UL's Dillon didn't listen when they said he may be done
Joe Dillon remembers the day he found out as if it were in slow motion.
Learning the tissue around his separated hip was dying. Hearing he might never play again. Being comforted by the soothing words of his mother, Earnastine.
It really was a rotten day for the Ragin’ Cajuns outside linebacker.
“The first thing that went through my head: What?” Dillon says now. “Like, it was just blank. My mind was just blank.
“Then the first thing I did: I asked the trainers, could I go to my apartment.
“On my way home, I called my mom. I told her what it was about. And she said, ‘God don’t make no mistakes,’” Dillon said. “She said, ‘God has made not one mistake yet, but in this process we’re gonna take it one step at a time.’ … As soon as she told me that, I just calmed completely down.”
Just more than one year after he underwent major hip surgery, Dillon played Saturday in UL’s annual spring game. He was in for 20 snaps, and happy to be.
“It was fun,” Dillon said afterward.
“I went out there, and I felt great, so they just let me keep going and going and going.”
When he was diagnosed, few figured he had a chance to go again. He had avascular necrosis. It’s the condition that, for all practical purposes, ended Heisman Trophy-winner Bo Jackson’s NFL career. And it darn-near derailed Dillon’s college playing days, far too prematurely.
But Dillon wasn’t about to have that.
That’s what they said.
“From the time of diagnosis, that was on the back of my mind,” Dillon said. “But I never … would let that get to me.”
Through surgery, through a new head coach, through a full season lost, the reality of the possibility he’d never play another down ate away at Dillon.
But he wasn’t buying it.
“You know, it’s a little bit of a new lease on life for him,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said. “He’s very grateful to be healthy.”
'THIS IS MY BODY'
In 2016, after sitting out the previous year as a redshirt, Dillon made the USA TODAY Freshman All-American team.
Playing defensive end, the product of Tylertown High in Mississippi led all UL linemen with 51 tackles over 13 games, including 7.0 sacks, and helped the Cajuns get to the New Orleans Bowl and play Southern Miss.
The NFL-prospect whispers could be heard.
High expectations preceded his sophomore season. But before it began, Dillon hurt the hip.
It turns out he partially dislocated it.
He wasn’t aware of that at the time, however. He did sense something wasn’t quite right, but wasn’t sure what.
“This is my body,” Dillon said. “I know my body.”
Joe knows Joe.
“I know when my body isn’t acting right,” Dillon added. “And I had hip pain. But I just did not know what it exactly was.
“I thought it was just, like, a bruised muscle or something. I didn’t think it was as serious as it was.”
But it was. Oh, was it ever.
And as the season wore on, it showed.
He had 4.5 sacks, but his tackle count was down to 30 in 11 games — not on the rise, as anticipated. He had a big game at Texas A&M, but that quick first step from the year before simply wasn’t there.
At times, it looked like Dillon’s heart was playing at one speed and his body another.
Yet he insisted on continuing to play, right down to the bitter end of a 5-7 season that concluded with coach Mark Hudspeth’s firing.
With bowl-eligibility still on the line, pain be damned, he played in a late-November loss to Georgia Southern. He made the trip to Appalachian State for a season-ending 63-14 loss too.
The easy thing would have been to shut things down much earlier. But not for Dillon.
“I had to push through it to help my teammates,” he said.
“My bone was decaying. So it was pretty tough. … But it was a 'me between me' thing. … I wanted to play the last game like it was my last, for the senior class. And …”
Dillon laughs, not missing a beat.
“And that game,” he said, “almost turned out to be my last game.”
A PIECE WAS MISSING
Hudspeth was let go the day after the Appalachian State loss, in early December. Later in the month, Napier was hired.
The new Cajun coach arrived with what he calls an “identity plan,” implemented after the holidays early in the new semester.
He needed to get to know his new players. He wanted to understand how they worked in the weight room. He watched film, lots of film, to see how they performed on the field, before spring practice began.
Napier could tell something was off. It was quite a catch. The day of reckoning soon followed.
“He (Napier) said he could tell that I want to do it,” Dillon said, “but he said he could tell that my body was holding me back to a certain limit.
“He asked me what was wrong, because he (saw) how I was moving. And I told him my hip was hurting. Me and him had a long conversation; he said the next morning, ‘You’ve got to get an X-ray.’
“And when I got X-rayed the next day,” Dillon added, still not missing a beat, “there was a piece of my hip that was missing.”
