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For Keisean Nixon, mom’s breast-cancer fight — and her toughness — bring inspiration

JASON WILDE For the State Journal

GREEN BAY — Anyone wondering where Keisean Nixon gets his toughness and fearlessness needs only to meet his mother, Dwanique Spiller — like Nixon’s Green Bay Packers teammates did earlier this week.

Nixon, the team’s warp speed, daring return man, has been a game-changer since taking over return duties. He tilted the field in the Packers’ favor on Monday night’s 24-12 win over the Los Angeles Rams — to the tune of 148 yards of field-position advantage — with his mother in attendance.

“Before every kick return, I’d look up at her,” Nixon said of Dwanique’s press-box area seat seven stories above field level. “I knew exactly where she was.

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“So I had a little extra mojo.”

The game marked her first watching her son play as a Packers player because Dwanique, 53, has been battling breast cancer since April. Her absence has been particularly difficult for her son because she lives in Las Vegas and attended all of games last year while he was a member of the Raiders.

“She just finished chemo. She’s doing radiation now,” Nixon said as the Packers prepped for their Christmas Day matchup with the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. “Her hair’s growing back, she’s got one more radiation treatment and then we’ll see after that.

“It’s been hard. But she’s tough. She’s tough.”

As is her son. Being an NFL return man is not for the faint of heart, and Nixon has been so dynamic that none other than quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been stumping for him to get the credit — and opportunities — Rodgers believes he deserves.

In fact, the 39-year-old Rodgers said he saw something during the win over the Rams that he’d never seen happen during his Packers career.

“In all my 18 years,” Rodgers told reporters in the immediate aftermath of the win, “I’ve never once seen until tonight an opposing team’s kicker kick away from one of our returners. On purpose. That’s fun. That’s pretty incredible.”

Rodgers continued to heap praises on Nixon throughout the week — though he did stop short of endorsing Nixon’s request to play on offense — and went out of his way to single out the 25-year-old Nixon’s toughness.

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“He’s tough, and I don’t use that characteristic lightly,” Rodgers said. “There’s just not the same amount of mentally, physically tough guys in the league (as there used to be), and he’s one of them. He’s a guy I wish I could’ve played a decade with because you can win with guys like that — smart guys who are mentally and physically tough who play with an edge, play with an attitude.

“He’s a bulldog. He’s tough — all the time. He plays strong. We love having guys out there who compete like that, and he does it every single day. Every single day in practice, he’s competing like that.”

Added coach Matt LaFleur: “I love how Keisean plays, his mentality. I think he’s got a ‘dawg’ mentality, and it’s infectious. He’s got great energy. He prepares the right way. He’s just a heck of a competitor. I’m certainly glad that he’s on our team.”

Asked if Nixon has turned out to be the player that special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia sold him and general manager Brian Gutekunst on during free agency, LaFleur replied: “I would say that he’s probably exceeded my expectations, which is always a good thing. He’s really done a great job, and he’s got a great attitude. He practices hard, and I think it’s reflective in his play.”

It is. Entering the season’s final three games, Nixon ranks second in the NFL in kickoff return average (25.4 yards per return), leads the NFL with three kickoff returns of 50-plus yards and leads the NFL with eight kickoff returns of 30-plus yards.

And he’s only had the job for nine games.

“He’s been a big difference-maker for us. You hate to do the what-ifs and the lookbacks, but there’s definitely (those thoughts),” Rodgers said. “The way certain players were playing for us, you wonder how it would have been had things been a little different starting the season.”

In fairness to LaFleur and Bisaccia, it’s not as though Nixon had a lengthy return resume that they ignored. In fact, Bisaccia coached him the past three years — and Nixon returned only six kickoffs (and zero punts) during that time.

“Keisean loves football,” said Bisaccia, who admitted to sometimes needing to curtail Nixon’s risk-taking approach. “He’s very social. I think he enjoys his players, his teammates. I think he works at being a good teammate, and he’s a versatile guy as far as playing around the field. He’s done a lot of different things for us.

“He’s an ascending player with a great energy and a great passion and love for football.”

