SPRINGFIELD, Ore. – The 2008 NFL draft was less than 15 minutes old when Dennis Dixon, a young man once projected to be one of its most conspicuous selections, decided it was all too much to bear.
Shaking his head in disgust, the former Oregon quarterback fled the bachelor pad he rents near campus to collect his thoughts alone.
"I don't even want to look at this," Dixon said Saturday afternoon before opening a sliding glass door and stepping into the backyard. "I mean, it's just mind-boggling."
Left behind on an old-school big screen television in Dixon's living room was a tight shot of Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan in the green room of Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The Atlanta Falcons were about to choose Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick, making him a soon-to-be-multi-millionaire and essentially entrusting him to displace Michael Vick as the face of the franchise.
Across the continent Dixon, who six months ago had emerged as the best college football player in America, spent a few minutes pacing aimlessly on his surgically repaired left knee while waiting to go to Oregon's spring football game. His return to Autzen Stadium would allow him to socialize with ex-teammates and coaches, but its larger purpose was to take his mind off the draft on a day he knew he'd almost certainly be ignored.
Later Saturday, a couple dozen friends and family members were due to descend on the rented house to hang out and enjoy the meat-filled feast prepared by Dixon's father, Dennis Sr. This was shaping up as a classic pity party. But, to his credit, the younger Dixon wouldn't allow it. His smile returned shortly after Ryan's selection reminded him of what might have been, and even as quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Brian Brohm and Chad Henne left the board, Dixon stayed upbeat and philosophical.
"Trust me," Dixon Sr. said Saturday evening, "my son has this all in perspective."
When you say goodbye to your mother at age 20 – when your voice is the last thing she hears as she dies in your father's arms – perspective is not a subtle sensation. You can lose what seemed to be a clear path to a Heisman Trophy, a national championship and the prospect of guaranteed millions and spin it as yet another challenge, an opportunity for your competitive fire to burn more intensely than the brightest of draft-podium spotlights.
And as the first day of the draft passes without your name being called, you can bite your lip and remind yourself that the sun will come out tomorrow.
Sometime Sunday morning, Dixon hopes, a franchise will take a chance on him and make him the fifth or sixth or seventh or eighth quarterback selected. He has no idea which team that might be, and he's not particularly consumed with wondering where he'll end up. Unlike Ryan or former Ducks teammate Jonathan Stewart (the running back who went 13th overall to the Carolina Panthers) or the other players who got plucked off the board in Saturday's first two rounds, Dixon doesn't have the luxury of weighing the benefits of certain situations against others in visualizing his ideal rookie season.
He simply seeks the chance to make somebody's team.
"All I want is an opportunity," Dixon said Saturday. "Those other guys are getting the money right now, but tell me who'll ultimately be getting it done on the field, and that means a lot more to me. As a little kid, I always dreamt of being a professional in the National Football League. Now it's here. I just want to have that opportunity, one way or the other."
As a 6-foot-4, 205-pounder with a good arm, excellent mobility and obvious leadership skills, Dixon remains an enticing option for a team looking to develop a young quarterback for a future shot at a starting job. Since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery after tearing his ACL last November – partially in a 35-23 victory over Arizona State that vaulted Oregon to a No. 2 national ranking, and completely in a Nov. 15 defeat to Arizona in which everything fell apart – Dixon has made a promising recovery, one he and his agent, Jeff Sperbeck, wisely documented in real time on an Oregon-sponsored website.
Realistically, Dixon is a player who seems destined to spend 2008 sitting and learning, preparing for a shot in 2009 or beyond. Even before his injury, some scouts viewed Dixon's success as a product of the spread offense and believed he'd need to adapt to running a pro-style offense to have a shot at making it in the NFL.
Dixon is confident that he'll pull it off. Then again, by the most ingrained of standards, he knows he has already made it in a much grander context.
"In our household, it was all about education," says Dixon's younger sister, Danitra, who works as a clothing buyer in Los Angeles. "It was school before play, and that was definitely no joke."
An excellent student at San Leandro High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dixon completed his sociology degree at Oregon last June after just 3½ years on campus. In the fall he was a finalist for the Draddy Trophy, given to the top scholar in college football.
He says his mother, Jueretta, who died in February 2004 after a long battle with breast cancer, was the inspiration for his academic success.
"My dad had me in numerous sports," Dixon says. "I played anything with a ball. My mom was really 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."
Another thing Jueretta passed on to her son was a streak of relentless optimism. 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 academic achievements. Even when her condition worsened and she knew the end was near, Jueretta refused to mope in front of Dennis.
Partially paralyzed by a stroke shortly before Christmas 2003, Jueretta's mood brightened a few weeks later when Dennis flew home from Eugene.
"She was sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the living room," Dennis Sr. recalls of his wife, whom he had started dating in high school, 37 years earlier. "When he walked in that door, she lit up like a Christmas tree."
He stayed the weekend, and before returning to school, Dixon understood that he almost certainly wouldn't see his mother again. "I actually got a chance to say goodbye," he recalls, but this was no maudlin scene out of a Hollywood movie.
"We pretty much just talked and giggled the whole time," he says. "I was just joking with her, showing her this tattoo on my arm that says 'I'll Holler' and which always used to make her laugh. Even in that moment, she was real positive."
Dixon, who took one of the family's cars back to school, saved his tears for the drive to Eugene, checking in every two hours by phone. Less than a week later he called to talk to Jueretta, who was preparing to go to a chemotherapy appointment. His father answered the phone.
"Fifteen minutes earlier she had looked at me and said, 'Dennis, take me to the water,' " Dixon Sr. recalls. "She was already at peace, and I knew it. Dennis called at exactly 11 o'clock, and I held her as I put the phone to her ear. She heard his voice and, in another second, she was gone."
At Jueretta's funeral, her son vowed to a packed church that he would honor his mother by achieving the academic goals she'd helped instill. Dixon delivered in the classroom and thrived on the football field, becoming a popular and inspirational presence on a talented team that faded after he suffered the season-ending injury.
He remains very much at home in his familiar collegiate environment, as Saturday's visit to the spring game in Autzen showed. Clad in a loose polka-dotted tie and black dress shirt while casually roaming the sidelines, Dixon was the life of the party. He slapped hands and swapped stories with current and former Ducks, many of whom would come to his house later that evening, and was especially animated when current Oregon quarterback Justin Roper completed his first pass for a 67-yard gain.
Dixon also went upstairs to work a luxury box full of influential alums, including Nike chieftain Phil Knight.
"When he calls," Dixon said, laughing, "you go."
Wherever Dixon goes in the draft Sunday – or, in a worst-case scenario, if he doesn't get picked and is forced to scramble for a free-agent deal – he knows he has already achieved something far more valuable than the millions which might have been.
"I wish my mom would've been here to see this," he said, a few minutes after Saturday's second round expired and the no-pity party began in earnest. "I wish she could've seen her young boy grow up to be a young man, humbled and driven and focused on the task at hand."
Dixon looked down at the iPhone clipped to his jeans, a Bluetooth headset in his right ear. The call he was waiting for still hadn't come.
But make no mistake – the kid is already a pro.
- Dennis Dixon