THE BEAT GOES ON
Dillon’s hip bone didn’t completely pop out of its socket.
But when he partially dislocated the joint, he said, “it canceled a lot of the blood flow that was going to my hip, and it was just weakening the other bone, tissue, muscles.”
The bone cells, essentially, were dying.
Surgery was performed March 22, 2018.
“They went in and just cleaned the pieces of bone that (were) floating around up in there,” Dillion said. “They shaved the head of the bone down. They injected stem cells.
“And they repaired the torn muscles and tissue, removed dead muscles and tissue that were there, and they zipped me back up, and I’m here.”
So simple, still on beat.
Yet so very complicated.
A GOOD CORNERMAN
The injury. The diagnosis. The surgery.
They all took a toll.
Not just physically. Mentally, too.
“But my teammates, my mom, my dad (Burney), my family, everybody, the coaches, helped me get through it,” Dillon said.
When he first was told he likely was finished, Dillon informed one of his best friends.
“He just said, ‘Don’t say that.’ He was just telling me, ‘Don’t say that,’” Dillon said. “He said, ‘Always stay positive, always speak that you’re gonna be back soon.’
“But you know in the back of your head, you’re being told you probably won’t ever be able to play the sport again, that’s gonna linger in your mind. That’s the fight between you and you, telling yourself you’re gonna be all right.”
Even the best of fighters, though, needs a good cornerman.
Nickel safety Terik Miller signed with UL the same year as Dillon, 2015.
Prior to their sophomore year in school, they started rooming together.
By the time 2018 was winding down, and Dillon hadn’t appeared in a game, missing UL’s trip to the Sun Belt Conference championship at Appalachian State, not being able to play against Tulane at the Cure Bowl in Orlando, he was in pain.
Dillon readily admits it.
He said he “wanted to be out there in any type of way possible,” adding he even would have pushed surgery back a year if it just meant he could have played last season and been a bigger part of the first year of the new culture Napier had brought to UL.
“It wasn’t depressing — but it was getting there,” Dillon said. “Seeing my teammates busting their butt, week in and week out, and me wanting to help so bad — it was hurting.”
Other Cajuns could tell.
“He had a lot of guys in his ear, keeping him up when he was down — because he was very sad from missing a whole year,” said receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, a fellow Mississippian and, like Dillon and Miller, a member of UL’s 2015 signing class.
“Terik Miller … was always in his ear, like, ‘You got this. C’mon.’ And he just kept at it, kept coming to treatment, working with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Mark) Hocke in the summer to come back right.”
'IT WAS A BAD DAY'
And even back on the day Dillon received that devastating diagnosis, Miller reacted the way any close roommate would.
“It was a bad day, but I told him that everything was good,” Miller said. “God had him, so he was gonna get through it.”
Having dealt himself with a fractured fibula and tibia while at Escambia High in Pensacola, Florida, Miller knew naturally what to say.
“Dealing with injuries is hard. … But it’s all mental,” he said. “And I told him, ‘It’s all a process. It’s gonna blow over. It’s between the ears. It’s a battle every day.’
“So I told him he’s gonna be all right. And I just talked to him every day. … And now he’s getting better.”
From the physical part to the spiritual, Miller drew on personal experience as he delivered words designed to reassure.
“At certain times he was (down),” Miller said, “but I made sure I kept him up, and kept him grounded, and made sure his head was on right, so he would never get in a slump or be depressed.
“We have a good relationship, like a brother relationship, so he listened to everything I said. It wasn’t like I had to tell him over and over again.
“When I told him one time, he really understood — because I told him from experience, and not just what I heard,” Miller added. “I really went through it, so he did trust me (and) what I was saying.”
Miller knew when Dillon was having a good day, and when he was having a lousy one.
“We’re roommates,” he said, “so I can tell when he was down and he was up.”
Whichever it was, Miller also knew he needed to be there.
To check the fighter’s cuts. To offer the right words of encouragement. To push him back into the ring.
“I felt like he belonged to me, I belonged to him,” Miller said.
Dillon felt the same way.
“We’ve got each other’s back,” he said. “We just know each other very well.
“He knows how I am; I know how he is. He just would never let me get down on myself. … Every day, he made sure I was good, made sure I was straight, made sure I got back.
“That’s what he did: He made sure I got back,” Dillon added. “And I did get down on myself.”
