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Retiring Dillon finds green pastures

Corey Dillon

The only thing Corey Dillon rips these days is his drive. The only thing longer than his woods is his patience. All he fights now are sand and water instead of the score and safeties.

"I'm just another guy in retirement," Dillon says from tiny Calabasas, Calif. "I drive the kids to school; I do a little bit of traveling. I play a lot of golf."

At 36, the head cover may be on the Dillonator. But told he's now on the Hall of Fame ballot and that the fans hold the vote, Dillon had to call it the way he sees it.

"To be honest," says Dillon, who could be scathingly so, "I don't know if I've got a chance with the fans. I think if they just look at my body of work and forget the tirades, yeah, it's a no-brainer. It came from frustration. I couldn't stand the losing. That's all it was. I was just as frustrated as the fans. I never had a problem with them or the city or anything like that."

The first week of voting concludes Friday and runs through April 20 as fans cut a ballot of 31 to the 10 finalists for the second Hall of Fame class that yields three winners later in the spring. Dillon says the inaugural honorees of Paul Brown, Anthony Muñoz, Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Isaac Curtis are "no-brainers."

And in his first year of eligibility Dillon knows he's in a heated race with cornerback Ken Riley's 65 interceptions and nose tackle Tim Krumrie's legend that he saw close up when Krumrie was the Bengals defensive line coach.

"That's Dick LeBeau stuff," Dillon said of Riley, "and Krumrie has to be in there. I remember watching (Super Bowl XXIII) when he broke his leg and still tried to play. Great competitor and I was lucky enough to be around that attitude when I played."

Dillon agrees that like LeBeau, Riley should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Canton is where everyone thought Dillon was headed when the season after the Bengals traded him to the Patriots he had a career-high 1,635 yards and won a Super Bowl ring.

But two years later in 2006 he retired with 11,241 yards. More than a nice career. Good for 17th place all-time. Yet, at best, borderline Canton for the man who broke two of the greatest records set by Hall of Fame backs Jimmy Brown and Walter Payton.

"I played 10 years, 11,000 yards, I played the game the way it was supposed to be played," he says. "Maybe I cut it short. But it was enough for me. I wanted to live the second part of my life."

It sounds much mellower than the first half. While in Cincinnati, Dillon always dominated the discussion with larger-than-life antics on and off the field. If he wasn't racking up 100-yard games in becoming the franchise's all-time leading rusher despite some of the worst passing attacks in the modern era with hard-charging, flat-out venomous runs, he was holding out or lashing out or acting out.

The monologues are more memorable than some of the records. When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked before last season's Paul Brown Stadium finale if it was going to be his last home game, he shrugged that he didn't know. But he wouldn't throw his uniform in the stands after it was over.

"Tell Marvin," says Dillon after a long and easy laugh, "that's a good one."

That is, if course, what Dillon did after the loss to the Browns on Dec. 28, 2003, which turned out to be his 107th and last game as a Bengal.

"I'm backing up the truck in here tomorrow," Dillon said on that date as he motioned to clean out his locker after the game. "We all knew this day was coming. It's not a big mystery. Nobody needs to be shocked. Nobody needs to be asking why. I'm happy. I'm giddy. I'm just happy. ... It's time for us to do some business decisions."

That was more than seven years ago, which means he's been gone as long as he was here. Time has doused a lot of the anger.

"I wish I'd done some things differently," Dillon says. "Yeah, that was one of them. I wish I had gone about some things in a different way. If I could go back in time in a hot tub, I would change some things. I thought it was the only way I could get to where I wanted to go. But looking back, I wish I was more humble about my desires. I'm older. I've got more responsibility now."

Seven years is, at the same time, a long time and a blink of an eye he rushed for 8,081 yards in seven years here. Two of his three girls were born after he left Cincinnati with wife Desiree. Their oldest, Cameron, is 12. Dillon talks to his best friend from those days, linebacker Adrian Ross, every other day. He occasionally talks to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Michael Basnight. He still has a relationship with running backs coach Jim Anderson that involves phone calls and Christmas cards.

