SPRINGFIELD, Ore. – The rented sedan was rolling toward the Eugene Airport at a quarter to noon Sunday when the driver got the news he'd been waiting for, fielding a phone call from the house he'd just left after a long, anxious morning.
So Dennis Dixon Sr. did what he figured any proud, elated father whose son had just been drafted would do: He whipped a U-turn on the Beltline Highway, put the pedal to the metal and rushed back to give his boy a prolonged, heartfelt hug.
"Oh, damn, I'm a Pittsburgh Steeler!" Dixon's jubilant son, Dennis, exclaimed shortly after his father's return. "It's a rush, and now I've got to go out there and do what I do."
"The door is opened!" Dixon Sr. yelled. "I've got goosebumps right now."
Leave it to the Dixon family to provide a little added drama to the NFL draft process, one which had been filled with uncertainty since an untimely injury rocked their world six months ago.
When the Steelers used a fifth-round draft pick to select Dixon, the former Oregon quarterback whose Heisman Trophy and national championship dreams had been derailed by a torn knee ligament in November, it ended a tense session in front of the living-room television that was well into its fifth hour. But in terms of facilitating a family celebration, the moment occurred at the nick of time.
Hoping to go as high as the third round, which began at 7 a.m. Pacific time, Dixon had grown increasingly frustrated as the day dragged on, becoming visibly angry when three teams he felt might pick him (the Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears) chose other players early in the fifth round. Shortly thereafter, at 11:30 a.m., Dixon Sr. and daughter Danitra gave up and headed for the airport to catch their respective flights to California.
Quiet and aggravated, Dixon said goodbye to his father and sister and started shooting pool with former Ducks receiver Brian Paysinger, one of the many ex-teammates who spent much of the weekend at the house near the Oregon campus devouring the meaty offerings cooked up by Dixon Sr.
He was leaning over the table and lining up a shot when his iPhone finally buzzed. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whom Dixon had gotten to know on a pre-draft visit to the Steelers' facility, was on the other line.
"Are you ready to be a Steeler?" Tomlin asked.
"Yessir!" Dixon said, pumping his right fist while excitedly bounding up and down the stairs.
Dixon's house was full of sleepy friends, some of whom were awakened by the commotion. But the two most important people of all weren't there to share his joy. Dixon, who lost his mother, Jueretta, to breast cancer four years ago, is exceptionally close to his father and sister. They had to share this moment, and now Tomlin and the Steelers had made it all possible.
Ten long minutes later, Dennis Sr. and Danitra returned. Even as they celebrated together, the idea of Dixon wearing the black-and-gold was all so surreal.
Dixon Sr. lives in San Leandro, a working-class town in the shadow of Oakland's McAfee Coliseum, and is a longtime fan of the Oakland Raiders. "Jack Tatum's kids used to go to school with Dennis and Danitra," he recalled Saturday. "We used to go over to his house all the time. There's talk of Dennis going to San Francisco, and everyone says, 'If he does, you'll have to root for the 49ers.' And I tell 'em, 'No, I don't.' "
He was kidding. We think.
On Sunday, when reminded of the longtime Raiders-Steelers rivalry that includes the Immaculate Reception, the elder Dixon said, "You know how hard that's gonna be, to root for the Steelers? Matter of fact, that's harder than the 49ers. But I'll manage."
In the wake of his injury, Dixon had maintained that he didn't care where he went, that all he wanted was an opportunity to make an NFL roster. So he wasn't about to complain about being drafted by a team that just gave a reported eight-year, $102 million contract to Ben Roethlisberger, its young, franchise quarterback.
"As a quarterback in my situation, coming off an injury, it's going to take a while for me to adapt anyway," Dixon said. "Being able to learn from two smart, experienced quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch goes a long way. I'm just going to be a sponge and absorb everything.
"At the same time, I'm a competitor, and I'm going to go out there and compete with everything I've got."
Dixon added that he was excited by the opportunity to play with veteran Steelers wideout Hines Ward, whom he said he was "honored to have a chance to meet" during his visit.
"As a little kid, this is what you dream of, right here," he said. "Now, you've got to respond. I can't wait to get out there and get to work."
If he's in a hurry, it's nothing compared to the hurry his father and sister were in as they left the house for a second time Sunday.
"Tell 'em to hold the plane!" Dixon joked to his father. "Tell 'em your son just got drafted, and that's why you were late."
"We've got to go!" Danitra said, and seconds later they were in the car, ready to hoof it up the Beltline Highway once more. But as he pulled away, Dixon Sr. had one final thought.
"Remember Slash?" he asked, referring to former Steelers quarterback and multipurpose threat Kordell Stewart. "Maybe we've got Slash II."