Support Local News.

At a moment of historic disruption and change with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the calls for social and racial justice and the upcoming local and national elections, there's never been more of a need for the kind of local, independent and unbiased journalism that The Day produces.
Please support our work by subscribing today.

It was about textbooks as much as playbooks for A.J. Dillon

For some, this is a football story. Period. Just look at the guy. Sculpted. Runs the ball with the urgency of an ambulance and the umbrage of a wounded forest animal. Imagine some poor soul now in 10-degree, Green Bay weather stepping in front of A.J. Dillon on the famed frozen tundra.

Heh, heh, heh.

Except this is not a football story. It is a life story. It is about how A.J. Dillon, the next kid to go national from the 06320, arrived not merely because he was blessed with the football gene, but because he parlayed it with unflagging pursuits of education and community.

This is important.

Because there are too many kids in this city who have been misled into thinking that athletics are the only way out. They are not. They are a tool. A tool that must work in harmony with the necessity of opening a book.

Dillon spent three years at Boston College before hearing his name Friday night during the second round of the NFL Draft. The kid who grew up wearing green and gold gets to keep his color scheme, trading in the "NL" for a "GB" and the Green Bay Packers.

And what they told us amid the technobabble of the draft was exactly what football fans wanted to hear. What did he run in the 40? Vertical leap? Bench press? It sure geeked up the geeks. What they didn't tell us was this:

"Before he left BC, A.J. made sure he met with his academic advisors," his mom, Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell, was saying Monday night. "He wanted to make sure that he could finish his degree with an online option. He took it upon himself to do that. He's close to the degree (in communications). He said to me, 'I'm absolutely getting my degree, mom. I promise you that.'"

And when this particular mom and son promise each other something, the rest, as they say, is current events. Their promises have led them to blessings. It was not always easy. Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell worked more than one job to support her son. She read a 5-page letter he wrote her once as a teen about his goals, dreams and how maybe boarding school (Lawrence Academy) might be best. She let go, believing her son's words. The reward? The doorstep of a college degree ... and the frozen tundra.

"Education has always been important to him. But then, he has no choice," Gatewood-Campbell said, alluding to her educational vocation that morphed from long-term kindergarten sub for the great Shirley Gillis to administrator now at Nathan Hale. "One of the things I remember most was A.J. as a kid in the summer helping me set up my classroom at Bennie Dover. Then he went to help Tanya Collins and some of the other teachers. Oh, how he dreaded that. But it was a rite of passage. He knows how much work educators put in."

Maybe that's why football was never enough for him. He grew up volunteering at the Community Meal Center. He coached a pre-teen basketball team at Lawrence Academy. After his freshman year at BC, he contacted athletic director Martin Jarmond about giving back.

"I just said, 'this guy is a freshman, a true freshman who is thinking about this stuff and wanting to serve.'" Jarmond told the Boston Globe. "In all my years of doing this, I've never had a call like that."

Soon, Dillon was working with Fr. Jack Butler, BC's vice president for the Division of University Mission and Ministry. Dillon: "Where I'm from, it's not the worst of the worst, but inside my community, there's a lot that I'd like to help out with. That's always been my goal. Besides helping my mom and family, I really wanted to eventually give that to my city. So I kind of wanted to do the same thing here. I'm very passionate about where I'm from — and I include Boston in that."

Funny how school gives us the test after the lesson is taught. But life gives us the test that teaches us a lesson. A.J. Dillon learned that. He never had it all that easy as a kid. And part of that was understanding that football itself was not the elixir.

"The term is 'student-athlete,'" Gatewood-Campbell said. "Getting to school is not enough. Just making the team is not enough. You have to prove you belong every day. A.J. said to me once, 'I don't want to just be in the conversation. I want to be a voice in the conversation.'"

Gatewood-Campbell let out a chuckle and said, "plus, have you ever seen a playbook? It's a lot to handle. You need to be able to multi-task."

Readers often give cursory — or grudging — acceptance to how educational stories are tethered to sports. Translation: They don't really care. Or certainly not as much as whether the athlete in question can eventually afford a Bentley. Maybe on the surface, we look at A.J. Dillon and see the body, the NFL contract and the upcoming glory of Sunday afternoons and the story ends there. Not only doesn't it end there, but it never began there, either.

Dillon has done the city proud for reasons other than becoming BC's career rushing reader and getting drafted by the Packers. He carries the torch for the archetype of the Well-Rounded Kid.

Pay attention to A.J., all you kiddies and parents.

All of him.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


Loading comments...
Hide Comments