You want to find Corey Dillon? Go to one of the sleepiest suburbs
of Cincinnati, and that's where he'll be. On this day he's
sitting in the living room of the two-story town house he rents.
The place is about 20 minutes north of downtown, and to reach it
you have to pass countless ranch homes, a couple of strip malls
and an unmanned security booth at the entrance to his nondescript
complex. Think witness-protection program. "There isn't too much
out here, but it's good for me," says Dillon, the Cincinnati
Bengals' two-time Pro Bowl running back. "There isn't any
[trouble] to get into, and it's only temporary."
By temporary the 25-year-old Dillon means he will soon be moving
to another part of town or even another part of the country.
That's because when the free-agent signing period begins on
Friday, the 6'1", 225-pounder figures to be among the
most-sought-after players on the market. "I want a big house in
a secluded area," says Dillon. "I've seen places in Cincinnati
and in other cities that are very nice. Wherever I go, I'll get
a home I can escape to and have my peace."
Playing for a team that was 18-46 over the past four years,
Dillon still ran for more than 1,100 yards each season. In his
fifth start as a pro he broke Jim Brown's single-game rushing
record for a rookie with a 246-yard performance against the
Tennessee Oilers, and last season he eclipsed Walter Payton's
alltime single-game rushing mark with a 278-yard day against the
Denver Broncos. A bruising inside ballcarrier who showed in 2000
that he also has the speed to outrun defenders, Dillon finished
the season with a career-high 1,435 rushing yards, even though
the Cincinnati passing game ranked last in the league.
"He has as good a combination of size, speed and toughness as
anybody," says Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese.
"He's a bigger back than he gets credit for. He runs really,
really hard. If you miss a tackle, he can go 80 yards."
If the Bengals have their way, however, Dillon won't be moving
far. The team recently attached its transition tag to him, giving
it the right to match any contract offer the running back
receives. Further, Cincinnati is in excellent position to fend
off the overtures of a playoff-caliber team in the market for a
marquee back. As of Monday morning, the Bengals were the NFL team
farthest under the salary cap, with a $17.2 million cushion.
"I don't think Corey Dillon is going anywhere," says Kansas City
Chiefs president Carl Peterson, who showed interest when Dillon
was a restricted free agent last winter but backed off because
signing him would have cost Kansas City its first- and
third-round draft selections. "Last year [Bengals president]
Mike Brown told me flat out that even if we had three
first-round picks, he was not going to let the guy go."
Says Brown, "Over the last couple of seasons we've negotiated
three [long-term] deals, at least two of which his agents have
recommended he accept. [Dillon rejected all three to test the
free-agent market.] That's evidence we're committed to getting
Even Dillon sounds resigned to an extended stay in Cincinnati. "I
can honestly say I have no problems with staying if I have to,"
he says. "But you have to look at it from my perspective: Last
year I couldn't do much of anything in their eyes--they told me I
couldn't block well enough, couldn't catch the ball, couldn't run
away from safeties. Now they're telling everybody, 'We have to
have this guy back.' What am I supposed to think?"
In the six months before signing a one-year, $3 million contract
last August, Dillon called a Seattle radio station and announced
that he "would rather flip burgers" than play for the Bengals,
threatened to sit out the first 10 games (and return only to play
in the minimum number of games required to earn a year of service
toward free agency) and criticized Brown for the way the
organization was run, saying Cincinnati fans "should feel cheated
and betrayed." Since then Dillon has tried to lie low, but he
continues to make news.
Late last season he rejected two contract extensions, one of
which included a $12 million signing bonus. Dillon is also
working with his third agent in four months. In October he parted
with Marvin Demoff in a dispute over commissions, and in late
December he fired the team of David Levine and James Sims,
claiming the two weren't keeping him informed about negotiations.
Now Leigh Steinberg is charged with repairing the image of a man
perceived to be indecisive and high-maintenance. "I've always had
to deal with this, people not telling the whole story when it
comes to me," Dillon says. "The bottom line is, I'm a superstar
only when something negative happens."
When the conversation turns to Dillon's past, he becomes
uncomfortable. His head bobs when he speaks. He rarely makes eye
contact. His voice isn't so much defensive as it is hopeful; he
wants you to believe his explanations for the many transgressions
he has been accused of. "My thing has always been, sit down with
me for an hour and base your judgments off that," Dillon says.
"That's all I ask. Don't go by what you read in the paper or hear
in the streets. I get treated like I'm John Gotti."
You wanted to find Dillon when he was a teenager? You went to a
tough, inner-city neighborhood in Seattle, and then picked the
kid making all the wrong moves without regard for the
repercussions. Though he had close contact with his father, he
grew up in a single-parent home, raised by his mother, Jerline.
His lengthy juvenile record included a conviction for conspiracy
to sell cocaine to undercover police when he was 15. To this day
Dillon denies he was ever involved in selling drugs.
Dillon graduated from Seattle's Franklin High as an all-state
running back and a centerfielder with enough potential to be
selected by the San Diego Padres late in the 1993 draft. However,
failure to meet the NCAA's minimum academic requirements kept him
out of a Division I football program. He enrolled at Edmonds
Community College in Lynwood, Wash., where he wanted to play
baseball but couldn't hack the 90-minute bus ride from home to
campus and quit after six weeks. He mostly lay around the house
for the next year until Jerline nagged him into taking a job as a
night janitor. Two months later Corey returned home from work and
announced, "I can't live like this, Mama."
