Dixon making most of second chance

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets are home to two of the best second-chance stories in the NFL.

Everybody knows about Plaxico Burress, who basically went from prison to the Jets' starting lineup. There's also Marcus Dixon, whose journey to the NFL is worthy of the big screen.

Unlike Burress, Dixon almost never had a career. As a high school senior in Georgia, he was convicted of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation and sentenced to 10 years in jail, with no chance for parole.

Dixon lost a full ride to Vanderbilt and was sent off to a Georgia penitentiary, but that was only part of the story, which exploded into a national controversy that drew the attention of Oprah Winfrey, Bryant Gumbel and civil rights leaders.

Ultimately, Dixon won a landmark appeal and was released after 15 months, allowing him to re-start his life and chase his football dream. His ordeal occurred in 2003 -- "Forever ago," he said -- but it's never far from his thoughts.

"I try not to think about it, but it crosses my mind and I'm like, 'Dang, I was really locked up at one time,'" Dixon told ESPNNewYork.com. "I can't think about that, but it helps me go through life. It makes you realize life really is short. It's all about what you do with it. You can't take anything for granted."

Dixon is back in the spotlight again because he's featured on HBO's "Real Sports," which airs Tuesday night. The show catches up with the Jets defensive lineman eight years after its original story on him from jail. Initially, Dixon was reluctant to sit down for the follow-up interview.

"Most people here don't even know about the situation," he said, referring to Jets teammates and coaches. "That's one of the reasons I was hesitant about it. I don't think anybody knows, which is a good thing."

In the end, Dixon did it for closure, also hoping his story can help others.

In '03, it was a volatile, racially charged case.

Dixon, who is African-American, was accused of rape by a sophomore classmate, a 16-year-old white girl. A jury determined that the sex was consensual, but because of the girl'
s age, it applied the Georgia Child Protection Act and convicted Dixon of statutory rape and child molestation.

Just like that, Dixon, an honor student with a college scholarship, was looking at 10 years in jail. Several members of the jury were reportedly stunned that the sentence was so severe.

It sparked an immediate firestorm because it was the first time the Protection Act had been applied in that fashion.

Dixon's supporters argued that he was being imprisoned for what amounted to teenaged sex. Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, famously called it a "legal lynching."

Looking back, Dixon said he was overwhelmed by the amount of support he received, which led to national exposure.

Aside from "Real Sports," he appeared on Orpah's TV show.

"I had a huge supporting cast," he said. "Without Bryant ... I mean, Mr. Gumbel, and Oprah, there's probably no way people on the national level would've known about my story. Because of them, I got a lot of help."

On May, 3, 2004, the Supreme Court of Georgia overturned Dixon's conviction and he was released the same day.

He made the most of the opportunity, enrolling at Hampton (Va.) University. He played well enough to land a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, sticking until 2010.

When the Cowboys cut Dixon in September 2010, the Jets picked him up on waivers and groomed him the entire season, projecting him as a future contributor. This year, he has emerged as the team's top backup on the defensive line, playing mostly in passing situations.

Dixon is an unheralded member of the team, never drawing the legions of media types that usually camp out in front of Burress' locker. Thirty feet away from the Plaxico fuss, Dixon dresses quietly, minding his business and assuming very few in the room know about his past.

"I'm here now, there's nothing I can do about the situation eight years ago," he said. "I'm playing in the NFL. I'm living my dream. That was a bump in the road I had to get over. I went through it. I definitely didn't want to go through it, but me going through it. ... If it helps somebody else, it served its purpose."