The running back looks out of place. He hurries into the Omni Hotel in downtown Cincinnati and bounds up the marble stairs two at a time. His metallic blue jeans, white Mecca T-shirt and large diamond-studded cross clash with the Brooks Brothers suits milling in the lobby.
He's looking for a place to kick it, and after casing the lobby, Corey Dillon settles on an avocado-green booth in the hotel restaurant. "Right here's fine with me," he says. You're here to find out why this guy, once the most-coveted free agent on the NFL market, is even considering staying in Cincinnati. How can a two-time Pro Bowler, owner of four straight 1,000-yard seasons and a rushing record approached only by Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson, not be itching to put this team in his rearview mirror?
But when he starts talking, you remember that for most of his 25 years, Dillon has approached life like a frenzied tourist, forever scrambling to his next destination. Maybe it's time to stay in one place for a while.
"I'm tired of running through the back door," he says, his voice weary. He started running at age 7, playing football with his older brothers, Curtis (then 11) and Charlie (13) in the front yard of their home in Seattle's Capitol Hill district. Like all older brothers, they cut him no slack, but from the start, he knew what to do with the ball, if not exactly where to go with it.
"The first time I touched the ball, I took off and ran the wrong way," he says with a nasal laugh. "They jumped on me pretty quick after that." To prepare himself for future front-lawn battles with the big boys, Dillon created a daily workout regimen that consisted of 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups. "When you're 7 and your brothers treat you like a teenager," he says, "you learn to be tough."
Dillon kept on wanting to prove how tough he was, and by the time he was a teenager, he went looking for trouble -- and found plenty. He was arrested frequently as a juvenile, regularly pushing the boundaries until they broke. He doesn't like to talk about his past, and when it comes up, he slowly shakes his head, holds up his large left palm and looks you squarely in the eye: "Listen, all the things I've done, I've paid for."
A 16-year-old with a hard shell who was still just a kid inside -- that's what Dick Baird, then the linebacker coach at the U. of Washington, saw when he came across clips of Dillon after his sophomore year at Seattle's Franklin High. But Baird also saw someone who ran with his shoulders bobbing, sort of rocking back and forth, someone who reminded him of Jim Brown. "I knew he was special right then," the coach says.
After three decades of coaching football, Baird, now 54, is a middle-aged white man who has a rare natural rapport with urban black kids. "Inner-city kids can read you like a book," he says, a lesson he learned in countless recruiting trips during his 15 years at UW. His honest approach led to an instant bond with Dillon. "I don't trust very many people," Dillon says. "But I felt comfortable with him right away. I could just tell he was one of those people who believed I would make it."
Baird certainly believed. Over the course of six years -- from three junior colleges to UW to Cincinnati -- he has remained Dillon's friend, confidant and part-time spin doctor. He knew from the start about Dillon's reputation as a troublemaker, but none of that mattered. "I told him I didn't give a damn about what had happened before," says Baird. "I'm gonna measure you on where you are and where you're going."
After graduating from Franklin, Dillon wanted nothing more than to attend Washington. (Capitol Hill, after all, is only a few blocks from Husky Stadium.) After watching ballers like Warren Moon, Mark Brunell and Napoleon Kaufman, Dillon was aching to get his swerve on with the purple and gold. But having a believer on the Husky staff wasn't enough to make that happen. When a low ACT score blocked his path -- and his police record left big programs disinclined to care, anyway -- Dillon began a sustained odyssey through the junior college circuit.
First stop was Edmonds C.C. in Lynnwood, Wash., where the restless and undisciplined Dillon couldn't cope with the 90-mile commute and bounced after only a month. Next was Garden City C.C. in Kansas, where football coach Jeff Lieker met a young man whom he says didn't fit his criminal rep: "Corey just struck me as someone who was always looking for a place where he best fit in." But "little things" made it clear Garden City wasn't that place: Dillon was late to meetings, fought with other players, talked back to campus police. After a heated argument with teammates for blocking his view of the dorm TV one night, Dillon showed up an hour late to a scrimmage the next morning. Lieker dismissed him from the team.
But Lieker also called his friend Greg Croshaw, head coach at Dixie College, a small c.c. in St. George, Utah, telling him Dillon deserved another shot. "There was just something about Corey that made me want to help him," Lieker says. In the secluded confines of Utah, Dillon found his focus. The restless environment created by junior college players trying to get to big schools no longer appealed to him. "Everyone is representin' in junior college," he says. "They're all trying to prove how tough they are." But none of that was a distraction in St. George, where football and school pretty much ruled Dillon's life. After a 1,899-yard, 20-touchdown season, and respectable grades, he was finally ready to go back home -- this time as a Washington Husky.
Once he got into the starting lineup, just two weeks into the 1996 season, he began to establish the take-no-prisoners Dillon running style. "When Corey puts the pads on," says former UW teammate and ex-NFL defensive end Jason Chorak, "he wants to punish you."
