Something is amiss. Ten weeks after returning a kickoff for a
touchdown in the Super Bowl, Atlanta Falcons wideout Tim Dwight
has regressed terribly. He's sitting at a long table in the
middle of a downtown Iowa City bar, surrounded by a cluster of
ordinary Iowa seniors who have congregated to do what seniors do
in the spring. They gripe about the jobs that haven't been
offered, and they tell of their latest idle discoveries, such as
what happens when a lab rat is dipped in liquid nitrogen and
hurled against a brick building (same thing that happens to a
china teacup). They drink and then drink some more.
This is an article from the May 24, 1999 issue
Dwight, a health nut who scolds his mother, Nancy, for putting
butter on green beans, sips from a pint of Killian's and coolly
blends in. He chides lifelong friend Jeremy Harrod about the
night last fall when, while visiting Dwight in Atlanta, Harrod
begged to be driven to the home of Falcons running back Jamal
Anderson to get a jersey autographed. (Dwight obliged.) He's
stumped by Steve Altman's barroom sucker riddle: "If nine men
take nine hours to dig a hole, how long would it take one man to
dig half a hole?" Answer: There's no such thing as half a hole.
The night's crowning moment comes at closing time, when Altman
and Harrod stuff golf ball-sized Jawbreakers into their mouths
and awkwardly crush them, producing side-splitting laughter of a
distinctly you-had-to-be-there variety. "I love this town," says
Dwight. In all, he's part of the crew, just another senior.
Except that he isn't. One season into a promising pro football
career, Dwight has thrown his life into reverse. He has returned
to Iowa City to run one last season of track for the Hawkeyes,
thus becoming one of the few athletes to successfully initiate
an NFL career and return to college to compete in another.
Think: Letterman goes back to Ball State to play the tuba right
after getting the Late Night gig.
Dwight has taken this homecoming to its extreme. He has gone
from playing in the biggest sporting event in America to
competing in a minor college sport contested far beneath the
public's radar. He hasn't simply gone back to college; he has
also gone home, to the city where he was raised and lived an
athletic life straight out of Gil Thorpe--"Opponents were asking
for his autograph when he was in high school," says John
Raffensperger, Dwight's track coach at City High--and to the
house where he grew up. He mows his family's lawn, bugs his
father, Tim, a high school history teacher, to buy new work
boots and tries to remember to call his mother when he won't be
coming home for the night. In addition to running track, he
finished his course work this spring and graduated on Saturday
with a degree in sports management.
The track part has been the most trying. First Dwight had to
play well enough last season to feel comfortable enough to spend
the spring in Iowa City rather than stay in Atlanta and
participate in the Falcons' off-season workout program. Then he
had to endure a ridiculous NCAA inquiry into his track
eligibility, and finally he had to wrestle with an injury to his
right hamstring that kept him from running in a meet until May
1. Now he's pointing toward helping Iowa win its first Big Ten
outdoor track title in 32 years, at the conference meet this
Friday through Sunday at Purdue. Dwight, a sprinter, will run
legs on the Hawkeyes' 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays and will
also run the 100 and 200.
No matter how he does at that meet, Dwight is happy he returned
to Iowa City. "Last fall was the first time I'd really been away
from home," he says. "Now that I've come back, I have a
different relationship with my parents. It's like we're friends,
and that means so much because you just don't know how long
you're going to have your parents around."
His brother, Jason, an Iowa sophomore and an intermediate
hurdler on the track team, is also living at home. This is
another bonus for Tim. "I was never there for him when I was in
high school or college because I had so much of my own stuff
going on," says Tim. "Now I can be more a part of his life."
None of this--the return to campus, the donning of a college
track uniform, the rediscovery of family--follows the ordinary
trajectory of the ascendant pro athlete, but Dwight isn't
ordinary. He was born without the caution gene and, accordingly,
has thrown his 5'8", 184-pound body into life and sports. He's
like a Super Ball ricocheting around inside a shoe box.
