The training facility at the University of Oregon looks like the spa at a five-star boutique hotel, if all the guests were between 18 and 23 and the bulk of them weighed more than 300 pounds. The floors are finished oak, the walls smoked glass, the lighting soothingly dim. The 15,000-square-foot complex includes 25 stainless steel massage tables, a pharmacy lit with green neon and examination rooms for a dentist and an ophthalmologist. So many flat-screen televisions hang from the walls that SportsCenter is within constant sight, even during eye exams.
The only screen not tuned to SportsCenter, in fact, is the one broadcasting Dennis Dixon's lower half. It is a Tuesday in mid-March, and Dixon is running on one of three underwater treadmills, each of which is equipped with a pair of submerged cameras. As Dixon runs, he can watch his legs churn on the screen in front of him. Even more remarkable, the NFL can watch too. Tony Fisher, an intern in the football office, stands about five feet from Dixon, recording his every move with a Sony Handycam. Fisher then edits the footage and posts it to Dixon's personal website, dennisdixon10.com, so that NFL coaches, scouts and general managers can monitor the progress of his surgically repaired left knee.
This is rehab, Oregon style, where even a torn ACL can seem glamorous. The Ducks already have more than 300 uniform combinations, lockers with Internet ports and a training facility featured in Interior Design, all thanks to Nike founder and Oregon überbooster Phil Knight. For five months Oregon has deployed its considerable resources to another project: reconstructing the quarterback who was once the nation's best and preparing him for the NFL draft on April 26-27. In a field crowded with intriguing but relatively unknown QB prospects, Dixon is the true wild card -- a known superstar who became a forgotten man.
The week of Nov. 4 started with big plans. Hotel representatives from New Orleans were calling the Oregon football program to get a room count for the national championship game. The school was launching a website for Dixon's Heisman Trophy campaign. None of it was premature. The Ducks were 8-1 and second in the nation, with three winnable games remaining. Dixon, their 6' 4", 205-pound senior quarterback, was the most dynamic dual threat west of Tim Tebow, piling up 230.4 yards passing and 61.0 rushing per game. He was making a serious move up the draft charts.
There was just one kink in the plans. In the fourth quarter of a 35-23 victory over Arizona State on Nov. 3, Dixon ran an option right, kept the ball for an 11-yard gain and was tackled around the legs. He felt his left knee twist but never heard a pop. After a few seconds of screaming, he jumped up and jogged gingerly to the sideline. The crowd at Autzen Stadium let out a relieved roar. Trainers examined the knee and said it was stable. Dixon wanted to go back in, but with the Ducks ahead by 19 the coaches wouldn't let him. Precautionary reasons, they said.
An MRI taken the next day revealed that Dixon's left ACL was three-quarters torn. "I was shocked," said Oregon head trainer Kevin Steil. Dixon could still run and cut. The swelling was minimal. Dixon didn't understand why he didn't show more symptoms. Steil consulted three doctors, who presented Dixon with two options: He could have surgery immediately, or he could postpone it and try to play on the knee. Coach Mike Bellotti made his position clear to the QB: "It's not in your best interest to play for us anymore."
For a young football star, it seemed the ultimate dilemma: Give up a shot at the Heisman and a national championship, or suit up and jeopardize your future draft status. Four months later, over dinner in Eugene, Dixon thought back on his decision to keep playing and said, "It really wasn't so hard."
Practicing with the injury was easy; keeping it a secret was not. Outside of coaches, trainers and doctors, no one knew the results of Dixon's MRI. He did not tell his teammates, his roommates, even his father. "I didn't want anybody to panic," he says.
On Nov. 15, Oregon played a Thursday night game at Arizona, a nationally televised showcase for Dixon and the Ducks. Before the kickoff Dennis Dixon Sr. visited his son in the locker room and found him stretched out on a massage table. "Dad, I've been keeping something from you," Dixon said. His father laughed. "No you haven't," he said. "I could tell you were hurt."
Trainers fitted Dixon for a knee brace, and coaches devised a game plan to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. "We were holding our breath," said trainer Kim Terrell. On the game's first series Dixon scrapped the plan and ran 39 yards for a touchdown. The medical staff exhaled. But later in the first quarter Dixon faked a handoff, rolled left and planted his left foot in the turf. The foot stuck. The knee buckled. He went down without being touched. The ACL was completely shot. "It was like someone punched you in the stomach," said James Harris, Oregon's director of sports nutrition. "And as soon as you started to breathe, someone punched you in the stomach again."
The Heisman was gone. So was the national title. Dixon would not play another down for Oregon; the Ducks lost to Arizona and then dropped their final two regular-season games. Dennis's father rushed from the stands to the field, and when he got there, his son's first words were, "I don't regret a thing." As Terrell helped Dixon off the field, he asked her, "Did you see my touchdown?" Then: "When do we start rehab?"