Jim Polzin gives Packers a B grade against Rams

Against the Rams, Nixon had a 19-yard punt return that led to a field goal and a 17-yard punt return (with a facemask penalty tacked on) to set up a Rodgers-to-Aaron Jones touchdown pass. Although the offense didn’t capitalize on Nixon’s 52-yard kickoff return during the third quarter, the electricity coursing through the Lambeau Field bleachers was palpable.

“That’s just huge,” Jones said of the energy Nixon creates. “You’re not having to fight going half of the field. How ever many plays it takes you to cross the 50, mistakes can happen. You may not even get across the 50. For him to put us in a position (where) two first downs and you’re already in field goal position, that’s huge. It’s huge what he’s been doing for us. I’m glad he’s back there.”

So are the Packers, who got Nixon on March 25 on a one-year, $965,000 deal and are also getting significant defensive snaps in sub packages and on special-teams coverage units as well. On Monday night, he played all 45 defensive snaps and 12 snaps on special teams.

“I know it was cool for him (that) his mother was in attendance,” LaFleur said. “That was cool for him to have some impact plays in the game.”

That wasn’t the only thing cool about Dwanique’s visit. She also attended the team’s pre-game walkthough and met most of Nixon’s teammates and coaches.

“Everybody was nice to her, welcomed her with open arms,” ​​Nixon said. “She loved the coaching staff, everybody met her, wished her the best.

“I asked her before she left, ‘Did you have fun?'”

Nixon paused, and smiled. “She enjoyed herself.”

Extra points

Although left tackle David Bakhtiari (appendectomy) did not practice again Thursday, LaFleur didn’t rule out the possibility of him practicing on Friday. LaFleur also said the team isn’t shutting Bakhtiari down for the year. But asked when he might be back in the lineup, Bakhtiari replied, “I’m not a doctor. I have no ideas. I’m on this journey right now with y’all.” … The only other player not to practice was tight end Marcedes Lewis (veteran rest). … Left guard Elgton Jenkins practiced on a limited basis, keeping with his knee maintenance schedule. … Running back AJ Dillon, who was in the concussion protocol but did not in fact suffer a concussion against the Rams, was removed from the injury report. … LaFleur said the Packers have not altered their travel plans for Miami because of the winter storm warning the state has been under. He said the team was already planning to leave later than usual on Saturday afternoon because it is Christmas Eve.

Photos: Packers beat Rams on ‘Monday Night Football’

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Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield throws before the start of the game on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MATT LUDTKE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers fans talk in the stands before the game against the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MIKE ROEMER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers linebacker Kingsley Enagbare celebrates a sack against the Rams in the first half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates a touchdown by running back AJ Dillon in the first half against the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers linebacker Preston Smith sacks Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


JEFFREY PHELPS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Rams wide receiver Brandon Powell runs against Packers on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


JEFFREY PHELPS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers tight end Robert Tonyan runs after the catch against the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


JEFFREY PHELPS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers wide receiver Christian Watson signals for a first down against the Rams during the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers running back AJ Dillon carries the ball against the Rams in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws over Rams defensive tackle Greg Gaines during the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers running back Aaron Jones dives for a touchdown against the Rams in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers’ Romeo Doubs gestures with fellow wide receiver Allen Lazard after a catch against the Rams in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MATT LUDTKE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers safety Adrian Amos (31) recovers a fumble by Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas (29) following an interception against the Rams in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Rams wide receiver Ben Skowronek tries to tackle Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas after an interception in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MATT LUDTKE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers’ Keisean Nixon celebrates following Monday night’s victory over the Rams at Lambeau Field.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers waves to fans as he leaves the field following host Green Bay’s victory over the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022.


MORRY GASH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers wide receiver Christian Watson is tripped up by Rams cornerback Troy Hill in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MATT LUDTKE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers running back Aaron Jones tries to go over Rams cornerback Taylor Rapp in the second half on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


MIKE ROEMER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is introduced against the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


JEFFREY PHELPS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Packers running back Aaron Jones heads up field against the Rams on Dec. 19, 2022, at Green Bay.


JEFFREY PHELPS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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