“I wouldn’t say I was at a point where I would say I can’t do it, but I did ask God if this was the path I needed to be successful,” he said. “I’m still here and enjoying every day.”
Like many, Paxton’s families lost their jobs during the recession. His father, Nathaniel Sr., was a distribution manager for a small Atlanta newspaper and worked part-time at a catering company. His mom, Hnede, worked for the same catering business.
Things turned bad quickly. The family — Nate also has two younger brothers, one of whom also plays for Georgia State — bounced between a $200 per week hotel on Memorial Drive, to sleeping in cars, to staying with friends, to being homeless.
Despite their circumstances, the parents wouldn’t let the boys give up on their educations. Paxton refused to follow some of his neighborhood friends and teammates into the darker places, the easier paths. He would tell them during weightlifting sessions that he was going to be one of the few from Clarkston High to play football in college.
Nate graduated in 2010. He signed with Alabama A&M and was about to make the drive to the school with his dad when they learned that his application didn’t process correctly. So, he didn’t go. He then thought he was going to Georgia Southern until he was told his ACT score wasn’t high enough. He said his score was a 22. So, he didn’t go.
His high school grades were good enough that he was accepted into Georgia State for the spring semester in 2012, paying for it with student loans. Paxton also decided to go to a football tryout for walk-ons that spring. Though he was the smallest of the defensive linemen, he posted some of the best results in the drills and was asked to join the team.
Because he was a walk-on, Paxton thought he needed to be the first player into the facility every day. He would wake up at 3:30 a.m. and be at the bus station near Memorial Drive by 4. After a transfer to another bus, he would ride in on MARTA, getting off at the MLK stop and walking the rest of the way to be the first in the door at 5:15 a.m. He would do his homework on the bus or train. He would watch film before the other players arrived.
The families’ food stamps were gone, so breakfast would depend upon if Georgia State’s trainers put any snacks out.
After practice came classes. He would take naps at the student recreation center or at the team facility. He didn’t have any money for lunch, so he wouldn’t eat. He lost 20 pounds, which isn’t good for a football player. He would make the same circuit home — sometimes having to sneak onto MARTA because he didn’t have enough money for a pass — not arriving to wherever his family was staying until 10:30-11 p.m.
When his teammates began to notice how Paxton was living, they would give him some of their food, or some of their money so that he could get by to the next day.
“Nate is a very strong guy to be able to come to work with the situations that he goes through,” teammate Joseph Peterson said.
Paxton kept his grades up because he said his parents won’t allow anything but his best effort, and he kept fighting for playing time, though it rarely came.
Paxton was about to max out on his student loans, which would have temporarily stopped his education, when his luck began to change in August 2014.
Coaches sometimes will give a scholarship to a walk-on before each camp as a reward for their hard work.
Paxton prayed that he would be selected. He knew that in the past the coaches would tell players before camp started in August. But the days came and went and coach Trent Miles never held the meeting.
“I wasn’t trying to be a pessimist,” said Paxton, which is the closest he will get to sounding negative.
Finally, three days before school started, Miles gathered the players together on the practice field to award the scholarships.
Paxton was the first to receive one. He fell to his knees. His teammates celebrated. Paxton would have food. He would have a bed. He wouldn’t have to worry about riding MARTA anymore in the middle of the night. He wouldn’t have to worry that his dad would have to try to stretch his meager income from a job at the Fulton County jail even more to take care of him.
“That’s what it’s all about,” defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. “Take a guy and help give him a life that he strives for and maybe couldn’t get on his own. He made that break with his attitude and work ethic.”
Paxton doesn’t play much, usually on special teams and some spot duty on defense. But he keeps the energy levels high on the sideline and he tries to make sure that everyone who isn’t playing is engaged with the game, which the coaches value. His leadership is as important as Peterson’s or quarterback Nick Arbuckle’s, according to Miles. Paxton smiles during practice. He smiles during games. He smiles as he tells his story. He is, as Miles loves to say, a man with intelligence, character, toughness and who loves football.
“Nate Paxton is the epitome of what we want in a Georgia State man,” Miles said.
After Paxton graduates with a degree in business economics and a minor in hospitality, the first few paychecks he receives from his first job will go to his family so that they can move out of their small apartment that they eventually found.
That is why his family will be beside him Friday when the seniors are honored. Their love of each other, their faith in God and their determination have helped him complete a journey that others would likely have given up on. They deserve the applause as much as he.
“To see the smile on my parents’ faces will be worth it. Everything I’ve been through has been worth it,” he said.