Motivated Dixon set for big shot with Steelers
Dennis Dixon's right arm offers a glimpse into why he likely won't get stage fright tonight at Baltimore when he throws his first meaningful pass in two years.
Etched on it is an image of his mother's face along with the words, "I'll holla," which is what Jueretta Dixon would often tell Dennis before they parted.
The tattoo — and the woman who showed him how to battle through adversity until cancer claimed her life while she was on the phone with her only son — will serve as a source of strength tonight when Dixon makes his first career NFL start, against the Ravens.
Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will sit out the game as a precaution after sustaining his third football-related concussion last Sunday. Roethlisberger told Dixon Saturday morning that the latter would lead the Steelers' offense in today's key AFC North game.
What Dixon endured before and after his mother died almost six years ago is why playing in a stadium where fans are particularly hostile to the Steelers will be nothing to fret about.
What the Steelers and Dixon can't know is whether he is ready to make the jump from No. 3 quarterback to starter with Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, who had surgery on his left wrist last Wednesday, out with injuries.
The second-year man, while talented, has thrown just one NFL pass. Dixon, 24, hasn't started a game since his senior year at the University of Oregon, and that came before a major knee injury ended his season and his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
"The nice thing about Dennis is he's usually pretty cool," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "He's been in big games. He kind of likes the stage, and that's what you want in a quarterback."
Lessons from a mother
Of the many qualities Dixon inherited from his mother, his father said two, along with her easy smile, stand out: "Quiet and focused on the task at hand," said Dennis Dixon Sr.
Jueretta Dixon exhibited both attributes and tapped into a deep reservoir of strength during her three-year battle with breast cancer.
She initially tried hiding her illness from her son and younger daughter so they wouldn't lose focus at school. She refused to take off work as a computer technician at the Naval Supply Center in Oakland, Calif., even as the cancer ravaged her body and a stroke left her paralyzed on her left side.
Just as she and her husband had been Dixon's biggest supporters growing up — they rarely missed one of his games or practices — she is still with him in spirit.
Dixon's ritual includes reciting the prayer his mother would say to him before games. To him, the "I'll holla" inscription on his arm serves as a reminder that the goodbye they shared on Feb. 3, 2004 is only temporary.
Indeed, their bond is so strong that not even death could break it.
"I know she's always participating with me," Dixon said.
Dixon, or Dennis Jr. as his parents always called him, last saw his mother shortly after he left for Oregon as a freshman.
One weekend he went home to visit, and as he made the eight-hour drive back to Eugene, he stopped every two hours to check in with his parents.
A couple of days later, he called home before one of his mother's chemotherapy appointments. With Jueretta in a wheelchair and unable to hold the phone, Dennis Dixon Sr. put the receiver by her ear.
As soon as she heard her son's voice, he said, she passed away.
She was 46 at the time of her death.
"I really believe she was holding on just for that moment," the elder Dixon said.
Dixon, who had enrolled at Oregon in January of 2004, struggled with the loss enough that he thought about going home for good.
A strong support system and the knowledge that quitting school is the last thing his mom would have wanted kept him at Oregon.
He eventually blossomed into one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He had thrown or rushed for 29 touchdowns and over 2,700 yards through 10 games in 2007 before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.
The season-ending injury caused Dixon to fall to the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft, and the Steelers were elated to get him.
Long and lean as a goal post, Dixon is arguably as good an athlete as anybody on the Steelers.
The 6-3, 209-pounder excelled in four sports (football, basketball, baseball and soccer) while growing up. He was drafted twice by Major League Baseball, and he spent a summer playing outfielder in the Atlanta Braves' minor-league system prior to his senior season at Oregon.
A fifth-round pick of the Braves in 2007, Dixon might have pursued a career in baseball had the sweeping curveballs he saw been easier to hit.
Focusing on the task at hand
Because he played in a spread option offense at Oregon, Dixon's learning curve in the NFL has been steeper than most.
But the Steelers were enamored with the ability Dixon showed as a pocket passer at Oregon.
"In college you think: 'Oh, he's just a running quarterback', but Dennis can really throw the ball, and he's very accurate," said safety Ryan Mundy, one of Dixon's closest friends on the Steelers. "I broke up a few of his balls (in practice), and I'm like: 'Dang, my fingers hurt.'
"He's always been focused and always wants to get better."
"He has worked his tail off to learn to get through a progression, stay in the pocket and then run if it's necessary," Arians said.
If it is necessary for Dixon to play tonight or in the coming weeks, he said he won't have trouble projecting confidence to those around him in the Steelers' huddle.
"You've got to show the team you're ready to go," Dixon said.
Hs father father has no doubts. Dennis Dixon Sr. and his son have become even closer since each lost the most important woman in their lives. Dixon Sr. rarely misses a Steelers' game even though he still lives and works in Oakland.
He piled up more frequent-flier miles this weekend as he traveled to Baltimore, and he will be in the stands tonight at M&T Bank Stadium.
Asked what Jueretta Dixon would be thinking with Dennis Jr. poised to take another step in a journey that has been a testament to perseverance, Dixon Sr. said: "Words couldn't say how proud she is right now."
Getting to know Dennis dixon
Here is the skinny on Steelers backup quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Birthplace: San Leandro, Calif.
Notable: Sixth on school's all-time list for total offense with 6,337 career yards.
Drafted: fifth round in 2008, 156th overall pick
Favorite TV show: "Prison Break"
Who is on your Ipod: Jay Z, Lil Wayne, U40
Favorite movie: "Deja Vu"
Favorite meal: Seafood. "I love crabs."
Favorite athlete growing up: Randall Cunningham
Favorite sports team growing up: Oakland Raiders
Something people don't know about you: "I can dance."
Funniest teammate: "(cornerback) Will Gay. That Florida slang that he's got, it's different than where I'm from. It's funny."
What three things you would have on a deserted island: Water, first-aid kit and food.