7-19-01, 7:45 a.m.
SEATTLE _ They never spoke to each other Wednesday.
But Booth Gardner and Corey Dillon conspired to make the world as small as the little skin football field surrounded by a dirt track hard by the scarred brick of Garfield High School.
And as good, too.
Back in 1993, as Gardner finished his second and final term as governor of Washington, Dillon comatosed on his mother's couch a couple of blocks from Garfield. He was out of high school, but not in college. He was out of work, but in a vicious late 20th-century trend eating its young. He had a juvenile record as long as a football field and nowhere to run..
It looked like the naysayers were right. Ever since he was little, his brothers had been calling him a natural. But it looked like he was headed to the grave or jail instead of the NFL.
Yet eight years later on a rare sweltering day in the Central District, Seattle's so-called answer to "The Hood",here was Gardner driving across the bridge from Tacoma and dropping off his grandson at Garfield for Dillon's free one-day football camp. It was Wednesday, just two days before Dillon headed to the big camp, the Bengals training site in Georgetown, Ky., to begin his term as the richest Bengal ever.
"He's been a select soccer player, but he wants to give it up to play football. This is going to be his first year,"Gardner said of his pre-teen grandson. "I told him about Corey Dillon having a three-hour camp and he perked up. He grew up on ESPN. He wanted to be here."
So did the 65 or so kids who showed up to play and as many adults who wanted to remind Dillon and his two Pro Bowls that they know him or want to know him. This was the $26 Million Man's idea of a good time. Keeping it mellow with the kids back in the neighborhood.
"No one,"said the Rev. Ray Hampton,"is as down-to-earth as Corey Dillon."
"It's not about me,"Dillon told the kids at the end of the day. "It's about you."
But really, it was.
Dillon has never hid his distaste for his hometown. From the cops he feels harassed him starting as an 11-year-old about reflectors on his bike, to the envious peers who tried to take him down. Dillon finally adopted Cincinnati as his off-season home this past winter and he concluded sitting on his mother's porch the night before the camp, "They treat me so much better in the 'Natti'.
But Wednesday was all about Dillon and Seattle. It was all about a governor's grandson, a determined mother, competitive brothers, a 36th-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, a Bengals'teammate, and a kid named Dante Robinson who runs in the footsteps of Dillon as Franklin High School's starting running back.
While the kids took a break munching sandwiches and chips and guzzled soda, Dillon was on one knee talking to Robinson and two other kids now playing for his alma mater.
"When I was playing, dude, I was a cold piece,"Dillon said.
"Yeah, we've seen the tapes,"Robinson said.
"I mean, we were hurting cats. People were getting carried off on stretchers,"Dillon said. "I was getting 150 yards on 10, 12 carries a game. Just think if I was serious. If I
was working out in the weight room. Listening. Dude, I know what you're thinking. But the coaches know what they're talking about. I was a hard head. I didn't want to do anything they said. But they were right. Listen to them, man."
That was the best part of the camp. That, and when some 11-year-old kid named Antoinne Wafer kept holding on to Dillon's arm until he decided to wrestle him to the ground.
"He's cool," Antoinne said. "I hope I'm on his team. He's got an arm."
That, and the end of the camp. When all the kids took the field in a 30-on-30 touch football game. Dillon and Adrian Ross, the Bengals linebacker who is Dillon's best friend in the pros, directed the traffic complete with end-zone dances. That was the best part. That, and Dillon's post-game talk.
"You know how many times people told me I wasn't supposed to do something?" he asked the kids. "If you've got a dream and you want to do it, go for it. Listen to your parents and coaches. Put school first. The NFL doesn't happen if school doesn't happen first. Make it your priority. Then if it doesn't work out, you've got your education to fall back on."
Just standard jock talk by a pro athlete who 747ed in for the day?
"Hey, man," said Dillon, "I lived it. I'm a walking testimony."
"It's a beautiful thing," said Hampton, who ministers the area with the Seattle International Dream Center. "What Corey Dillon did today was give kids an opportunity who just don't get to go to a camp."
Dillon wished the camp was more organized. They were scrambling for equipment and there were too many kids on offense. But that's what happens when you try to put an event on in Seattle when you live in Cincinnati. But somehow it all worked out and the kids had a blast.
"It wasn't a mechanical success. . .Yeah, I'm not either. I always do it the hard way
and it seems to come out all right," said Dillon, back on the porch and locked out as he waited for his mother to get back from Garfield. "I'm just looking to help one kid. If you change one kid around every year, that's what matters."
The porch is at the front of the home Dillon bought for his mother after his rookie season. It's about a mile from where he grew up on 23rd Avenue, the street known as "The Blade," that cuts through the Central District. It's close enough and modest enough that people bug Jerline Dillon about why he didn't buy some swanky place in Kirkland or some other 'burb.
"They want to know why I stayed in The Hood," Jerline Dillon said. "This isn't "The Hood." That's just a term. This is where I've lived and raised my kids. I know everybody here. And when I was working, the bus line was right down the street there on the corner."
After 13 years, she no longer works as a housekeeper at Swedish Hospital. She's had torn cartilage repaired in her right knee and she has a degenerative back problem. But her sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day optimism is contagious. She misses the job because she enjoyed picking up the spirits of the patients.
