pensacola State’s Collegiate High and GED students.
On July 17, at the Hagler Auditorium on the Pensacola campus, Hixon did just that, speaking to more than 200 students about tenacity, determination and the importance of a good education.
“I’m going to keep this real today, guys,” Hixon began. “I hope by telling you about my experience today, you’ll understand that you have to work for what you want in life, but that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
Hixon was in the second grade when he decided he was going to play professional football. He revealed that though he now stands 6’3” and weighs 197 pounds, as a child, he was the smallest kid in his class.
“My family lived in Germany at the time and I was attending a military elementary school,” Hixon said. “I had a teacher, Ms. Thornburg, who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a pro athlete and she said, ‘You can’t be. You’re too small. You should think of something else.”
Hixon was dejected and shared the story with his parents. He says it was his father who set him straight.
“My dad said, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you. In the end, it’s how much work you put in.’,” Hixon said. “After that, I have to say, I was motivated by anger.”
At age 11, still determined to play in the pros, he moved to Columbus, Ohio and tried out for the 8th grade squad. He made the team, but didn’t play.
“My dad said, ‘Don’t give up. Practice and you’ll get better,” Hixon remembered.
The next year, coaches assigned the freshman Hixon to play safety. Quick on his feet, he excelled in the position and was looking forward to playing his sophomore year. But then his grades came in – all Ds – and his parents quickly put their foot down.
“I was told that if I didn’t apply myself in school, I wasn’t going to play football,” he said.
Hixon buckled down in his junior and senior years, maintained his grades and upped his performance on the field. After three years at the University of Akron, where he caught a Hail Mary pass for a game winning touchdown that secured the school’s first Mid-American Conference championship, Hixon entered the NFL Draft.
In 2006, he was selected by Denver in the fourth round. His dream had come to fruition; he was a pro athlete, but the joy was to be short-lived.
“In training camp, I sprinted off to run a corner route and I just felt something pop,” he said. “After x-rays, the doctor told me my foot was broken.”
Hixon had surgery and had to sit out his entire rookie year. In 2007, he played for the Broncos, but an incident in game one of the season nearly derailed his professional career.
In a game against Buffalo, Bills tight end Kevin Everett attempted to tackle Hixon and suffered a life-threatening fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine.
“It was a hard hit. When the play was over, I got up, but Kevin didn’t,” Hixon said. “He couldn’t move. I watched them take him away in an ambulance. It played on my mind.”
Hixon related that while he hadn’t suffered physically, he had definitely suffered a trauma.
“Mentally, I was just out of it. I had nightmares,” he said. “I was just crushed.”
His play on the field suffered as a result and the Broncos released him after just four games.
“At that point, I wanted to quit, but my family supported and encouraged me to go on,” Hixon said.
The New York Giants quickly picked him up off waivers.
While the initial diagnosis for Everett had been dire, he soon began to make progress.
“We had a meeting and Kevin was nothing but positive. It was such an inspiration,” Hixon said.
As Everett’s physical condition improved, so did Hixon’s mental state. His first game was at Buffalo where Everett’s injury had occurred.
“That was hard, but I was slowly coming back,” Hixon recalls.
By the end of the season, he was highlight reel-ready. His breakout moment came against the undefeated New England Patriots in the Giant’s regular season finale, when he returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown. Though they eventually lost the game, the Giants secured a playoff spot. Before the playoffs began for Hixon however, he was given another challenge by the still-improving Everett.
“Kevin called and said, ‘Hey, come do Oprah with me’,” he said. “I was more nervous meeting her than anything I did on the field.”
In the post-season, he averaged 25.3 yards in 10 returns, helping the Giants go on to Super Bowl XLII. At a frigid Lambeau Field, Hixon recovered a fumble late in the fourth quarter that helped propel to the Giants to victory over the Patriots, 17-14.
“I found out that season that you can turn any negative into a positive and use it to motivate yourself,” he said.
Unfortunately, in 2010, disaster struck again for Hicks. During the Giants mini-camp at their new stadium, Hixon caught his foot in the new, soft turf and tore his right ACL. He was out for the season before it had even begun. Hixon returned in 2011, but in game two of the season, after making a spectacular touchdown catch against the St. Louis Rams, he once again tore his right ACL and was once again, out for the season.
“It has been tough these past two years,” Hixon said. “I’m making another comeback, but I am ready. I feel I am at 100 percent now.”
Hixon ended his talk by letting students know that though he has been successful in overcoming obstacles in his life and reaching goals in his career, education has never left his mind.
“I left school at Akron before I finished my degree to play football,” he said. “When I finish playing football, I’m going back to finish what I started there. That’s a promise I made to myself and to my mom.”