New London's Dillon off to an impressive start for BC football team
When Boston College running back AJ Dillon takes a handoff, he's carrying more than just a football.
He's carrying his own hopes and dreams, as well as those of his family and New London community.
His determination to fight through first contact comes from watching his mother, Jessyca, tirelessly work two jobs to make a better life. His drive to succeed is fueled in part by a desire to be a role model for his supportive hometown.
"When I do something great, it's not just for me," Dillon said during a phone interview on Wednesday. "It's for the entire city."
Dillon is doing something great on a regular basis for the Eagles. He already owns the program's all-time freshman record for rushing yards (1,039) and carries (221) in a season. By piling up a career-high 272 yards in a win at Louisville last month, he finished with the third-highest single-game rushing total in school history and earned the Walter Camp Foundation National Offensive Player of the Week honor. He's gone over 100 yards four times this season.
Pretty impressive numbers for a freshman.
It took maturity beyond his years for Dillon to make the difficult decision to leave his family and friends after his freshman year at New London High School and head to Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.
Dillon switched schools to better his future and fulfill a promise that he made to his mother as an 11-year-old.
"My mom is one of the hardest working people I've ever been around," Dillon said. "I saw her leave for work before I woke up and go teach middle school at Bennie Dover and then go waitress all night and not get back 'til 11.
"Then I started to come to an age where I could actually realize what football could do for you. I sat down one day and told her, 'I'm going to figure this football thing out and you won't have to pay for college, I promise you that.' I also told her that I'm going to buy her a house as my second promise. That's the one I'm still working on now."
Still, Dillon had to convince his mother that going away to boarding school was the right move. He comes from a close family of proud Whalers.
At first, his mother was dead set against it. One night, Dillon stayed up until about 3 a.m. writing a three-page letter detailing his reasons for leaving. Attending Lawrence Academy would give him a chance to face high-caliber competition and develop skills necessary to play at the Division I level.
"I feel like football is something that I really, really want to pursue and this is my dream," Dillon said in the letter.
His mother finally agreed after reading the heartfelt letter.
It was a tough adjustment for both of them. Early on, Dillon doubted his decision.
"I knew it was going to be hard," Dillon said. "It was just me and my mom for a long time. That's my closest relationship. She's my biggest role model and biggest inspiration, so that separation was hard on both of us. There were times that I'd call her when I first got up there and I'd just be crying over the phone. I'd be like, 'Come take me back, I don't want to be here anymore.'"
Dillon, of course, stayed and flourished at Lawrence under Paul Zukaukas, his coach and also a father figure. As a senior, he was the No. 1-rated recruit in Massachusetts. He also grew as a person while being exposed to a diverse student community.
"It molded me into the person that I am now," Dillon said. "There's still a lot of growth to be done. I feel very proud of the growth that I've made over the past couple of years."
Major Division I programs came calling, including Notre Dame, where his grandfather Thom Gatewood, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, starred. After giving a verbal commitment to Michigan, Dillon changed his mind and chose Boston College.
The lure of playing close to home and being a role model for his hometown community heavily influenced his decision.
"I saw Jordan Reed play at New London and Kris Dunn go and do great things," Dillon said. "I watched Kris when I was in middle school before he went to Providence so I followed him. And that was one of my major factors for de-committing to Michigan and staying at Boston College close to home.
"I wanted to be an example that you don't have to leave and go somewhere far off with this name or that name to be great. You can be great yourself and you can do it with the people that you're around. I feel like there's a lot of people in this area who are just very talented. I just wanted to be an example of just staying in a tight-knit community and helping each other out. I feel like that comes from New London."
The AJ Dillon fan club, including proud mom Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell who is the dean at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London, will be out in full force at Fenway Park in Boston on Saturday night when Boston College faces UConn.
The Eagles (5-5) can clinch a bowl bid with a win.
"Obviously, being from Connecticut, it's a big game," Dillon said. "I know a lot of people on the other team that I've grown up with or seen play. A bunch of people from New London are coming. And the possibility of being bowl eligible is really important for our team. We're all just really excited."
Lately, Dillon has been tough to stop, rushing for more than 100 yards in three of the last four games. He's averaging 176.5 yards and 33 carries during that span.
BC fans are still buzzing about Dillon's 272 yards and career-best four touchdowns on 39 carries in a 45-42 road upset of Louisville on Oct. 14.
"He was a beast," BC coach Steve Addazio said after the game. "I mean, that was an unbelievable, unbelievable performance."
It's worth a visit to YouTube to watch the powerful 6-foot, 240-pound Dillon toss aside a defender near the line of scrimmage and bolt 75 yards for a touchdown. The play earned him more respect and some social media love.
It's a physical, never-give-in running style that Dillon first learned as a young kid.
"It's just kind of a mentality that I've had," Dillon said. "Honestly, as weird as it sounds, it's from watching my mother work so hard. I feel like I've taken a lot of attributes that she has and put that into everyday life, as well as football.
"When I first started playing football, she'd take me out to this little grassy area in our backyard. She would set up cones and stuff and I'd run around them and she would time my splits. I had no form or anything, but she'd do it because she knew I was really passionate about it. I just worked at it so much.
"... One of our big things is never go down on first contact. That just always stuck with me. If I'm getting hit, you can keep pushing forward and get that extra yard, get those extra inches. That's something I did through high school and I'm still working on doing it better now."
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