- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

Many times Antonio Dixon wondered how so much could go so wrong for one kid.

“I would always question God: ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Dixon says. “Stuff would get good and then it would turn bad, and when it turned bad, it would turn real bad.”

As bad as losing his father to a federal prison. As bad as seeing his mother develop a drug problem. As bad as calling homeless shelters home. As bad as not learning to read until the 10th grade.

Foster homes, dyslexia, a severe stuttering problem, more schools in a few years than most people attend in a lifetime. The trials never seemed to end.

Yet Dixon overcame it all and in doing so gave himself a chance to realize a dream playing in the NFL.

Now the 23-year-old defensive tackle faces one more daunting challenge to make that happen: Earn a spot on the Washington Redskins’ roster at the team’s deepest position.

Dixon didn’t know his father, Frazier Hawkins, for much of his childhood.

When Dixon was 3, Hawkins, then a high school wrestling coach in Miami, was charged with drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison in Jesup, Ga.

With her husband behind bars and without a high school diploma, Dixon’s mother, Corenthia, couldn’t secure steady employment that would have allowed her and her five children to afford to rent an apartment.

So they shuttled for years between homeless shelters and relatives in Miami and Atlanta.

The pressure of being her family’s sole provider got to be too much for Corenthia.

By the time Antonio was 11, his mother was so deep into drugs that a social worker took the children from her and placed them in foster homes for nine months.

The constant moving around took a toll on Antonio’s education. He estimates he passed through some 15 elementary schools, all without learning to read. His dyslexia wasn’t discovered until he was in the sixth grade, and he started receiving some special help.

He developed a severe stutter, an impediment that made him the frequent target of other children’s abuse and a handicap that he still struggles to control.

“It was hard,” Dixon says as he slaps his wrists, a device he employs when he just can’t get the words to come. “All my brothers could read, but I just couldn’t pick it up. Kids would tease me a lot. I have a short temper, and when I was younger I couldn’t control it. I used to get in a whole bunch of fights.”

Despite his troubled circumstances, Dixon didn’t succumb to the obvious temptations.

“A lot of kids were selling drugs and smoking marijuana, but he was always a good kid,” Corenthia says. “Antonio would always come straight home. He would pray every night.”

And as Dixon reached high school, his prayers began to be answered.

Dixon saw his father for the first time in prison when he was 15, a first step in re-establishing a relationship that eventually included regular phone calls and visits whenever possible.

His mother, now drug-free, found work in the kitchen at the same shelter in Miami’s rundown Overtown neighborhood where she and her children had lived at six different times during the worst years.

Dixon’s size - he’s now 6-foot-3 and 322 pounds - made him a major asset to Tim Harris, the football coach at Miami’s Booker T. Washington High, the only school Dixon attended for a prolonged period. The stability of staying in one spot allowed him, among other things, finally to learn to read.

Not only did the teasing about his stutter stop, but college coaches, particularly Miami recruiting coordinator Randy Shannon, started paying attention to the rising prospect.

“We thought Antonio could make it at Miami with our support system,” says Shannon, now the Hurricanes’ coach. “Tim Harris told me that Antonio wasn’t a bad kid. He just hadn’t had nobody to help him. We sent him to prep school so he could catch up.”

Dixon attended Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., riding a bus back and forth to Florida because he couldn’t afford to fly.

Then he enrolled at Miami, striving to make up for lost time.

“We are very proud of Antonio,” Shannon says. “He worked very hard for what he has accomplished. [A school assignment] that might take you or me 15, 20 minutes to read might take him an hour, but he would get it done.”

Dixon spent long hours in Miami’s academic support center when his fellow students and teammates were enjoying South Florida’s warm weather and hot parties.

“I used to put in 20 hours a week in study hall when everybody else was out partying and having fun,” Dixon says. “I had this tremendous opportunity. Why waste [it]?”

Dixon and tutor Kelly Pierce, later his academic adviser, virtually made the study center room and its Kurzweil text-to-speech synthesizer their own.

Dixon earned a liberal arts degree from Miami in four years, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.

And on June 13, Dixon was saluted in Miami as one of just six student-athletes nationwide to win the Wilma Rudolph award for persistence in overcoming hurdles to achieve on and off the field.

“It’s beyond amazing what Antonio has achieved,” Pierce says. “He was committed to being a role model for his brothers. He is someone you would idolize.”

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At Redskin Park, no one idolizes Dixon. As a rookie, he was assigned to lug veteran defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin’s helmet off the practice field every day. The challenge he faces in making the Redskins is much tougher.

Griffin and five others are ahead of Dixon on the depth chart. Only four or five defensive tackles will be on the 53-man roster.

Still, Griffin has been impressed with Dixon, who started 10 games at Miami and recorded 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

“We [haven’t had] pads on, but I can tell the run technique is there,” Griffin says. “Antonio’s big and strong. He wants to learn. He asks a lot of questions. His graduating after all he’s been through speaks volumes about his character. The guy’s a man.”

However, often times Dixon is too much of a man. Physically, that is.

“Antonio hurt his back lifting here, and as soon as he did, he went up six pounds,” says John Palermo, the Redskins’ defensive line coach who also served as Dixon’s position coach during his sophomore season. “His worst enemy is his weight. When it’s 95, 98 degrees out here and we have two-a-days, that will be a real test for Antonio’s conditioning. I see a great attitude, a good work ethic. He’s got really good quickness for a big guy. He has good feet and hands. He’s got a big upside to him.

“It’s a tough road to hoe at defensive tackle, but it would be great if he could be on the practice squad and learn.”

Dixon received a minimal signing bonus and will draw the $310,000 rookie minimum salary if he earns a roster spot.

If he doesn’t, the practice squad would make a fine consolation prize for Dixon and his family.

“I am really proud of Antonio,” Corenthia says. ” If he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it. I know he’s going to make it in the NFL because that’s what he wants to do.”

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