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Carlson: Former OU football great Rickey Dixon had a bite much worse than his bark

Former Oklahoma defensive back Rickey Dixon, pictured last September, died Saturday at age 53 after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. [JOE MUSSATTO/THE OKLAHOMAN]
Former Oklahoma defensive back Rickey Dixon, pictured last September, died Saturday at age 53 after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. [JOE MUSSATTO/THE OKLAHOMAN]

Rickey Dixon was the antithesis of a Barry Switzer era player.

Dixon wasn’t brash.

He didn’t have that swagger. He didn’t flash that ego. All those personality traits that were a life blood of OU football in those days weren’t Dixon’s style. Where his teammates and even his head coach were audacious, he was quiet. When they scowled, he smiled.

But here’s where Dixon was like so many Sooners from that era: he was excellent.

Dixon died Saturday afternoon after battling ALS for several years.

He was 53.

Dixon was undersized, a defensive back and safety who was only 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds coming out of high school in Dallas. Back in those days, anyone in the metroplex who was any good got all sorts of scholarship offers from the Southwestern Conference. Texas. Arkansas. Texas A&M. SMU.

Not a one of them wanted Dixon.

OU did.

Switzer knew what Dixon lacked, even said he looked more like a Pop Warner player than a major-college one. But Switzer also saw Dixon’s speed. His tenacity, too.

Dixon was never, ever afraid to hit someone.

What we know now is that Dixon’s hitting style — leading with his head, using it as a weapon — likely contributed to the disease that took his life. Doctors told the family that his ALS was probably the result of repetitive head injuries, and research has pointed to a connection between ALS and CTE, the neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries often found in former football players.

Had Dixon been playing today, he’d have learned a different style of tackling — but here’s guessing he’d have still been a star.

He started as a true freshman for the Sooners in 1984. That was a defense that included Tony Casillas, Brian Bosworth, Kevin Murphy and Keith Stansberry, and even though the latter two would be injured that season, that was a bunch that got after it.

Still, Dixon found a way onto the field.

By his senior season, he was a consensus All-American and OU’s first recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award. He had nine interceptions that year, which set a single-season school record, and he did it at a time teams weren’t throwing the ball nearly as much as they do today.

To his interceptions into perspective, OU had seven last season as a team.

Dixon’s excellence was undeniable.

A year ago, the College Football Hall of Fame welcomed him in, but it didn’t take that induction to know what a talent he was.

Rickey Dixon had a personality that deviated from many of his Sooner teammates. But what he lacked in verbosity, he more than made up for in ferocity. His bite was much worse than his bark. His talent was much bigger than his talk.

He wasn’t big, but he was a giant.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›