Dillon says he's much more patient than that angry young man. He thinks his 14 handicap has had a lot to do with that.

He says he first picked up golf as a Bengal, when quarterback Jon Kitna invited him out to one of his daily excursions at Georgetown College during training camp. Then he got even more into it when Patriots like Tom Brady were partners and now it has evolved into 320-yard drives and several golf trips throughout the year. He loves to play in Vegas and might have been headed there this weekend for a celebrity tourney if the girls weren't scheduled for some softball games.

"When I first went out with Kit, I was terrible; every other swing was bad," Dillon says. "I'm mad I didn't pick it up when I was younger. Brady is unbelievable. He's got to be a scratch player. I love it. I play at least twice a week. If I don't go out with some of my friends, I'll go out by myself. I don't get mad out there. It's just like when I played. It's just you and the course. No excuses. It's taught me patience. I love looking at the scenery."

Dillon finds himself looking at one of the natural world's great scenes in his home that laps up not far from the ocean and Malibu. It is the plaque the Bengals gave him a few days after he broke Payton's single-game rushing record on a still-surreal 278 yards that birthed PBS's first win, 31-21 over Denver. He has the same reaction he had on Oct. 22, 2000.

"That's a lot of yards," he says.

"It's in my throne room and I see it every day," he says. "The mind-boggling thing is, dude, they knew we were running it every play. That's the mind-boggling thing. And it came against top-grade competition. It wasn't like it was against Cleveland or somebody. Denver had the (NFL's second-ranked run defense), so it wasn't like it was a guy going against some Pop Warner team."

But it looked like a Pop Warner team beating an NFL team. The Bengals came in winless and completed two passes during the game. None in the last three quarters. Dillon passed Payton even though 10 of his carries were for a yard or less. He put that one on the notch next to breaking Jim Brown's rookie rushing record with 246 yards way back in the last century when Esiason was his quarterback and Tennessee was still called the Oilers. 

"Jamal Lewis was a great back and I love Adrian Peterson. I think AP is one of the best backs in the game today," Dillon says of the guys that have since broken the big record. "But no one is going to do it on 22 carries again. The offensive line played great that day. We all came together and it was a great accomplishment.

"We weren't very good when I was there. It was tough. You talk to the guys that were there. It was hard. But we played hard. I was able to do some great things individually. The fans have to judge that for themselves."

Dillon never played on a team with a winning record in those seven seasons. The closest he came was the 8-8 of that last year. For a long time there were two reasons to get up on a Cincinnati Sunday morning.

God and Corey Dillon.

"I'm not a spitting image of Jesus; I've made mistakes," he says. "I don't know anyone that is perfect."

Dillon has heard of quarterback Carson Palmer's trade demand and he has some advice, although he admits he doesn't know much about the situation except that the Bengals have had better teams than the ones he was on. But he does know how much the Bengals endured with him before they pulled the trigger.

"If I could talk to Carson, I'd tell him the Bengals aren't going to trade him," Dillon says. "No way. He's going to have to put the pads back on. I think I'm the only one. After me, that's going to be it."

The Bengals unloaded Dillon for a second-rounder in the 2004 draft and he still isn't quite sure how the thing gained momentum throughout the '03 season. Especially now since he just found out the report that surfaced in the middle of the 2003 season that the Bengals were open to trading him was wrong. But it came when Dillon was suffering the worst injury of his career, a torn groin that limited him to 541 yards, his only sub-1,000-yard season as a Bengal.

"It just kind of got a life of its own and I was mad about the trade stuff because I was hurt and I couldn't get out there," Dillon says. "It was a little loopy and I felt I was in limbo and I did the best I could."

Time to get in the hot tub, maybe. But not before he grabs 18. And, yes, he would be thrilled if he could add a Hall of Fame headline next to the Bengals plaque.

"Of course, it would mean a lot to me," he says. "It would be a great thrill. But I look at my body of work and I know I did the best I could."

The fans make their call.

Body of work?

Or piece of work?

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