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In a rare interview, Dillion speaks about his place in history, his fiery relationship with the media, and his search for respect
FOXBOROUGH -- Only 15 players in NFL history have rushed for 11,000 yards, and the newest member of the elite club was standing in a corner of the Patriots' locker room last week.
He's a proud man, this Corey Dillon. And he was asking for one thing.
He's pounded the NFL pavement for 10 seasons, ringing up 11,083 yards, most often rumbling into defenders with a punishing, pad-crunching style.
The total ranks him 15th in league history, the list topped by Emmitt Smith (18,355) and including such greats as the late Walter Payton (16,726), Eric Dickerson (13,259), Tony Dorsett (12,739), Jim Brown (12,312), Marcus Allen (12,243), and Franco Harris (12,120). With 154 yards, Dillon will pass O.J. Simpson (11,236) for 14th place.
So, what does it all mean to Dillon?
"Just a reflection of 10 years of work," he said as he prepared for today's game against the Texans at Gillette Stadium. "Days I didn't feel like going in. Days I was sore. Days I was hurt, and stuff like that. It adds up, all those days when I felt like that and toughed through it and did it anyway."
The bulldozing 6-foot-1-inch, 225-pound Dillon is still doing it today, now in his third season with the Patriots after seven long years in Cincinnati. He arrived in New England having totaled 8,061 rushing yards, and enters today's game having amassed 3,022 with the Patriots, including a franchise-record 1,635 yards in 2004.
Yet as he racked up those yards, Dillon often felt that no matter how hard he ran, how many touchdowns he scored, or how good a teammate he was, respect from those outside his team's locker room would elude him.
The roots of his thoughts came from a fiery relationship with the media, which he felt tagged him in a way he never could escape since his time at the University of Washington. He could run over defenders but never away from the dark cloud he felt others continued to cast over him, even as he attempted to live a better life than he had in the past.
So he essentially shut it down, speaking infrequently about his place in the game, and his accomplishments. If the respect wasn't there, he wasn't interested. And he still isn't today, as his talks with outsiders have been limited.
"What means a lot to me, as far as this game is concerned, is respect," he said. "The whole 10 years, you can't write anything positive about somebody who has been in the game, and now has 11,000 yards? All you want to write about is how old he is, how fast his 40 time is. That's bull. That's how I look at it."
Few have had the chance to peer through the lens in which Dillon, who is known in the Patriots' locker room for his joke-cracking ways, looks at many things. To get that initial glimpse, to hear what motivates him to keep chugging along and how he's finally found his football peace, and to understand why his wounds with the media run so deep, start first by paying your respect.
The proud man, based on the body of work, has earned it.
Football has loved him back, because not many running backs can take the pounding Dillon has and still be as productive. Some days, the body aches so much it's hard to come to work. Then he arrives at Gillette Stadium, making the drive from Newton, and all is well in his world.
It wasn't always that way, but he calls his time in New England a blessing, as it's a place where he can be one of the guys, not the guy.
"It's been excellent, coming from where I came from," Dillon said with a laugh, not hiding the fact his seven years in Cincinnati weren't filled with many fond memories. "It's been easy, smooth, fun, and I've been enjoying myself. It was everything I was looking for. It's peace. More and more peace.
"Just to come in here and knowing that guys are on the same page of winning. That's the ultimate goal. There isn't too much other stuff going on around here. Everyone's mind is on going out there and winning football games, which was soothing to me. It was something I was searching for."
He found it, and in the process earned his first Super Bowl ring, in 2004. He's worn the ring once, maybe twice, but he needs no reminder what it means.
"Thinking back on it, winning a Super Bowl, that's one of the hardest things to do," he said. "To repeat, to try to get back there, this organization has been so blessed and so fortunate. I don't see how they did it, because this stuff is tough. It's an uphill battle trying to get back there. And they've been back-to-back, won three. You have to tip your cap to that, because those things don't come by every day, or come easy."
Yet, unlike that Super Bowl season in 2004, when he was the unquestioned workhorse in his first year with the team, Dillon's role is different this time around. He leads the Patriots with 654 yards on 157 carries, but has split the load with dynamic rookie Laurence Maroney (624 yards, 155 carries). Dillon is content with the role.