No kidding: Dillon's first Husky touchdown was a vicious 11-yarder in which he ran over three Arizona State defenders. A stretch of seven consecutive 100-yard games followed, including a five-TD performance against UCLA.
But after rushing for 1,555 yards and 23 TDs (both single-season UW records) in only eight starts, Dillon was off and running again. Although he knew he'd be a leading Heisman candidate the next season, he entered his name in the NFL draft. "It was just time to go," he says.
Baird spent the days leading up to the 1997 draft telling scouts they were foolish for worrying about using a first-round pick on Corey. But Dillon's thug rep and junior college tour lowered his stock. "People were comparing him to that goon from Nebraska," says Baird. "Every time they saw a problem, the scouts were saying, 'He's another Lawrence Phillips.'" The best running back in that draft wound up chosen at pick 43. Someday, if Dillon's often painful journey ends with him being counted among the greatest running backs in NFL history, his performance against Denver last October will be seen as his breakthrough moment. Looking for their first win of the season, the Bengals handed Dillon the rock 22 times. They ran "16 Zone Chase," the bread and butter of their running game, on 14 consecutive snaps. On the last carry, Dillon started off right tackle from the Denver 41-yard line, ran into pursuit from the linebackers and reversed field, where he encountered Broncos corner Terrell Buckley. He dipped inside, then came back outside as Buckley lunged. "He went for my legs," says Dillon. "And I stomped him into the end zone."
The score gave Dillon an NFL-record 278 yards on the day, eclipsing the 275 by Payton in 1977. On his way to the sideline, Dillon glanced up at the scoreboard. He thought the words "New Record" were a mistake. But when it registered that the record was real, he fell to his knees in prayer.
Across the street from the Omni, strolling through the Fountain Courtyard, Dillon reaches out to the lunch crowd. He knows what people have heard: about him saying he'd rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals; about his arrest for DUI in 1998 (after pleading guilty to two lesser charges, the DUI charge was dropped and Dillon received two years' probation); about the argument he and his wife, Desiree, had last August, when he knocked the cell phone from her hands and was charged with fourth-degree assault (that charge also will be dropped in a year if Dillon meets the court's conditions). But now Dillon wants Cincinnati to believe the perception doesn't match the reality, that he'd rather stick around than abandon the Bengals.
The man most responsible for getting Dillon to slow his roll is Jim Anderson, Cincinnati's running backs coach and a rare example of stability in the transient world of the NFL. Anderson, 53, has been with the Bengals 17 seasons, an eternity for an NFL position coach. And after Dillon's first season, it was Anderson who addressed the rookie's most consistent flaw -- his overdeveloped sense of urgency. "I told him it's not a sprint, but a marathon," Anderson says.
"Jim made me realize I can't have everything at once," Dillon says. "Life just doesn't work that way." It was also Anderson who told Dillon: "Take a few steps forward and give people a chance to know you."
An outspoken athlete sporting cornrows, a police record and an air of petulance has to travel a little further before his city embraces him. But Dillon seems willing to meet people halfway. Later on this day, he'll work out at a local Bally's and get a sandwich at the Subway on Sixth Street. Go to the Waterfront Restaurant across from Paul Brown Stadium, and you'll see a photo of Dillon and the owner adorning the celebrity wall.
Anderson knows it's good for Dillon to work the public, because the coach knows how personable he can be. "I know Corey has some street in him," Anderson says. "But if he wants to, he can have this whole city eating out of his hand."
Dillon used to wonder why he was playing for an organization that seems to spend more money entertaining top free agents than actually signing them. But he isn't asking that anymore. He says his wife loves Cincinnati and he's quick to remind you his 2-year-old daughter, Cameron, was born there. "Maybe I'm supposed to be here," he says. "Maybe before I can enjoy success and winning, I have to experience the down times first."
As Dillon walks through the courtyard, he's joined by six teenagers on spring break and a skinny twentysomething blonde, seeking his autograph. He hunches his shoulders when he laughs with them, and curls his lips into a comical frown when they ask him questions. When they stop in front of the Henry Probasco Fountain to pose for a picture, one of the teenagers whispers, "Man, I've never seen a football player this close before." But Dillon doesn't hear him, because a maintenance worker feels empowered to ask questions.
"When are you gonna come to the table with the Bengals?" the man shouts.
"My agent is handling that," Dillon says. "It'll get done."
"What about that $60 million you turned down last year?" the man asks.
"There never was a $60 million offer, man," Dillon replies.
As he leaves, Dillon smiles and embraces the worker. "I like that brother," he says. "He's just misinformed."
Maybe we've all been misinformed. Maybe the Corey Dillon we should focus on is the one teammate Tony McGee calls "the most low-maintenance superstar you'd ever want to meet."
When Dillon returns to his townhouse, Desiree's white Range Rover is parked next to his 1963 Chevy Impala, which he has painted Husky purple. Relaxed and smiling, he eases through the front door. Inside, little Cameron, whose arched eyebrows give her the same quizzical look as her father, is running the show. "She's unseated me as leader of the house," he jokes.
Home at last.
This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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