By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Much of the focus during training camp has been on the Washington Redskins' new $100 million defensive tackle. Albert Haynesworth, both affable and talented, could put his name on a car dealership if he wanted. And homes? He could build them in several states.
In the same locker room, running the same drills, there is another defensive tackle who wakes up at the same time each day. Antonio Dixon takes a bus to the practice facility for a full day of practices and meetings. The same bus takes him back to the team hotel at night. There, Dixon, studies his playbook for two hours and calls his mother, often reminding her of his promise.
"When I make it, mama, you won't have nothing to worry about," he tells her.
Dixon, 24, and his 11-year-old brother Michael Antoine bicker with each other about which will be the first to buy Corenthia Dixon a house. "Oh, whichever one wants to, that's fine with me," Corenthia said with a laugh. "As long as I got my babies nearby."
Dixon, an undrafted rookie who's trying to make the Redskins' 53-man roster, says most of his teammates aren't aware of his background. And truth is, even if he told them, it's all pretty hard to believe.
Dixon has battled a severe stutter since he was child, and when the words struggle to come out, Dixon pats his knee and stamps his foot. "It seemed normal to me. It's what we did. I was used to it," he said. "But now that I'm older, I look back on it, and I can see that it was a rough life. But everybody has to go through stuff. There are people with much worse than me, so I just count my blessings."
Corenthia was 15 when she first became pregnant. She dropped out of school and was 17 when she had Antonio. A single mother, Corenthia was only 21 when her mother died from complications related to AIDS. Antonio was just 3 at the time. Without her mother, Corenthia could no longer afford to pay rent.
"I remember looking around, and the only thing in the world that I had was my kids," Corenthia said.
Between fast food chains and hotel housekeeping jobs, she struggled to earn a livable wage. Corenthia shuttled her young family back and forth between Atlanta and Miami. She jokes that her children spent more time in a Greyhound than any bus driver.
Antonio's father wasn't in the picture when he was younger. Frazier Hawkins was dealing crack, eventually nailed on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.
When Corenthia struggled with her own addictions, she temporarily lost custody of her children. When he was 11, Antonio spent nine months in foster care, which Corenthia says was the family's low point.
Even after regaining custody, Corenthia struggled to make ends meet. The family, which grew to include three sons and a daughter, bounced between houses and homeless shelters. Corenthia estimates that Antonio was enrolled in at least 15 different schools.
Football was always his respite. It was a place where his speech impediment didn't matter. Where he didn't have to worry about reading in front of a class, the letters blurring together and his classmates ridiculing him later. It was a place that always felt like home.
When the family was in shelters, he'd play football every day until 7 p.m. That was the check-in time for a night's stay. And in those comfortable periods when Corenthia could find an affordable apartment around the rough Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods of Miami, a young Dixon would play football until he heard his mother's voice.
"It'd be 11 or 12, and I'd yell, 'You better come on in this house because I'm fixing to lock the door!' " Corenthia said.
In high school, Dixon began to hone his abilities and caught the eye of Randy Shannon, at the time the recruiting coordinator for the University of Miami. It took Dixon a year of prep school to qualify academically, but after surviving the toughest of circumstances, and overcoming a dyslexia diagnosis, he was suddenly a college student.
"A lot of guys come from rough upbringing. They make wrong decisions, and they use that background as a crutch. That's not Antonio," said Clint Hurtt, the defensive line coach at Miami. "He's never looked for sympathy, never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him."
Dixon entered college as a 370-pound unmade bed of a lineman. He's lost 50 pounds since then, currently weighing in at 321. As a senior, he struggled with injuries and started only part-time. In four years as a Hurricane, Dixon tallied 45 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Though coaches say he's athletically raw, Dixon put himself in position to sign a rookie contract with the Redskins in the spring.
"He's fired up about being here, you can tell," said Redskins Coach Jim Zorn. "Here's my hope: His family, those who really understand his upbringing, I hope they're all proud of what he's doing. And I hope that he can be a light to everybody he comes in contact with."
The Redskins will scrimmage Saturday afternoon and players will make their best cases for starting positions, for playing time, for a spot on the roster. Some will be content to avoid injury and still others, such as that $100 million defensive tackle, won't participate at all.
For Dixon, it's another chance to prove he belongs. He's a long shot for the regular season roster, but because coaches see potential, he could earn a spot on the practice squad.
"He'll get some time in the preseason and hopefully we can get a better idea of how he might fit in," said Redskins defensive line coach John Palermo. "I had him his sophomore year in Miami, and he's come so far since then. Off the field, he's still very similar. He has a little more self-confidence than he had four years ago. But he's still a humble kid who's just very grateful for the opportunities he has."
If Dixon somehow made the roster, he'd earn $310,000 as a rookie. If he makes the practice squad, he can expect to earn $5,200 per week. Dixon says he'd rent an apartment and find a used car. The bulk of the money would go to his mom, who lives in a Liberty City duplex with Dixon's three younger siblings.
"This is something I want to do for the rest of my life, so I just need to keep getting better," Dixon said. "I have the opportunity to try to help my family out more. So I know I need to work hard every day."
Says Corenthia: "I think he wants to make sure none of us have to go through that again."
In June, Dixon returned to Miami to accept a degree in liberal arts. Even more impressive, Dixon was one of six college students across the country honored with the Wilma Rudolph Student Athlete Achievement Award, given annually to those who overcome great adversity to achieve academic success.
Hawkins, Dixon's father, is currently living in a halfway house in South Florida and scheduled for release next month. Though they had no relationship until Dixon was in high school, the two now speak regularly.
"He always talks about coming up to see me play in the NFL," Dixon said. "Maybe someday."
Corenthia now works as a cook at one of the homeless shelters that housed her family not long ago. There are photos of her and Dixon hanging on the wall, and she's quick to provide first-person testimony to anyone who will listen.
"It was hard for them and hard for me," she said. "I made mistakes, but I was just trying to find something stable for the kids. Life isn't easy, that's what I tell my kids. It sure can be hard, but you have to keep working. Nothing comes easy."