A rookie traverses years in seconds
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2001
EAST RUTHERFORD -- We saw 97 yards.
Ron Dixon blurred through 11 voracious Eagles, returning Sunday's opening kickoff. A touchdown to immediately jolt Giants Stadium into NFL playoff delirium.
Philly never recovered.
"I told my 10 blockers," Dixon said, "don't go for kill shots, just screen them off and I'll do the rest. It was time I busted one. Most of the world didn't know my name. Maybe now they do."
Ninety-seven yards. Dixon's feathery feet blistering across Meadowlands grass. But, really, just a few steps in the remarkable journey of this Podunk-to-Broadway rookie.
Dixon came to the Giants after a half-dozen years of academic struggles at four small southern colleges, staying financially afloat with penny ante jobs, an uncelebrated Florida football talent who played at small-time, backwoods levels most NFL players cannot imagine.
He grew up in Wildwood, an old railroad town with three traffic lights, 90 minutes up I-75 from Tampa. A place better known for truck stops and fast-food joints than football grandeur. His father, Ronald Sr., is a middle school vice principal, and mom Diane works at a nursing home.
Dad wanted his kid to be a superb athlete. Senior began training Junior in elementary school. "He worked on my concentration and vision," Dixon recalled. "Dad said to never take my eyes off the football until it was safely in my hands. One time he overdid it."
Ron Sr. was flicking passes to his tyke. Constantly widening the scope. Then there was an especially wide one. Junior kept his eyes focused. Caught the football. Then he slammed into an oak tree. Ron Jr. went home bleeding and bruised. Mama was furious.
"I got lots of attention at Wildwood High School, getting recruited by FSU, Florida and a lot of big schools," Sunday's 24-year-old hero said. "I remember going to a game in Gainesville and saying, 'Wow, this is how I want to play, before 80,000 people.' But my grades weren't good enough. I was plenty smart but didn't work hard at school."
So, he went boondocking.
Dixon played two seasons at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. His younger brother, Brian, by then was a player at Wildwood High. "Mom and dad would watch Brian play Friday night, then crank the car to drive 12 to 15 hours to see me the next day in Mississippi," Ron Jr. said.
"Frankly, my family spoiled me. I didn't learn much about working hard. Two hours and I was tired, ready to nap. But, all along, I just knew I would find my way to the NFL. Back when I was 8 or 10, it was already a sure thing in my head; I would spend hours practicing signing my autograph."
So far to go from an Itawamba. His third season, Dixon transferred to West Georgia College. Grades still suffering, he put football on hold for two years and went to Tallahassee Community College to work on academics.
"I needed some money, so I got work at a Buffalo wings restaurant," he said. "Battering and cooking chicken. Bobby Bowden (coach at Florida State) used to come by and get some wings. I was determined to become a walk-on at FSU."
Never happened. Dixon had one remaining season of eligibility. Ron was headed for a place on the flip side of the collegiate spectrum from an FSU. Winding up at an NAIA school, Lambuth College in Jackson, Tenn.
But, just like against the Eagles, there was Dixon lightning. It was virtually Last Chance U., but Ron's speed and talents flowered. He caught 89 passes, averaging 19.5 yards. Returning kickoffs became a new skill, facing such opponents as Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northwestern Oklahoma State, North Greenville, McKendree and Tennessee-Martin.
Even at Itawamba and West Georgia, the gifted jock was noticed by the NFL. "Then, he fell off the radar screen," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "We got tipped (when Dixon was at Lambuth) and sent scouts two times. We targeted him as a late-round draft pick."
Dixon finished up at Lambuth and played in the Gridiron Bowl, an all-star game in Orlando. "I returned a kickoff about 50 yards and a lot of NFL people noticed," he said Sunday. There was considerable interest from New York's other franchise, the Jets, so Accorsi hit the accelerator and snagged Ron last spring in the third round.
Rough edges still are being sanded. Before the Giants opener, Dixon overslept and missed a Saturday meeting. He was fined $6,000. Later, snoozing overtime again, missing another meeting in Pittsburgh, the kid was suspended and missed playing the Steelers.
"I'm still learning," he said. "Still maturing. I owed my team one. It felt really good, running past all those Eagles and into the end zone." Far more than 97 yards from Wildwood, Itawamba, West Georgia and Lambuth.
Mom and dad were at Giants Stadium to share the moment. Brian, the younger son, now is a defensive back at the University of South Florida. "I felt like I was doing something real good for all of us."
AGE: 24. POSITION: WR/KR.
HT./WT.: 6-0; 190. COLLEGE: Lambuth University.
EXPERIENCE: Rookie; third-round pick in 2000.
SEASON: 6 receptions for 92 yards (15.3 avg), 1 TD; 31 kick returns for 658 yards (21.2 avg).
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
Times columns today
From the Sports pages