NOT LONG AGOMarcus Dixon's NFL aspirations were a virtual pipe dream, one he lived outthrough his PlayStation console. Given a copy of Madden NFL 08 last Christmas,Dixon created an avatar in his own 6'4", 284-pound image and plugged itinto the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line.

In an unlikelytwist, Dixon's digital fantasy has become reality. After going undrafted out ofDivision I-AA Hampton in April, he signed a three-year, $1.1 millionnonguaranteed deal, one that further extends a new lease on a life that almostcame to ruin five years ago. In the spring of 2003 Dixon was an 18-year-oldblue-chip senior defensive lineman at Pepperell High in Lindale, Ga., a star onthe gridiron and in the classroom. He was on track to deliver the valedictoryspeech on graduation day and enroll at Vanderbilt the next fall. All of thatcame crashing down after a 15-year-old student accused him of sexuallyassaulting her on school grounds. Dixon claimed the sex was consensual. A juryacquitted Dixon, who is black, of rape, but because the girl, who is white, wasunder 16, he was found guilty of statutory rape and aggravated childmolestation—the latter a felony that carried a mandatory 10-year prisonsentence.

The case stokedsimmering racial tensions in Dixon's hometown of Rome, Ga., where his adoptivewhite parents (who rescued him at age 10 from a biological mother who battleddrug addiction) were demonized for spearheading his defense. Dixon served 15months at a medium security facility; in May 2004 the Georgia Supreme Courtruled that he should have been tried only on the misdemeanor statutory rapecharge. The molestation conviction was overturned, and Dixon was freed.

Dixon, whocompleted his GED in prison, enrolled at Hampton and picked up where he leftoff on the football field. He was twice all-conference and impressed scouts atFebruary's combine, where he ran a 5.2 40. Dixon wasn't drafted, but severalteams were interested in signing him as a free agent. He chose Dallas, whichhas of late become a sanctuary for players with troubled pasts. Dixon, 23, hasimpressed coaches with his work ethic and ability to quickly translateclassroom concepts to the field. "There are a lot tools there—like hisshort-area quickness and in-line movement—that get me excited about workingwith the guy," says defensive line coach Todd Grantham.

And so Dixoncontinues his quest. "Just think of having a dream and actually getting tolive it," he says. "It's just the greatest thing ever."

The Pop CultureGrid

PHOTO© TETRA IMAGES/CORBIS (BIBLE)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)