Corey Dillon has taken an unusual, ever-twisting course to the NFL.
His quick feet have taken him to three high schools, three junior colleges and one shortened stay at the University of Washington. Since touching a football in high school, Dillon has dedicated himself to becoming a pro.
Dillon went to many extremes to be a football player. Even if it meant going to class. Had he stuck with baseball, Dillon could have made the minor leagues his classroom. It would have been easier.
On Saturday, Dillon gets the last laugh. For his critics who wonder about his ability to stay in one place more than nine months, Dillon plans to plant himself in the NFL.
“I believe he’s known for a long time exactly where he wants to be, and I think he’s headed for there right now,” said Greg Crowshaw, his coach at Dixie (Utah) Community College. “He didn’t have a problem picking up things he’s interested in. He didn’t like going to school.”
Unlike baseball, hockey and, to a lesser degree, basketball, high school football players can’t simply turn pro. They must serve an apprenticeship in college, giving blessed athletes at least an education if their athletic pursuits failed. Dillon is the rare exception. He always believed he would make it to the pros.
“I think Corey knew he was going to be a professional the first day he played football at Franklin High,” said Shaun Williams, a former University of Washington and Clemson athlete who has helped navigate Dillon through his tough course. “… People said he looked like he was a full-grown man in fifth and sixth grade. In the Seattle community, people always felt he was going to be able to keep himself in line with school long enough to accomplish his goal.
“Ask anybody in the inner-city of Seattle. They’ll tell you that they knew he could go pro. He knew it, too.”
Ask Dillon about his talents. At the scouting combine in February, a reporter asked him if there was any back to whom he compared himself.
“Which era?” Dillon replied.
“Let’s start in the present era,” the reporter said.
“If you say last year, I’d say Eddie George,” he said. “We have similar running styles and we’re big backs. People underestimate our speed.”
“Different eras?” the reporter inquired.
“I’d say Jim Brown,” Dillon said. “I mix it up with Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and Walter Payton. People like that. Those were my idols growing up, so I try to combine those running styles.”
Who’s to say he’s wrong? Given his chance to be a starter, he has dominated every level - high school, junior college and the Pac-10.
“It’s all in the films that I can play the game,” he said.
And it’s all laid out during his three-state odyssey that he was committed to remaining a football player.
Grade problems deprived him of a chance to play at Auburn, Washington or Washington State, for example, so he enrolled as a part-time student in Edmonds Community College. To get to school, he took a bus from central Seattle to the University of Washington, then took a bus to Northgate, another to Lynnwood and then another to Edmonds.
After two weeks of nonstop bus transfers, Dillon quit before the start of the football season to preserve a precious year of football eligibility. He spent the rest of the school year working as a janitor.
The next year, he was off to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, where he rushed for 1,468 yards on an 11-1 team. He befriended Jim Gush, an assistant coach there who is now in charge of the program.
“I think he’s exactly what people are looking for in the NFL, and that’s the level he needs to be at,” Gush said. “He runs so hard. He catches the ball well. He does so many things well. Whoever drafts him is going to get a real bonus.”
Yet here was Dillon, a Seattle native, in the strange land of Kansas. An incident with a member of the basketball team made his stay tougher. For most of his year at Garden City, he was denied cafeteria and dormitory privileges, forcing him to sleep on a floor in an apartment with six teammates.
“He was on scholarship, but he was only eating one meal a day,” Williams said. “That’s all he could afford.”
An altercation with an off-duty policeman at a party in 1994 resulted in a four-game suspension. He eventually left the school.
“Corey had financial problems and we are only allowed to keep 10 out-of-state players,” Gush said. “Rather than go through some of the things that we knew he was going to have to go through (the school suspension), I called coach Crowshaw at Dixie,” located in a resort town in Utah.
Crowshaw knew Dillon quite well. Dixie played Garden City in a junior college playoff game the previous year.
“I knew what kind of player he was,” Crowshaw said. “We were pretty well set at running back with a guy named Roger Johnson, who led the nation in rushing the year after Corey left. I moved Johnson to fullback. In that playoff game, Corey almost beat us single-handedly.”
Dillon felt as though he had found heaven when he learned he had nice dorm accommodations and full cafeteria privileges. Then came the bad news. Very few of his credits transferred, so he had to take a quarterly class load of 21 credits.
Football was the easy part. He rushed for 301 yards in his first game and 1,899 yards for the season.
“One of the coaches from Washington who recruited him told him if you have the kind of year we expect from you, you can put yourself in the draft after one season,” Crowshaw said. “After last season at Washington, when people were saying they were surprised he turned pro, I thought somebody better wake up. I had no doubts.
“Going into the pros interested him all along. Plus he was as good an athlete as I’ve had here in 15 years. The only game we lost, we were behind late in the game. They kicked off to the end zone. We handed off eight straight plays to Corey. The only problem was he scored too quickly. They had time to come back and win the game.”
Saturday, he’s expected to be a first-round pick. After cleaning toilets, sleeping on floors and surviving with only one meal, Dillon may finally have found his home.
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