Colts tight end Ken Dilger lives in a new four-bedroom house
with a three-car garage in the posh suburb of Carmel, Ind., just
a few miles north of Indianapolis. As in many such subdivisions
creeping outward from Midwestern cities, the neighborhood
borders a patch of farmland that has yet to be paved over by
developers. Drive toward Dilger's home from the north and you'll
speed by grain silos, green pastures and grazing horses. Travel
away in a southward direction and you'll pass moving vans,
bulldozers and tractor-trailers. In the middle of this
construction Dilger, the best rookie tight end in the NFL last
year, is comfortably perched between his big-time future and his
When Indianapolis selected Dilger out of Illinois in the second
round of the 1995 draft, he was an unknown quantity. As far as
Colts fans were concerned, his best attribute was that he was
born and bred a Hoosier, raised in Mariah Hill (pop. 400), three
hours south of Indianapolis. The local faithful botched his
name, incorrectly pronouncing it with a soft g, and assumed that
the 6'5", 258-pound Dilger would be just another plug in
tailback Marshall Faulk's brigade of blockers.
But this was weeks before offensive coordinator Lindy Infante,
now the team's head coach, installed Indianapolis's new
wide-open offense. This was months before quarterback Jim
Harbaugh directed the first of his four second-half comebacks
and ignited a passion for Colts football that hadn't been felt
since the franchise moved from Baltimore more than a decade ago.
At the end of the season Indianapolis fell one miracle catch
short of the Super Bowl, Harbaugh earned a trip to the Pro Bowl,
and Dilger finished with more receptions (42) than had fellow
rookie tight ends Kyle Brady (Jets), Mark Bruener (Steelers) and
Christian Fauria (Seahawks), all of whom were drafted ahead of
him. "Ken was the single best addition to our football team last
year," says Harbaugh. "He made one clutch play after another."
During the Colts' biggest regular-season win, an 18-17 upset of
the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 15, it was Dilger, not Faulk, to
whom Harbaugh looked in rallying the team. The 49ers repeatedly
left the rookie uncovered in the middle of the field, assuming
that he wouldn't hurt them. Dilger floated to the seams in the
defense and finished with seven catches for 125 yards and a
touchdown. Before Dilger had dried off from his postgame shower,
his story was already being packaged for the 11 o'clock news:
the small-town kid who had become a home-state hero.
July 31, 1996
Indiana's personality is shaped by the plethora of small towns
that dot its landscape. In these towns people thrive on the
comfort of knowing each other, and folks act downright giddy
when one of their own makes it big. "The whole community adopted
Kenny as their son and consequently the Colts as their team,"
says Bob Clayton, Dilger's football coach at Heritage Hills
High. "There's going to be a whole generation of kids from
southern Indiana who will now root for the Colts because of
Last season a caravan of five vans and a Winnebago loaded with
Dilger supporters regularly trekked from Mariah Hill to the RCA
Dome on game days. Dilger himself spent nearly $11,000 on
tickets for his friends and family. During an afternoon of
signing autographs at the Tee To Green Golf store in Terre Haute
this spring, 20 former high school acquaintances dropped by to
reminisce. So did a kid Dilger once babysat. And a woman stopped
by to show off photos of her great-grandfather, who just
happened to be Dilger's great-uncle.
Dilger, however, doesn't feel as if the future of football in
the state of Indiana is weighing on his shoulders. The laid-back
former high school quarterback tries to glide through life,
letting things come to him. It is with this philosophy that
Dilger approaches his NFL career. "I'm not big on goals," he
says. "I just like to let things happen, and usually they work
out." Dilger, it seems, has always been sure he would be in the
right place at the right time, even though he grew up in the
middle of nowhere.
Mariah Hill is a no-stoplight town where billboards are still
painted on the sides of barns. In fact, until nearby I-64 was
built in the early 1970s, the place literally wasn't on the map.
Heritage Hills High was so small that despite having ended his
career as the Patriots' alltime leading passer, Dilger was
recruited by neither of the state's Big Ten schools, Indiana or
Dilger had planned to attend Ball State or Indiana State. Then,
in November 1990, on the last weekend of the recruiting period,
he made an official visit to Illinois. The school was out of
scholarships for the fall, but Illinis coach John Mackovic
promised Dilger a free ride starting the next spring.
Once on campus, Dilger worked out with the scout team at
quarterback before moving to tight end, where he earned the
starting job as a redshirt freshman in 1991. In his senior
season he caught more passes (41) than any other tight end in
the Big Ten, but Penn State's Brady earned first-team
all-conference honors. "Because I wasn't first-team, fewer
people had heard of me," says Dilger. "I felt I had to show
people I wasn't a fluke when the Colts drafted me so high."
Dilger got his chance to do just that. In the fourth game of the
1995 season, he made his first pro start. At midseason he
already had more catches and more receiving yards than all of
the Colts' tight ends combined had produced in 1994. "Ken can do
just about anything," says Indianapolis tight ends coach Tom
Batta. "He can run the short and middle routes, and because of
his speed you have to respect him deep. Most tight ends can only
catch the short ball." Dilger's 15.1-yards-per-reception average
ranked second in the league among starting tight ends last year
(the Jaguars' Rich Griffith averaged 15.2 yards on just 16
catches). Now that Dilger has a full season's experience,
Infante expects him to catch at least 60 passes in '96.
Dilger seems unfazed by these increased expectations. As he
builds a deck in his backyard, all his thoughts of pass routes
and blocking schemes are lifted away by the afternoon breeze.
His golden retriever, Ginger, spends her time alternately
sniffing the power tools and sprinting toward the lake. All the
while, Shania Twain's voice is purring from the outdoor speaker
system that Dilger installed himself.
It's more than a small-town kid could ask for. But, as Dilger
always knew it would, it feels just right.