Dennis Dixon waited until exactly 11 o’clock to make the call he dreaded making all day long.
Dennis Dixon Sr., with his wife cradled in one arm, picked up the phone and placed it to his wife’s ear.
Just as her son began to speak, 46-year-old Jueretta Dixon died right then and there in an Oregon hospital.
A three-year battle with breast cancer ended on Feb. 3, 2004 for Jueretta Dixon with the last voice she ever heard was that of her then 20-year-old boy.
“I could never have another low point besides losing my mom,” Dixon said. “Nothing can get worse than that. Anything else doesn’t seem as bad.”
So it's easy to understand why this star three-sport high school athlete turned college football phenom took his benching late during his junior year at Oregon in stride. Nor was he bothered when Oregon coach Mike Belotti denounced him for signing a contract with the Atlanta Braves after Dixon was drafted in the fifth round after that junior year.
That devastating ACL injury near the end of last year when the Heisman Trophy and national championship was within reach? Took that in stride, too.
Falling from one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL draft all the way down the list where a guy from Delaware and a guy from San Diego State were taken before him? Not a big deal.
That’s the mentality he got from his mother and that mentality got him selected by the Steelers in the fifth round of the NFL draft in late April, despite only having a damaged knee at the time.
“It took a long time to get over it,” said Dixon about the passing of his mother.
A tattoo of her on his arm and a medallion around his neck sped up the process of the loss of the woman who had seen nearly every baseball, football and basketball game her son played through high school. But sports wasn’t the main focus of Dixon’s mother. It was academics. So much so that she concealed her illness from her children for as long as she could, because she feared it would cause them to lose focus on their school work. At her funeral, Dixon proclaimed to the mourners that he would get his degree at Oregon. Early.
“My dad had me in numerous sports,” Dixon said. “I played anything. My mom was the one who stayed on me as far as my grades. One of my goals was to earn my college degree and to finish early, and I did. I think she would be proud of me.”
She would be just as proud that her son was able to put a devastating knee injury -- that might've cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars -- into perspective and move past it.
“It was hard at first, I am not going to lie,” Dixon said. “But my dad got into my head and compared it to losing my mom. I took that as a big booster and took it as a minor bump in the road. It is all about how you react in the end.”
To him, what’s a knee injury especially compared to the other things he has overcame over the past couple of years?
That benching near the end of his junior and the denouncement of by his coach for playing baseball in the summer? He responded by being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. That ACL injury? He is back to near 100 percent. Falling to the fifth round of the draft?
“This is an opportunity for me,” Dixon said. “I am going to do the best I can and hopefully that is enough.”
Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert saw enough of Dixon during a September trip the Ducks made to the ‘Big House’ in Ann Arbor, Mich., to sell him on the kid.
“He was winning that game by himself,” Colbert said. “It was amazing what he was doing, deep balls, short balls, running. The first thing that I thought about was Vince Young. The more you watched him the more you were impressed.”
Dixon finished his first and only trip into Ann Arbor with a tremendous stat line: 16-of-25 for 292 yards and 3 touchdowns, including an 85-yarder, to go along with 76 yards and a touchdown on the ground in a 39-7 romp.
“This kid he is a passer first, he played in a spread offense, but boy he is a patient guy in the pocket, finds open receivers,” Colbert said. “He has to work on some short accuracy, more so than deep ball accuracy. He laid out some beautiful deep balls. Then when things weren’t there he took off and ran, not only fast but instinctively.”
Dixon added: “I was just happy to be in that game. It was a blast out there.
We gave 110 percent each side of the ball and if I am remembered for that then that’s fine.
Dixon’s senior season was going even better than he'd imagined, before a game against Arizona State, where he clutched his knee and limped to the sidelines near the end of a 35-23 win over the Sun Devils. It was called a knee sprain at the time, but six days later it was revealed to be a torn ACL. He tried to play the next week against Arizona, but didn’t make it to halftime as Oregon’s national title hopes ended with a 34-24 loss.
“I don’t regret anything I did,” Dixon said. “I don’t regret coming back and trying to play the next week. Things like that happen.”
Dixon had 20 touchdowns and four interceptions and nine more scores on the ground before being shut down for the year.
Now a new chapter of the Dennis Dixon story is in the works.
“The sky is the limit,” Dixon said. “If I could perform to the best of my abilities on the field then it is up to the next level for me. I just try to do the best that I can on the field and everything else will work out.”
By Mark Kaboly
Posted May 12, 2008