"Life is what you make it and God has given me a good life," Jerline said. "Corey is a gift from God. So are all my children. You have to look at them as gifts."
Jerline just painted the porch by herself the other week and she keeps busy with the flowers in front of the porch. It does a pretty good job hiding the fact there are six bedrooms in the place that get a lot of traffic. Dillon's brothers, Charley, 33, and Curtis, 31, are currently staying there, and Jerline is often visited by their two children.
The SEA-TAC airport has nothing on Jerline Dillon's place.
Which is another reason Dillon bought it. It's an eight-minute drive to the airport and the 'Natti.
"You can only do this in The Neighborhood," said Dillon, sitting on the steps at midnight as he greeted family and friends passing by or using the Open Door policy. There is Sill, a neighborhood guy he got close to during his one year at the University of Washington. Sill had just picked up Ross at the airport. There is Uncle John. There is a cousin. There is Mike, Charley's friend and one of the guys who went with Corey and Charley down to the Boys and Girls Club to play some basketball earlier in the night. There is "Pooh," Curt's seven-year-old son, banging on Corey's back.
"Little Dude," Dillon said. "Did you eat some cake or something? You're wide awake."
Corey always used to be the little dude. Charley, 6-6, 300 pounds, and Curt were forever making Corey play with their friends to even up teams.
"When he was Pooh's age, he looked like he was 10," Curt said. "Kids thought he was already weightlifting."
"We played football in the streets and he was playing against our friends," Charley said. "I mean, he was diving on the street for the balls. He didn't care. He'd get bloody and black and blue and he'd keep playing."
"I told you I've played on concrete before, so it doesn't matter what the fields are like," Corey said.
As he got older, the Seattle streets hit back. Jerline Dillon still grimaces of her son's wayward high school years. He stopped going to church. Stopped listening. Just stopped, period.
"He ran with the wrong kids," Jerline said. "They were kids who wanted him to fight their own battles. I kept telling him he had a chance to make something of himself and they just wanted to take him down with them."
The low point was when he got arrested away from the neighborhood in the downtown and implicated in a drug deal when he was 15. To this day, Dillon insists he never had the "rock," on him, that it belonged to the guy he was with, and he didn't know the guy had it on him.
"Am I supposed to pat down everybody I meet?" Dillon asked. "I did rebel. I partied. I hung out. I was a crazy teen-ager."
Gangs were at the height in the Central District when Dillon hit high school. Things aren't as tough now. Some money is being put into the place as pockets get re-developed, but like Hampton said, "There are other problems, now, too, such as the break-down of families and drugs are still here."
But Dillon said the gangs never got him.
"I knew everybody from the Central District to the South End," he said. "That's the way Seattle is. What do you do when these are the people you see every day and you have to walk through there? I got along with everybody. No one gave me problems."
But the problems were big enough that Curt jumped on his little brother one day. Corey was moaning about Jerline not buying him some shoes he wanted.
"I told him if he got his act together and go to the pros, he could buy anything he wanted and he wouldn't have to ask anybody for anything," Curt said. "I think he started to turn it around then. Probably the last year of high school. He'd still get off track at times, but he kept with it long enough."
He kept with it so that on Wednesday, guys like Bookie Gates showed up to help coach the camp. Gates grew up here, went to Garfield, and is a senior-to-be at Washington State. He hit third for the Cougars this past spring and finished third in the Pac-10 in RBI as he bids to get drafted higher than where the Twins took him.
"It's an honor to be asked to help," Gates said. "I just wanted to see him, listen to him, talk to him again, see what kind of work ethic he's developed with the Bengals and see if I can transfer it to baseball. To have a guy in here like that for just the day helps all these kids."
Luther Carr, 30, Garfield's head football coach, calls it inspiring. Never mind the kids. For him, too. Most guys who make it simply don't come back. He shakes his head looking at his school.
"You wonder where the money goes," Carr said. "King County is the richest county in the country and our school has the most National Merit scholars in the state and is always in the top 10 of the freshman at (the University of Washington). And you wouldn't know it by looking at the place."
Dillon can't change the world on this day. All he can do is lead some drills on handoffs and swing passes. There are five-year-old kids and 250-pound Franklin linemen.
"Let me see what you got."
"Show me the good stuff."
"Hey," he asks when he sees a good move, "can I be your agent?"
Then he peeled off and signed a shirt or a paper cup, or talked to someone who wandered on the field to say hello. It was more like a street festival with some football fundamentals in the middle.
"This is great for what it is," said Mychael Alexander, one of those Franklin linemen. "It's kids getting together with no fighting and having a good time."
The governor's grandson son had to leave as Dillon and Ross ended the day signing autographs. He had no time to get a signature. So the governor's grandson tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Corey, I want to thank you for having me. I had fun." And shook his hand.
Dillon, who had no idea he was talking to a soccer convert or a governor's grandson, stood up, took his hand and said, "Thank you for coming. I like your skills. You've got ability. Stay with it."
Maybe that was the best part of the day.
For one day in the middle of the city, Dillon came back to help football beat soccer. And just about everything else.
"Just one kid," Dillon said. "That's all you need to touch."