'B-L-E-S-S-E-D': Battling ALS, Sooners great Rickey Dixon still feels the love during Norman return
NORMAN — Rickey Dixon’s eyes still swirl in thought. His speech has escaped him, his strength has deserted him, but behind those eyes he’s still the same Rickey.
Sunday night, in his wheelchair parked at the end of Barry Switzer’s couch, Dixon focused those eyes into a camera that broadcast his face live to 84,000 adoring fans at Owen Field. More than 30 years since he starred for the Sooners, Dixon was celebrated at halftime for his upcoming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The crowd roared without pause for 21 seconds. Less than a mile away, Dixon’s eyes glazed with tears.
If the windows had been open at Switzer’s house on the western edge of campus, the cheers would have infiltrated an otherwise quiet living room.
Lorraine Dixon, Rickey’s college sweetheart, stood at midfield for the ceremony with three of their four kids. “Hey, Miss Lady,” Rickey used to call out as Lorraine passed in front of Dale Hall on her way to zoology class. She finally stopped one day to confront him. They’ve been together ever since.
Sunday reminded Lorraine of the last time her husband was in Norman — in 2015 when Dixon’s 1985 national championship team was recognized. Dixon was carted onto the field and the cameras again captured tears.
“Why were you crying?” Lorraine asked.
She wondered if it was the magic of being back on the field with his teammates — like already enshrined Hall of Famers Brian Bosworth, Keith Jackson and Tony Casillas.
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Rickey shook his head. That wasn’t it.
“Well, what was it then?” Lorraine asked.
“It was because they remembered me,” Rickey said. “Sooner Nation remembered me.”
They remembered him again Sunday, but the man smiling back through a 5,000 square-foot screen wasn’t the screaming rocket who played safety for the Sooners.
Dixon was always skinny — Switzer used to tell him to eat two Big Macs a day with all the fries he could handle — but now he’s frail.
On Sunday, Dixon sported red and white-striped sandals, red pants and his No. 29 game-worn jersey from the 1988 Orange Bowl. The vintage bowl patches that once stretched over his pads now slump over skeletal shoulders. Dixon can’t walk. He can’t feed or bathe himself. A blue tube from his ventilator keeps him breathing.
ALS is cruel that way, and Dixon’s football career is the likely culprit.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has robbed Dixon of the physical tools that once made him a terror. He was an All-American in 1987 and OU’s first winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
What ALS hasn’t taken is his mind and, as it glowed Sunday, his smile.
Dixon has one of those smiles that causes his eyes to squint until they shut.
When asked about his emotions Sunday night, Dixon took five minutes and 18 seconds to craft a one-word response. His caregiver, Dwayne Kidd, held a worn laminated sheet of yellow paper in front of Dixon’s hands. Kidd slid the paper alphabet beneath Dixon’s thumb, and Dixon raised his eyebrows when his thumb was over the correct letter.
“B-L-E-S-S-E-D,” Dixon spelled out.
“Rickey Dixon, Rickey Dixon!” Switzer shouted as his former star defensive back rolled up his driveway.
Because Dixon’s health didn’t allow for him to be at the stadium during the hall of fame ceremony, Switzer invited Dixon’s family to watch the OU-Houston game at his house. Dixon’s kids sat on the couch nearest him. Switzer settled into a tall chair adjacent to the couch. All eyes were on the TV that jutted out of a wall of wooden cabinets.
Switzer still commands any room, and stories flowed of Dixon’s playing days.
Like the one about the 1984 Pittsburgh game. Dixon was just a freshman, but defensive backs coach Bobby Proctor told Switzer before the game that he was going to put Dixon in on predictable third-down passing situations.
“So he put him in and damn if he picks off a post route and takes it all the way,” Switzer said. “He gets down about the 40-yard line and he sticks the ball out, teasing the quarterback chasing him. The quarterback had no chance of catching him, but he’s just holding it out there. I run down that sideline, and Rickey thought I was coming over to congratulate him. I came to chew his butt out.”
Three decades later, Dixon turned his head toward Switzer and they both grinned.