The first time former Hawkeyes football teammate Jared DeVries
met Dwight was at the 1994 Iowa high school all-star game, when
Dwight blocked the then 225-pound DeVries so violently that both
came away groggy. "The guy is just extreme," says DeVries, a
defensive tackle who was a third-round draft pick of the Detroit
Lions last month. "And he's extreme in a way that you just don't
see very often. It's almost crazy."
The summer before his sophomore year at Iowa, Dwight leaped off
an 85-foot cliff into the Wisconsin River. He later jumped out a
third-story dorm window into a shallow snowbank just for kicks.
Falcons players and coaches have told him to practice at least a
modicum of self-preservation on punt and kickoff returns, lest
he get himself crushed. "I've asked him to let up, run
out-of-bounds once in a while," says Atlanta special teams coach
Joe DeCamillis, "but the guy is such a kamikaze that he won't do
As a high school freshman Dwight, who weighed only 140 pounds at
the time, spent most of the season on the sophomore team. He was
elevated to the varsity for a playoff game against Assumption
High of Davenport. The first time he was handed the ball, he
went 80 yards for a key touchdown. "Fearless, even at that age,"
says Larry Brown, his high school coach.
Dwight rushed for 4,047 yards and scored 80 touchdowns in high
school. He was recruited by most of the Big Ten and Big Eight
(now the Big 12) schools, but he decided to stay home. Switched
from running back to wide receiver after his freshman season
with the Hawkeyes, Dwight caught 139 passes, 21 for touchdowns,
and averaged 16.3 yards per reception during his career. He was
most lethal as a punt returner, setting Big Ten records for
career yardage and touchdowns (five).
Because of his size scouts were skeptical that he could succeed
in the NFL, and Dwight didn't help himself by bombing at the
1998 combine. Still bothered by a groin injury suffered late in
his senior year, Dwight ran the 40 in a plodding 4.6, good for a
pass rusher but hopeless for a kick returner and wideout.
On the weekend of the draft Dwight was with the Iowa track team
at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif. Free on Saturday, he sat
in his hotel room and watched three rounds pass without hearing
his name. He called his parents and went to dinner alone, angry
Back in Atlanta, DeCamillis and coach Dan Reeves hadn't
forgotten Dwight. "I was incredibly stressed," recalls
DeCamillis. "I had watched Tim every weekend in the fall, and I
knew he could make plays. I just wanted him on the board when we
picked in the fourth round."
He was. In California on Sunday morning Dwight was warming up
when teammate Ellen Grant approached and chirped, "Hey, you got
drafted by the Falcons. I just heard it on the radio." It was
not quite like getting a cap and jersey from the commissioner,
but for Dwight it was no problem. "Fourth round and down is
where you find the guys who love to play football," he says.
Dwight signed a three-year contract with salaries of $144,000,
$196,000 and $216,000, plus a $225,000 signing bonus. "Then he
came into training camp just blazing," says Anderson. "His
energy was awesome." In a conditioning drill on the day before
formal practices commenced, Dwight ran five consecutive 40s in
4.5 or less, with minimal recovery, proving not only that his
combine performance had been an aberration but also that he was
spectacularly fit. He beat out incumbents Todd Kinchen and Byron
Hanspard for the punt- and kickoff-return jobs, respectively,
and also became a third-down receiver.
During a rookie season in which he missed four games with a
minor knee injury, Dwight caught only four passes,
although--shades of high school--his first catch, against the
Carolina Panthers in the season opener, went for a 44-yard
score. He returned 31 punts for 263 yards and added another 973
yards on 36 kickoff returns, one of them a 93-yarder for a
touchdown against the Panthers on Oct. 4. The Falcons used him
to run the ball (eight times, for 19 yards) and even to throw it
(once, for 22 yards). "We haven't even scratched the surface of
what Tim is going to do for us," says Reeves.