'BACK TO OLD JOE'
The day he was zipped open, Dillon found the first flicker of hope.
“The doctor that did my surgery, he came in so confident about what he wanted to do,” he said. “I was at the point of ‘What else can I lose? Right now, I’m losing my chances of playing again. It can only get better.’
“We just wanted to try to see how it was gonna turn out, and it turned out really well.”
But not before trying times presented unexpected twists and unsettling turns.
“It was a tough process,” Dillon said.
But with help from so many around him, he’s navigated it.
The body is repaired. The mind is fine.
In late July last year, Dillon started to feel like "I got this."
He began running again. His leg no longer felt sluggish. He could lift it up and down.
“That’s when I really figured I’m starting to come back around like I was,” Dillon said.
It’s also when new Cajun coaches started seeing not the Dillon laboring on film to make a move, but the one capable of chasing a quarterback with flash like when he was a redshirt freshman.
“We’re talking about a guy that was basically told, ‘Hey, you may never play again,’” said Matt Powledge, Dillon’s position coach at outside linebacker.
“And I think he has a new outlook on everything, just as far when … you’re told that once, that your love for the game might have gotten snatched from you … he’s told me before that, ‘Hey, it’s pretty eye-opening.’”
The result, as Miller succinctly said, is that Dillon is “back to old Joe.”
And just what is that?
“Happy. Always happy,” the roommate said. “He’s a good-spirited person, so he’s never down too much.”
'JOE'S A BALLER'
Throughout the spring, as they will this summer and in preseason camp too, the Cajuns have been careful with Dillon.
When his knee started bothering him earlier this month because he was favoring the hip, for instance, he took some time off from practice.
But they’re not babying him, either.
“What’s gonna be key for us,” Powledge said, “is to make sure we kind of ease him into the process, and do a good job of kind of managing his reps.
“But there’s no question about it, in my opinion: By the time the fall rolls around, I think you’re gonna see a young man that ‘he’s back.’ That’s our expectations right now, and he’s definitely working toward that.”
“So I think you’re gonna see him push really, really, hard this offseason,” Powledge added, “to get back in the … same shape he was in beforehand.”
Napier, too, has high hopes for Dillon, who’s been playing at the Jack linebacker spot.
“Joe’s a guy who gives us a little something,” he said. “He’s very a versatile player.
“Joe can play with his hand down. He can rush. He also is good in space. He does a great job in coverage, when we do drop him.
“But the immediate impact is gonna be his play-making ability,” the Cajuns coach said. “He’s got enough ability to where he may not quite be right, but he’ll make the play. Certainly on third down he’s gonna be a difference-maker.”
Teammates sense the same.
“Joe’s a baller, and my brother,” said Chauncey Manac, also an outside linebacker. “I feel like we’re just gonna wreak havoc. But y’all are gonna see.
“I know it’s been hard for him. I know he wants this more than anything, because sitting out for a whole year from something you love is hard,” Manac added. “But we all had his back, and I feel like this is gonna be his year.”
With Manac back and Dillon getting a second shot, in fact, Powledge feels the two can help take the Cajun defense to a new level.
“Certainly (Dillon) has an ability to be a leader on our football team,” Napier said, “so him handling that opportunity the right way, I think, is big, and hopefully we get to watch Joe play for another two years around here.”
ALL ABOUT THE WORDS
For a guy almost written off, that’s saying a lot.
Dillon, however, never was one of those naysayers. He never considered calling it quits.
“It didn’t end like I wanted it to end,” he said. “I didn’t finish football like I wanted to finish football.”
The beat stops.
Dillon takes time to gather his thoughts, pondering how to phrase the feeling deep inside, his head starting to shake ever so slightly, side to side.
“My career is longer than how they say it was gonna end,” he said. “They said I wasn’t supposed to be playing football after that day. But it was like, ‘Nah.’ … I’m not gonna go out like that.”
Dillon is OK knowing that someday he will play his last college football game.
“But like that?” he said. “No.”
Those are Dillon’s words.
They’re spoken with a resolve fortified by the ones he heard from coaches. The ones he heard from teammates like Miller and the rest. The ones he heard from a parent back home in Mississippi on that especially tough day.
“I leaned on them words throughout the whole process,” Dillon said. “I’m not saying that just because of my mom, but that’s the truth. I mean, God, he don’t make no mistakes. At all.”