"I'm here to do what I have to do and take advantage of the opportunities I get," said Dillon, who leads the team with 10 touchdowns. "I'm not going to complain about the ones I'm not getting. In training camp I said I'm going to enjoy this time, and that's been my motto. This is my time to enjoy and I'm not going to let anybody ruin that. Nobody. I don't care who that is."
Oftentimes, Dillon felt his nemesis came in the form of the media. The sour thoughts trace back to his one season at the University of Washington, in 1996, when he felt past transgressions were blown out of proportion and created an image of him that he's sometimes still struggling to shake. He admits he made mistakes, but his seemed to never be forgotten.
"It just seemed from there that it kept rolling, and since this guy said this about him in Washington, let's keep doing it," Dillon said. "I keep hearing about stuff. I'm 32 years old and every blue moon you hear, 'When he was 15 . . .' Who [cares] about when I was 15 years old? I wasn't thinking about the NFL and the NFL wasn't thinking about me. That's just being real.
"If you want to attack somebody about when they were a teen, I'm sure there are a lot of people in this world who are not pleased about some of the things they did when they were a teenager. I'm not the only one."
In the times Dillon has agreed to interviews, he hasn't been pleased with the way most unfolded.
"I feel that I've been burned so many times that at this point it doesn't even faze me to talk or not talk," he said. "I'm pretty sure they're going to do what they've been doing, and come up with their conclusion and write what they want anyway. The lies, the accusations they try to put on you, trying to put this tag on you -- he's this, he's that. The famous one is the malcontent one, which kills me.
"Ask anyone in this locker room who is the funniest guy, who is the guy you love to be around to have fun. I'm the dude. The thing about it is that it's not an act. It's me. It's real. So, just knowing that, and knowing where I stand with my teammates, I don't worry too much about anybody else."
Heath Evans remembered joining the Patriots last season, curious as to how he'd fit in as part of a running back group with Dillon.
"I came in with an outsider's perspective, didn't know Corey from Adam, and from Day 1 I was welcomed into that running back room," Evans said. "It was like I had been there for years. Corey and I hit it off from Day 1. He's one of those guys who is a joy to be around. We goof off all day, almost every day. It drives [running backs coach] Ivan [Fears] nuts, we keep it light and that makes work fun, and makes the season fun."
"This isn't one of those sports you can play until you're 90," he said. "I wish it was, but it's not. When my time comes, I'm not going to be angry about it. As a matter of fact, I might be the happiest man on the planet, to be honest."
Dillon's contract expires after the 2009 season, although with a $4.42 million hit on the '07 salary cap, he could be a candidate for restructuring. The fact he's still running strong at this point of the season (79 yards on 16 carries last week) is one indication he still has more to give on the field.
"Only I know the time," he said. "When that time occurs, I'm going to enjoy it because there are a lot of things in life that are meant for me to enjoy. To be honest, I've missed out on a lot of stuff with my kids. This game has taken away a lot of times I needed to be there, but couldn't be there."
Dillon and his wife, Desiree, have plans to delve into real estate when his playing days are over. Dillon has felt comfortable settling in Newton, citing the annual Morgan Quitno Press ranking that Newton is now the country's fourth-safest city.
"It's quiet, which suits me, suits my personality," he said. "I'm not one of those guys who needs to be noticed. I'd rather be a regular Joe, just like everybody else. That's how I go about my business, not too flashy. Coming to Newton was more for my family and putting them in a good environment and a good situation. It's nice and quiet, and that's more than I can ask for."
Dillon, who was born in Seattle, never had spent extended time in New England before joining the Patriots. Since that time, the team has posted a 32-8 record in games he's played, and a 1-4 record in games he's missed.
As for the mark he's left on the game over 10 seasons, it might best be described as black and blue.
"I don't do too many things that are exciting," he said. "I'm not the fastest guy in the world. I'm not trying to run around you or juke you."
Along the way, Dillon has continued to chase something not so easily earned, respect from those outside the locker room. It has seemingly served as motivation for him each season, and led him to tuck his career accomplishments into his jersey during 2006 training camp, then produce them for a reporter to read.
It all came back to what Dillon feels he's entitled to based on his body of work. Respect.
"I was counted out before this season even started," he said. "To be where I'm at, and doing what I'm doing, I've already won the game. I don't have time to be going back and trying to recite everything that everybody said negative about me. That's their business. But it ain't true, because on paper it says something else."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.