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Dillon becomes Bengals' identity

5-12-01, 10:40 p.m.

Jim Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach, laughed Saturday about how it has all come full circle.

Back in 1997, when he helped convince the Bengals to take Corey Dillon in the second round of the NFL Draft, Anderson couldn't get Dillon on the phone, either.

Of course, that was because Dillon wouldn't talk to anyone. He took no calls and closeted himself away, so angry that he slid from the first round to the second round because of foolish teen-age deeds. Heck, he didn't talk to anyone until he showed up at minicamp the next week.

Well, Anderson couldn't get Dillon on the phone again Friday to congratulate him on the biggest contract in Bengals' history. He spoke to his wife and figured he would get to him at some point Saturday.

"I think he's just soaking it in," said Anderson of Dillon's silence. "I'm sure he's drained. Like, 'That's finally over with.'

"I don't think he's been waiting for this for the past year or the past two years," Anderson said. "He's waited for this since the day he was drafted."

How big was this deal for Dillon? The five-year contract does more than give him nearly $13 million this year.

It validates a career.

How big was it for Bengals President Mike Brown?

It validates for all the naysayers that the man cares, is willing, is trying, and, yes, is spending.

All Brown has done this offseason is hire four new assistant coaches, sign four free-agent starters, and lock up his franchise player for five years. That $18 million under the salary cap? They've got about just enough left to sign $4.5 million in draft picks and maybe pick off a veteran cornerback after June 1.

But then, Dillon and Brown have a lot in common these days. Both are fighting perception. Both are trying to break free of the past.

Dillon's made-for-TV journey through the juvenile legal system, three junior colleges, a drive-through stop at the University of Washington, and four prolific but largely anonymous seasons with the Bengals always left him yearning for the intangibles.

Acceptance. Reward. Roots. With the same flourish he signs his NFL record memorabilia, the money gave him all three.

"I always wanted him to stay in Cincinnati. We did a lot of praying the last couple of days. I thank Jesus for making it happen," said Dillon's mother, Jerline, from Seattle Saturday.

"I wanted him to play his whole career there and retire there," Jerline said. "People were always saying he couldn't stay in one place. You want your children to be stable and be comfortable and I'm just so happy he's staying put. I know they love him there."

Maybe Dillon figured out he was destined to be a Bengal before the rest of us. Both of them have had trouble scraping up respect around the country no matter what they do.

For instance, the Bengals got banged last week in " Sports Illustrated," for giving

34-year-old left tackle Richmond Webb a three-year, $9 million deal. SI could have praised them for front-loading the deal for a veteran left tackle who can still play.

According to CBS Sportsline, the club gave Webb a $1 million bonus and salaries of $1.5 million in the first two years. That leaves $5 million in the last year, ($1 million of which is a roster bonus), so it's a bargain two-year, $4 million deal for a player providing a massive upgrade.

It's the same for Dillon. He gets ripped nationally for changing agents twice and being difficult in negotiations.

But no one outside Kenwood knows how he made an effort to hang around Paul Brown Stadium this offseason to show management and coaches that he really wanted to be here. He worked out at times. He met with Brown. He spent time in the locker room. Unheard of for a player without a contract.

And let's face it, if Dillon himself hadn't issued Sunday night's challenge, there would be no deal today.

"I really think," Anderson said, "that just his presence and enthusiasm around the guys has helped make it so positive down here."

Anderson and Jerline Dillon know how much he's changed.

"He's a family man. He's back in the church and I thank God for that," Jerline said. "He would stray at times. In high school he did. But he's back and if you ask him, he'll tell you that God is his rock."

Anderson: "It's a question of getting older and maturing, that's all. He's become a man."

A man looking for the wins to match his numbers.

"He wants to win more than anything, believe me," said Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross, his close friend.

"We always talked about the contract and how he should have been a first-round pick. That was important to him. And if you look at it, he's done great things, but people around the nation don't really know him. We have to win."

Dillon plays livid. His two Pro Bowl berths have been seemingly fueled by anger. He has always run with two things on his shoulder: a stiff arm and a chip.

Mad at the draftnicks for pounding his past. Mad at the NFL for buying into he was a risk. Mad at the losing. Mad at the Bengals for not dropping the big money on their best player.

Now, does he have any anger left with the payoff here?

"Oh, I think this will make him more competitive," Anderson said. "Now he's going to want to prove that he's worth it. He's that kind of player. He's a goal setter. I think what he wants to do the most is win and that you're going to see the same kind of guy."

Ross thinks there's plenty of anger still boiling in Dillon. Indeed, in his team.

"We get no respect," Ross said. "Look at some of the calls that go against us in games. You hear what the announcers say about us. He knows we have to win for all the other stuff to come. He's just a competitive guy by nature. That won't go away."

Right tackle Willie Anderson thinks the contract will vault Dillon into even more of a vocal leadership role.

"Corey was a guy that always led by example," Willie Anderson said. "The young guys could see how hard a Pro Bowler plays. How hard he practices.

"But he never really knew how long he was going to be here. Now that his own situation is settled, now he's one of the older guys veterans. That's what I was telling Coach (Dick) LeBeau over the offseason. We need more of the veteran, older guys to step up, and I think Corey will be great that way."

Which sounds just about right.

Corey Dillon and the Bengals stepping up at the same time.

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