Hixon takes a winding path to NFL success

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

New York Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon has made peace with the fact that one painful moment in his career will follow him forever. No matter how much he continues to blossom as a starting receiver for the reigning world champs, the afternoon of Sept. 9, 2007, will be etched in his memory.

After a remarkable senior season at Akron in 2005, Hixon was devastated when he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. He flew to Phoenix to enroll in a performance academy, and then ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash and recorded a vertical of 39.5 inches on pro day. Hixon felt something pinch in his left foot before he ran, but waited a couple of weeks to get it checked out. Turns out it was a broken foot, which didn't do wonders for his draft status, although a 4.34 with a broken foot seems impressive enough.

The Denver Broncos took Hixon in the fourth round and ended up putting him on the non-football injury list (didn't happen on their watch) for the 2006 season. Hixon won the kickoff return job coming out of training camp in 2007 and that's why he found himself racing up the field with the ball on Sept. 9. He remembers the collision that left Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett motionless on the ground for what seemed like hours.

"It was a hard hit," the 24-year-old Hixon told me Thursday. "I got up real slow and my shoulder felt like it was on fire."

He retreated to the sideline, where his best friend on the team, Brian Clark, kept asking him if he was OK. Meanwhile, Everett was fighting for his life. We later learned that doctors on the scene used heroic measures so that Everett would have the opportunity to walk again. At that point, though, there was a real possibility that Everett would be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Hixon's parents were in the stadium that day. Son looked at his father and told him that he'd heard Everett wasn't moving. When Hixon returned home that night, he turned on the TV and saw a replay of the collision. He promised himself that he'd never watch it again. And though his friends kept telling him it wasn't his fault, Hixon still had pangs of guilt.

"I prayed every day for him," Hixon said. "You don't want to be part of something negative like that. People were really supportive, but things didn't feel right."

The fearless player suddenly lost his stomach for contact. A few games later, he was racing toward an opening during a kickoff return when he spotted a defender bearing down on him.

"I turned the hit down," said Hixon. "And then I coughed up the ball. For a second, I thought the guy just made a nice play. But when I looked back at it, I said, 'That's not me!'"

Unfortunately, fourth-round picks from Akron aren't afforded time off for mental healing. Hixon and Clark were out looking at motorcycles when Broncos coach Mike Shanahan summoned Hixon to his office to release him. Hixon wondered if his career was over, but a day later, the Giants claimed him off waivers.

"My agent called to tell me, so I immediately pulled up a Giants roster," said Hixon. "I saw Plaxico [Burress], Amani [Toomer], Steve [Smith] and Sinorice [Moss] and I said, 'Why in the world do they want me?' I decided right then to give it everything I had."

Hixon immediately joined the Giants' coverage units, and when Ahmad Bradshaw was injured, he took over his return duties in the regular-season finale against the Patriots. Hixon returned a kick 74 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, which helped the Giants nearly pull off the upset against undefeated New England.

"One reporter told me that as Kevin kept getting better, he felt like I was getting better," said Hixon. "My dad kept updating me on [Everett's] progress, and hearing those positive reports seemed to make playing football a little easier."

Hixon had told members of the Giants' public relations staff that he wanted to visit with Everett, but he wanted the conversation to happen on Everett's terms. After the Giants clinched a playoff berth on the road against the Bills, Everett invited Hixon to visit the owner's suite where he'd been watching the game. Hixon said he was nervous as he walked through the stadium to see Everett. He wasn't sure what to say.

"We just had a casual conversation," Hixon said. "I'd heard from some of his teammates at [the University of] Miami that he was a great guy. I just kept thanking him for taking the time to see me, and we've continued to stay in touch."

Hixon showed up in Albany, N.Y., for the 2008 training camp with a new mindset. He wanted to prove that he was more than a return man, and Plaxico Burress' absence due to injury opened the door for a lot more repetitions. Hixon said he tried to "get a couple of wins" each day against top cornerbacks such as Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and Sam Madison. Fortunately, quarterback Eli Manning saw potential in Hixon from Day 1. Hixon remembers catching an in-route from Manning in his first practice with the team.

"He's sitting there coaching me up," said Hixon, "and I'm looking at him thinking, 'I'm the last guy you're going to throw to.'"

Turns out Manning was onto something. When Burress was suspended for a game against Seattle on Oct. 5, Hixon replaced him and had four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game at halftime with a concussion. He replaced Burress for good following Burress' infamous shooting incident, which led to his suspension by the Giants and placement on the non-football injury list. Hixon said that Burress was one of the first players to greet him in the training room following a 23-7 win over the Redskins on Nov. 30. Burress gave Hixon a list of things to work on. That was probably the last time Burress will ever be in the Giants' locker room.

What looked like a seamless transition, though, hit a snag a week later against the Eagles. Hixon dropped a sure touchdown on a perfectly thrown deep ball from Manning, and the Giants went on to lose a home game. Even though he's bounced back in recent weeks, Hixon knows that the dropped pass is still a popular topic.

"I completely took my eyes off the ball," he said of the drop. "It wasn't about putting too much pressure on myself, though. It was just me dropping the ball."

Hixon said veteran Amani Toomer was one of the first players to offer encouragement. He advised the young receiver to "see what you did wrong, but don't let it snowball."

Former linebacker Harry Carson saw Hixon at an event a few nights later and told him about a time in the Super Bowl when he allowed a touchdown. Running back Derrick Ward wasn't quite as sensitive. During a dinner, he repeatedly said, "Catch the ball, Hixon!"

Hixon's still trying to adjust to not being able to sneak up on teams. He used to come in for one play every other series or so and go deep. Now, he's lost the element of surprise. He thinks his time in Denver going against Champ Bailey and his daily sessions with Corey Webster and Aaron Ross have been invaluable. Hixon recognizes that he's involved in a pretty stressful audition right now.

"Absolutely it's an audition," he said. "You're putting your résumé together."

Something tells me that Hixon could find room on that résumé for "starting wide receiver in a Super Bowl."