Dixon wasn’t offered a scholarship by any Southwest Conference school. Big-time programs weren’t interested in a 5-foot-10 and 155-pound “Pop Warner looking kid” as Switzer described him.
But Switzer saw speed.
And the greater the speed, the greater the collision.
“He’d knock the hell out of people,” Switzer said, his voice getting softer.
RJ Dixon, Rickey’s 24-year-old son, stopped playing football before he got to high school. He was always more of a bookworm like his mom. Lorraine is an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency. RJ graduated from North Texas with a degree in computer engineering. He works for a defense contractor in Dallas.
RJ follows football, but not like his dad. Rickey watches any game he can find, even after what it’s done to him.
“What he says he would do is switch up his play style,” RJ said. “He wouldn’t lead like he used to with his head, or hit like he used to.”
Doctors have told the family that Dixon’s ALS was likely caused by repetitive head injuries. Dixon played six seasons in the NFL, primarily with Cincinnati, after his college career.
Lorraine knew something was wrong when Rickey fell off his treadmill. Her husband was still strong. He owned a landscaping business after his playing days and held high school teaching and coaching jobs at several schools across the Dallas Metroplex.
A former athlete doesn’t just fall off a treadmill.
Shortly thereafter, in July 2013, Dixon was diagnosed with ALS.
“I thought about my kids, and that’s when we both cried,” Lorraine said.
Her husband would likely live three to five more years. Now he’s in year six.
Research has pointed to a possible connection between ALS and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries that is often found in former football players.
According to the ALS Association, 4 percent to 6 percent of CTE cases demonstrate “clinical or pathological characteristics of ALS.”
Like Dixon, former NFL players Dwight Clark, Steve Gleason, Tim Shaw and Kevin Turner were all diagnosed with ALS after their careers.
“It’s just not normal,” Switzer said of the sport. “It’s violent. It’s physical. Bad things can happen. Doing it continually has got to have some effect. Man wasn’t meant to do that.”
But Dixon’s eyes were transfixed to the TV. He had to peer to his left since he wasn’t quite facing the screen. He smiled as OU linebacker Kenneth Murray swallowed up Houston quarterback D’Eriq King on the opening drive.
“You can’t play the game of football and not coach mental toughness, physical toughness and take the hitting out of it,” Switzer said.
So what’s the answer?
“I guess you can play touch, play flag,” he said. “But no one’s gonna come see that.”
Two miles away, Dixon rolled up a ramp into a different home and turned left into a darkened den adorned with OU memorabilia.
And there was Steve Dolman, wearing a red and white No. 1 jersey, reclining in his wheelchair.
Dixon and Dolman locked eyes. It was a wordless conversation of understanding. They could see into each other’s lives — the lives that weren’t bound by the confines of their current bodies.
Dolman, an OU graduate and longtime supporter of the business school, was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. While in school, Dolman was a spotter in the radio booth for Sooner play-by-play voice John Brooks.
Rickey Dixon was one of his favorite players.
Dixon and Dolman graduated two years apart. Dolman’s sister, Kathy Grane, helped set up the unlikely meeting when she called Lorraine Dixon on a whim.
Grane invited the Dixon family to watch the second half at their house so Rickey and Steve could meet.
“I know it was difficult for him to get over here,” Grane said, “and I just wanted to make sure that he knows how extremely special and emotional this was for our family. He kind of teared up, too.”
When the fourth quarter began, few were paying attention. A brainstorming session had begun. Rickey, who is able to use a computer at home using eye-tracking technology, wanted Lorraine to share some of the research he had recently uncovered on ALS.
Grane, who has spent sleepless nights doing research of her own, told Dixon about new studies she had read about. Both parties were aware of a recent trial conducted in Israel.
“Their bodies can't move,” Grane said. “That doesn't matter. They're smart as a whip. Rickey is showing that this isn't stopping him. He's forging ahead just like Steve is.”
Grane knelt beside Dixon’s wheelchair. Kidd, standing behind Dixon, shined a flashlight on the phone Grane held.
Together they read about a new study.
Two families that likely would’ve never met. Two families watching football and finding new ways to fight a common opponent.