It started that night. Dixon's mother, Jueretta, had died of breast cancer the summer after his senior year at San Leandro (Calif.) High, and Dennis's father didn't know if his son would be able to get on a plane for Eugene. Sitting in an otherwise silent visitors' locker room at Arizona, he reminded Dennis, "This can't be worse than losing your mom." With that, Dixon walked back onto the field and put on a headset, Oregon's new assistant quarterbacks coach.
Because he wanted to travel with the team, Dixon didn't have surgery until Dec. 15. Two days later he was walking without crutches. After five days he was riding a bike. In two weeks he was throwing, and a month after that, he was running. Day after day, as Dixon lay on a massage table in the training center, Terrell tested the knee's range of motion and Dixon watched the myriad televisions tuned to ESPN. The draftniks didn't mention him as they talked about other quarterbacks -- Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne -- whom he had outplayed for 2 1/2 months.
Agent pitches to potential draftees are often superficial, all about dropping names and promises. Jeff Sperbeck of Octagon went to Dixon in early January with a concrete proposal. He wanted to turn Dixon's dormant Heisman website into a platform to broadcast his rehab. The site would rebuild Dixon's image as trainers rebuilt his knee. He wouldn't be ready to work out in February at the NFL combine or in March on Oregon's pro day, but the Internet could help persuade skeptical NFL general managers that Dixon was still worth drafting.
The plan appealed to Dixon's taste for transparency. "Besides," he says, "I don't mind the spotlight." Oregon, with its sophisticated approach to marketing and technology, offered the perfect backdrop. Terrell would explain Dixon's regimen. Offensive coordinator Chip Kelly would put him through drills and film study. Fisher would record his progress and edit, with Sperbeck's help. Kyle Wiest, an assistant in the football office, would update the site. Says Fisher, "Nobody had done anything like it."
Dixon, who graduated last June with a sociology degree and a 3.27 GPA, has full access to the training center. When he arrives daily at 9 a.m., Harris has a creatine shake waiting for him. When he leaves, as late as 5 p.m., Harris has another shake ready -- chocolate milk with glutamine and whey protein. "We would do this for any of our former players," says director of football operations Jeff Hawkins. "But Dennis is special. We owe it to him."
Before the website's launch in mid-February, Sperbeck e-mailed the link to more than 100 NFL general managers, personnel directors and coaches. Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp shot back a reply: "I wish everyone had this." Nevertheless, when Dixon attended the combine later that month to participate in interviews, some G.M.'s were surprised that he wasn't on crutches and weren't aware he had begun throwing. "Look at my site," Dixon pleaded. "Just look at it."
When Fisher started filming workouts in mid-February, Dixon could barely drop back. By mid-March he was shuffling from side to side in the pocket, lofting 60-yard fly patterns to former Ducks teammates Jordan Kent (now with the Seahawks) and Cameron Colvin and firing 15-yard slants to roommate Leon Murry. After one of Dixon's passes hit Murry in the ribs, the receiver collapsed in a heap, gasping, "My lungs!"
Dixon played outfield in the Atlanta Braves system last summer and was a finalist last fall for the Draddy Trophy, given to the top scholar in college football. In other words, he has options outside of football. But no QB in this draft has longer arms (36.25 inches) or bigger hands (9.75-inch span) or a faster 40 time (4.49 seconds last year at Oregon). When Dixon was a junior, Bellotti told him he was a better prospect than Vince Young. And that was before Dixon completed 67.7% of his passes in 2007, with 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's draft expert, believes Dixon is a better passer than Young but not as explosive a runner. He projects Dixon as a fourth-round pick. Asked where Dixon would have been drafted if he hadn't been injured, Mayock said, "Who knows?"
Last Thursday, when Dixon walked to the 50-yard line at Oregon's indoor practice facility, 10 NFL scouts stood in a line, beneath a banner that read blitz this. They had come to witness the rebirth of Dennis Dixon.
Most potential draft picks have multiple opportunities to impress. For Dixon, this was the Senior Bowl, the combine and pro day rolled into one -- the first time he was throwing for an audience since that Arizona game. Fisher stood with the scouts, his Handycam rolling. The sideline was packed with people who'd hastened Dixon's recovery -- doctors, trainers, coaches, staffers and, of course, his father. No one spoke above a whisper.
Dixon threw every kind of pass, even the Hail Mary. He missed a few. He favored his knee a little. But at the end Jeff Horton, a St. Louis Rams offensive assistant, was shaking his head in admiration. "This guy had surgery three-and-a-half months ago, and you see him here today -- his arm strength, his mobility," said Horton. "I think he helped himself a lot."
A few scouts playfully asked Oregon coaches not to send video of the workout to other teams. But Fisher was already hustling up to his office with his Handycam, ready to download and edit the new footage. By nightfall it was online.