In the Super Bowl, Dwight averaged 42 yards on five kickoff
returns. His 94-yard touchdown gallop in the fourth quarter gave
the Falcons a last, desperate breath. "He's fearless," says
Reeves. "Not many guys come back on kickoffs at the speed that
he does. Not many guys have his knack for catching punts going
Dwight has never played any other way. "Look, you're going to
get hit out there," he says. "Wouldn't you rather be going 100
miles an hour than 50? I think about the collisions. I'll be
standing back there on a kickoff looking at their guys,
thinking, That dude weighs 285, that one weighs 295, but then I
just get hyped up and go." He goes, for the record, without
Two months after the Super Bowl, Dwight was back on campus at
Iowa. All season he had looked forward to returning. Track isn't
sport No. 2 for him; it's 1-A. He won the state high school 200
as a freshman and went on to win 11 more state championships and
10 titles in the high school division at the prestigious Drake
Relays. His father was the assistant coach in charge of sprints
at City High. ("I take no credit for his speed," says Dwight's
dad. "It's a genetic accident.") At Iowa, Dwight ran 10.3 in the
100 and 20.91 in the 200 and long-jumped 23'4 3/4". At the Big
Ten championships last spring he finished second in the 100 and
ran leadoff on the winning 4x100 relay.
"There's something about track," Dwight says. "It's not just
running workouts, which is torture, or running meets. It's
getting to the point where you're so in control of your speed
that you can just relax in a race. And then you're not running,
you're floating. I love that feeling."
However, in late February, after consulting with the NCAA, Iowa
declared Dwight ineligible because he had entered into several
endorsement deals as a member of the Falcons. The NCAA suggested
that Dwight might regain his eligibility by repaying his
earnings. Dwight wrote checks totaling more than $20,000 to,
among others, a car dealership and the operator of a card show.
In addition, he agreed not to pursue any other endorsement
opportunities until June. "None of what I did had anything to do
with track and Iowa," Dwight says. On April 5 the NCAA agreed,
declaring Dwight eligible; the endorsement money was returned to
The hamstring injury, Dwight's first, followed four days later,
so Dwight decided to focus on the Big Ten meet. Even while
recovering he remained involved with the track team. During
practices he clowns with no-names five years his junior and
exposes them to a work ethic they couldn't otherwise imagine. He
tags them with nicknames, like giving stringy-haired freshman
distance runner Shaun Allen the name Jericho, after the shaggy
character in the movie The Jericho Mile.
When Dwight made his '99 debut, it was spectacular. A crowd of
more than 4,000 turned out to watch the school's first night
meet--"But mostly to see Tim Dwight," says Larry Wieczorek, his
coach at Iowa--and Dwight did not disappoint. Running in his
first meet in nearly a year, Dwight ran a scorching 46.5-second
leg on a 4x400-meter relay that broke the track record. In
subsequent weeks Dwight helped Iowa's 4x400 relay qualify for
the NCAA meet. The 4x100 relay also moved to within striking
distance of qualification. On such little training, his
performances have been staggering.
On a cool April night Dwight drove 26 miles north to speak at
the annual banquet of the Boys & Girls Club of Cedar Rapids. "I
want to talk about dreams and goals and never giving up," he
said before the dinner. Dwight has always had dreams, and now he
has bigger dreams: Catch more passes, run back more kicks for
touchdowns, make big money. He'd like to buy his 52-year-old
parents the small Minnesota resort they used to visit when he
was a kid. "It's been for sale for a while," says Dwight. "I'd
love to have my parents retire and run it."
He wore a funky black ensemble to the dinner, eschewing jacket
and tie. "When I was a kid and saw somebody in a suit, I tuned
him out," says Dwight. He followed Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to
the podium, but he didn't use the podium, instead clearing the
dais and inviting all 60 children in the audience to sit on the
stage facing him. "This is for the kids," he said before turning
his back on the grownups. It was a bold stroke, if only for the
challenge of controlling so many children past their bedtime.
"Turn out the lights," Dwight told a man at the back of the room,
and then he began:
"Look at me. I'm a shrimp. So what's wrong with that? Work hard.
Keep on dreaming...."
do for us," says Falcons coach Reeves.