Ricardo Dickerson was tired. After two hours on the practice field, Maryland's redshirt freshman linebacker was dirty and sweaty; it felt good just to sit on the floor, take off his grass-covered cleats and stretch his legs.
As he talked about the route he and his mother negotiated to travel the one mile from Northwestern High School to College Park, Dickerson's eyes widened, and a sheepish smile surfaced. Then he pulled up his jersey and shoulder pads, revealing a large tattoo over his heart: "I will always love my mama."
Many young adults who grow up without one parent share a close bond with the one who raised them. Ricardo and Sonya Dickerson, though, seem particularly attached because of the hardships they have endured together. After overcoming physical and academic obstacles, both are enjoying Ricardo's success this season: He had two tackles in the season-opening loss to Notre Dame and two weeks ago made six tackles in his first career start as Maryland beat Georgia Tech, 34-10.
The Dickersons' journey started the night of July 10, 1982 -- more than two months before Ricardo was supposed to be born. When Sonya arrived at Washington Hospital Center, both she and Ricardo were in serious danger. After being delivered through an emergency Cesarean section, Ricardo -- who weighed just 3 pounds 61/2 ounces at birth -- spent two weeks in intensive care, requiring a feeding tube to eat and a breathing tube to force air into his underdeveloped lungs.
After 29 days in Washington Hospital Center, Ricardo finally went home, but his difficulties continued. Sonya Dickerson remembers making three or four trips a week to the emergency room because he was never healthy. As he grew older, Ricardo's asthma began to flare up, particularly when he would become overexcited.
"Every holiday, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, we were in the emergency room," Sonya said.
As Ricardo began playing sports, he learned to control his asthma. He enjoyed football and basketball, playing both sports at Northwestern, where he excelled on the football field and attracted interest from college coaches. However, while his grades were sufficient, Dickerson struggled on the SAT. He never could score high enough to meet the NCAA standard to be eligible to play as a freshman, despite taking the test repeatedly.
"I saw the same question pop up a couple times," he said.
Lacking a qualifying SAT score, Dickerson had to make a choice. Some colleges -- including Marshall, Howard and Massachusetts -- wanted him to enroll and sit out a season to become eligible. Junior college also was an option. But Maryland said it would hold a scholarship for him in case he was able to make it. So while many of his classmates went off to college, Dickerson went to work on improving his SAT score so he could become eligible and enroll for the spring semester.
"I just wanted to come here," Dickerson said. "It was a dream."
In an effort to improve her son's scores, Sonya, who often worked a second job to earn additional money, bought SAT practice books, flash cards and anything else she could find that might help. After meeting with his tutor, Dickerson often would go to campus and watch practice from a hill, wishing he could participate. Finally, that fall, Dickerson got the news that he had scored well enough and could enroll for the 2001 spring semester.
"It says an awful lot" that Dickerson stuck it out, Maryland recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley said. "It was a tough test for him. He did everything he had to, and it didn't come easy. . . . A couple times, he probably wanted to give up."
Once at Maryland, though, obstacles remained. Dickerson had spent time in Northwestern's weight room during the fall, but that hardly was enough to keep him in shape and he did not make a great first impression. He redshirted last season so as not to use one of his four seasons of eligibility, and while he shared the award for scout team player of the year, he felt he had not contributed much to the Terrapins' run to the Orange Bowl.
This season, expected to be one of the team's top reserve linebackers, Dickerson injured his knee in late August and feared the worst: A torn anterior cruciate ligament that would require season-ending surgery. However, further examination revealed damage to a less significant ligament, and Dickerson was able to return a week later.
"He is a hard-working, dedicated kid," defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said. "I'm a little bit surprised after his knee injury in the preseason to see how well he has moved on. . . . I don't know if he is 100 percent, but he gives everything he has. He is a very physical football player."