A New Game Plan

By Eli Saslow
Sunday, October 29, 2006

DREW HIXON SOMETIMES STOOD IN FRONT OF HIS MIRROR in the morning and pretended to get dressed for a different job, the kind he'd expected to have after graduating from college. He imagined himself as an up-and-coming businessman, and that it was important to look nice. Everything he wore needed to coordinate, even his sunglasses. Drew removed his earrings and trimmed his thin mustache, lingering in front of the mirror until he looked completely professional. Then he went to work and took orders from teenagers.

Doctors called it miraculous that Drew, then 23, held any job. But every time he walked into the Nike store where he worked, he thought: Failure, plain and simple . Not long ago, Drew had played college football, and Nike had provided him with its best merchandise for free. Not long ago, he'd interned for the Washington Redskins, where his father, Stan, is the wide receivers coach. Now he swiped shoes and shirts across a scanner at the Leesburg outlet mall.

Drew longed to tell everyone he met that he didn't belong at this store, that he had been on the verge of accomplishing great things before a crushing tackle in a Tennessee Tech football game knocked him first close to death, then back to infancy. He'd spent months recovering, but he still walked with a limp, slurred his speech and struggled to retrieve words from a brain so badly bruised that it once looked like a peach hurled against a brick wall. Drew worried people would think he was a dummy.

Then, this past March, a woman and her daughter walked into the Nike store looking for shoes. Drew forced a smile and helped them find their sizes. The woman asked Drew how he liked working for Nike, and Drew explained that the job was temporary. He'd just graduated from college with a degree in finance, and he wanted to get a job at a bank.

"This could be a great coincidence," said Jill Aydelotte, a vice president at Citibank. She told Drew that the company wanted to hire 100 personal bankers to staff new branches opening in the coming year.

Aydelotte gave Drew her business card and told him to e-mail her a résumé later in the week, but Drew wanted this opportunity too desperately to wait. He e-mailed his résumé that night. Then he stopped by Aydelotte's office the next day. Aydelotte liked his initiative, and she wanted to hire him. But there was one big catch, as Aydelotte discovered a few days later when she typed Drew's name into Google and found a news story about him. He was, she realized, 18 months removed from a traumatic brain injury.

To become certified as a personal banker, Drew would have to pass three timed, multiple-choice financial-knowledge tests in two months, a challenge only about half of Citibank's applicants survive. Aydelotte called Drew and asked if his brain had recovered enough for him to tackle these tests. He paused before answering.

It was a stretch, Drew admitted, but what was the worst thing that could happen? "I've been to hell and back," Drew told her. "I don't think I have much more to lose."

EVEN BEFORE HE STARTED ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, Drew Hixon had built his life around football. His daddy coached, and Drew made sure everybody knew it. As Stan Hixon moved up the college coaching ladder as an offensive assistant, Drew stood by his side. At 2, Drew dressed in yellow and posed for a football poster at Appalachian State University. At 9, Drew ran onto the field during games to pick up the kicking tee at the University of South Carolina. At 11, Drew held Stan's headset cord on the sideline at Wake Forest University and sometimes ended up on TV.

Stan loved bringing his only son to summer camps, practices and games. They were a team. "You knew he was getting so much enjoyment out of being there, and that's fun to watch," Stan says. "It was always great having him with me."

By the time Drew's mother, Rebecca, decided her son had grown big enough to join a team in the eighth grade, Drew had already learned that football, in his life, was more than a game. It shaped his relationship with his father, provided his family's sustenance and gave the Hixons their identity.

School mattered less, at least to Drew. His parents fretted constantly about their son's academic indifference. Drew's typical pattern infuriated them. He would slack off until the last month of a grading term, then pile on extra credit during the final few weeks to make a C. His laziness resulted in some of the family's biggest fights.

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