New London's A.J. Dillon trusted the process and landed at BC
New London — The rattle and hum at Recovery Room the other night spoke to overwhelming joy, the kind of joy only known to the concept of faith rewarded. And there in the middle of the party stood the proud mom, a 50,000-watt smile affixed to her face for the duration, a monument to the power of faith.
This was Wednesday night, a National College Football Signing Day bash for A.J. Dillon, the New London kid who left the city after his freshman year of high school. Dillon, after verbally committing to Michigan and later hearing from Notre Dame and Alabama, settled on closer-to-home Boston College. This was a night of celebration, reflection and boundless hope.
Dillon's mom, Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell, is a New London girl. Graduate of New London High. Now the dean at the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School on Beech Dr. And the memory ran like a current through her veins Wednesday night, recalling the time she knew she'd have to let her young son leave home to pursue his dream, the dream unfolding in front of her.
"A.J. wrote me a five-page letter," Gatewood-Campbell said, later pointing to her eyes as if to mimic how the tears came streaming.
Dillon, essentially, told his mom: have a little faith.
"I poured out my heart," he said.
Ah, but faith is not easy. It is about trusting when you have unanswered questions. It is, as Dr. King said, taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. But it also provides the most enduring rewards.
Like having all your friends and family around you the night you choose a Division I college. Like seeing a giant cake in your honor, sparklers and all ... and then celebrating by playfully shoving your little sister Olivia's face into the frosting, watching her emerge with the biggest smile in the history of creation.
"It was really hard to leave New London," Dillon said. "I thought about it after eighth grade after Bennie Dover. It wasn't out of spite. I really, really wanted to play against the best competition. I knew what recruiters thought about kids from New England. So I needed to play against the best competition I could in New England. At Lawrence (Mass.) Academy, everybody you play has guys going Division I."
Perfectly reasonable. But there's nothing that resounds more than a mother's love. And to let your baby just leave the nest?
But then ... have a little faith, right?
"My mom didn't want me to go. I was 14-15 at the time and boarding school seemed crazy," Dillon said. "She wasn't sure if I was ready. I sat down one night and realized what I really wanted. I essentially said this is something I've always been looking for. I really want to be able to play college football. Hopefully, the NFL if it works out. I thought it was the best thing for me. And I'd get a world class education."
And this is what strikes you about Dillon: an understated grace. Grounded and respectful. Clearly, Gatewood-Campbell taught him well.
BC coach Steve Addazio likened Dillon to 2013 Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who led the country in rushing and wrote poetry on the side.
"This is a man who understands," Addazio said of Dillon. "That's how we used to talk about Andre Williams. Andre understood what it meant to be at Boston College and how much he respected his academics."
Now comes the football part: 6-feet, 240 pounds. With speed. Addazio said Wednesday that Dillon is "maybe one of the best players ever to be recruited to Boston College."
And it took Dillon a while to recognize his new digs. Not hard, really, considering he had Michigan calling.
"Michigan is a great place. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love it," Dillon said. "After I got done with my visit, I sat down for a second on the ride back and started thinking about the three A's: academics, athletics and atmosphere. And when I did my BC official (visit), I got to see what the program was about. I don't think I grasped it enough early in the recruiting process. I got caught up in glitz and glamor. But after spending time with the players and coaches, I got to see what they were really about and how they believe in me."
Dillon also drew some inspiration from Kris Dunn, one of the three city whiz kids playing professional sports. Dunn probably has no idea his impact.
"What really resonated with me was seeing Kris," Dillon said. "He stayed close to home at Providence. I used to watch him after my rec games at Bennie Dover. I thought about how Kris was on ESPN every night, but that he did it close to home. I thought about being from New England, where you are always doubted, and how you can still do it. I feel like BC is ready for something special."
Dillon and the Eagles have some noteworthy games next season: home against Notre Dame and Florida State and a "road" game at Fenway Park against UConn. The humbled young man can't wait.
"My coach at Lawrence (former BC and later NFL lineman Paul Zukauskas) says it like this: 'You're in high school. You haven't done anything yet,'" Dillon said. "I want to live up to the hype."
Dillon can always summon the concept of faith, his constant companion, to help him along.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.