Dillon made Garden City (Kans.) Community College his next stop,
in the fall of 1994. On the field he starred as a running back
and a free safety, but off it he was disciplined by coach Jeff
Leiker for skipping classes and getting into senseless
skirmishes. By August 1995 Leiker had seen enough. He kicked
Dillon off the team, but not before calling the coaches at Dixie
College in St. George, Utah, and suggesting that they take a
flier on Dillon. "Corey was a guy who wanted to succeed but
didn't know how," says Leiker. "He was also the kind of guy that
you wanted to help."
Dillon had a knack for doing things the hard way. When someone
else started a fight, he had to jump in and finish it. He
approached life much in the manner that he carried a football: If
something got in his way, he dipped his shoulder and ran right
through it. "I don't think he would be where he is today if he
wasn't so aggressive, but he couldn't control himself," says Bob
Larson, Dillon's offensive coordinator at Garden City. "When he
was on the field, it was fine to let loose. But when he was in
math class or walking down the hallway, he had to learn how to
harness his aggression."
Realizing at last that he was jeopardizing his dream of playing
in the NFL, Dillon arrived at Dixie a different man. He took his
homework on road trips. In practice he raced to the end zone
every time he touched the ball--even if the goal line was 80 yards
away. "I knew he had a rep as someone who bounced around and got
into trouble," recalls Dixie coach Greg Croshaw, "but he was at a
point where he knew what he had to do."
Dillon rushed for 1,899 yards that season, became a highly
coveted juco All-America and returned to Seattle to play for
Washington--where he had wanted to play all along. Dillon didn't
waste that chance either. Despite starting only eight games in
1996, he set Huskies season records for rushing yards (1,555),
carries (271) and touchdowns (23).
After one season at Washington, Dillon decided he was ready for
the NFL and declared for the 1997 draft. However, his checkered
past apparently made many teams wary, and he slipped to the
middle of the second round, and the Bengals chose him with the
43rd pick. Dillon didn't hear his name called, because when he
wasn't among the first 10 selections, he retreated to his
bedroom, locked the door and wept. He didn't emerge until the
next morning. "He thought it was the end of the world," says his
brother Curtis. Still, he readily agreed to a three-year deal
with Cincinnati and reported to camp on time.
When Dillon was a rookie, Boomer Esiason, the Bengals' backup
quarterback, took him under his wing, tutoring him on the offense
and on life in pro football. "I saw a kid who was going to be a
superstar," says Esiason, who retired after that season. "He had
the instincts, the ability and the raw talent to play what is
physically the toughest position in football. But I also saw
someone who was impatient, who wanted everything right now."
Says Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, "The best test of
a guy like Corey, someone who comes out of school with a lot of
baggage, isn't what happens after the first year. It's what you
do the year after that and the one after that. The question was
whether he would become one of those guys who fell back or
continued to grow. He's become a man."
Cincinnati special teams coach Al Roberts, who was Dillon's
position coach at Washington, has been an invaluable confidant
for Dillon, who trusts few people. "Corey is a completely
different person now," says Roberts. "He can handle himself now,
because he's more mature."
Still, there have been more bumps along the way. In March 1998
Dillon was arrested in Seattle for driving under the influence.
He pleaded guilty to negligent driving and received two years'
probation. Then last August he was charged with fourth-degree
assault in Seattle after fighting in the car with his wife of six
months, Desiree. Police reports supported Corey's claim that
Desiree started the altercation and that he was trying to defend
himself. The charge will be dropped after 18 months if Dillon
complies with conditions imposed by the court.
He finally seems to be making better choices. Every summer since
1997 he has run a free, weeklong football camp for inner-city
kids in Seattle, where he leases a house and returns to live
several months during the off-season. In April 1999, after a
religious awakening, he quit drinking and smoking. Desiree says
their two-year-old daughter, Cameron, has "softened the heart" of
"I know a lot of people never expected me to get this far, but
I've done it because I've been focused," Dillon says. "I went
through the back door to get here, jumped through some windows
and hopped over a few fences, but the end result is that I'm [an
NFL star]. I'm exactly where I've dreamed of being."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI
COLOR PHOTO: TOM PIDGEON/ALLSPORT RUN FOR THE MONEY Dillon, whose rushing total has gone up in each of his four seasons, had a club-record 1,435 yards on the ground in 2000.
Running in Place
Corey Dillon is one of only eight players in NFL history to run
for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons. But
Dillon's rushing totals are even more impressive when you
consider the quality of the teams on which the other seven backs
played. --by David Sabino
SEASONS RUSHING TEAM PLAYOFF BEST FINISH
YARDS WINS APPEARANCES
Terrell Davis, Won two Super
Broncos 1995-98 6,413 47 3 Bowls
Cowboys 1977-80 4,624 47 4 Won Super Bowl
Eric Dickerson, Lost NFC
Rams 1983-86 6,968 40 4 Championship
Earl Campbell, Lost two AFC
Oilers 1978-81 6,457 39 3 Championship
Curtis Martin, Lost Super
Patriots, Jets 1995-98 5,086 39 3 Bowl
Eddie George, Lost Super
Oilers-Titans 1996-99 5,365 37 1 Bowl
Barry Sanders, Lost NFC
Lions 1989-92 5,674 30 1 Championship
Corey Dillon, Went 7-9
Bengals 1997-00 4,894 18 0 in 1997
"HE HAS AS GOOD A COMBINATION OF SIZE, SPEED AND TOUGHNESS AS
ANYBODY," TENNESSEE'S REESE SAYS OF DILLON