The Project

Vikings guard David Dixon came a long way to play pro ball

Since getting his first start in the place of the injured Chris Hinton in 1995, teammates and coaches say, Dixon has steadily refined his play. "He's come a long way. When he first got here, he just thought his size was going to conquer all and he was going to be able to do whatever he wants because he's so big that it ain't gonna matter," says Jeff Christy, the team's starting center for the past five years. "Now I think he realizes that if he uses good technique, he can really dominate a smaller player. He listens to coaching. He listens to my line calls more."

There have been rough patches along the way. In a 1995 contest against the Packers, injuries to starting linemen Stringer and Todd Steussie prompted the coaches to shift Dixon to tackle from his habitual spot at guard. The experiment lasted three plays. "I got the infamous club from Reggie White," Dixon says with muted chagrin. "He hit Warren Moon and made him fumble the ball in the end zone and picked it up for a touchdown. It was the turning point of the game."

In the recent loss to Tampa, Dixon gave up a sack to Buccaneer Brad Culpepper in the fourth quarter, ending the Vikes' chances for a comeback and snapping a seven-game winning streak. Most fans watching the game attributed the defeat to the defense's inability to stifle the Bucs' rugged running game, but Dixon, with the typical glumness of an offensive lineman who has seen his quarterback buried, feels responsible. "It almost seemed like I was the guy who lost the game. That was a big, critical play that I missed out on," he sighs.

Yet this season has provided Dixon with some of his best moments as a pro. When the Vikings blew out the Bucs in the Dome in the season opener, Dixon received one of three game balls after helping to shut down Tampa's voluble All Pro tackle Warren Sapp. "Dixon has developed himself into a very sound football player," says Vikings offensive line coach Mike Tice. "He takes up a lot of space and he gets his hands on people and they can't get by him."

In the first half of this season, the Vikings' offense has produced remarkable numbers, putting the team on pace to mount a credible challenge to the single-season NFL scoring record held by the '83 Redskins. The highlights, of course, belong to quarterback Randall Cunningham, the much-heralded receiving corps, and running back Robert Smith. As of midseason, that group had combined for 17 pass plays of more than 30 yards, 8 of which resulted in touchdowns. But a pass-happy offense--especially one that employs deep drops--can't succeed without sound blocking, and this line has been very reliable in picking up assignments. According to Tice, Dixon's line can be blamed for only seven of the 15 sacks surrendered by the team in the first half of the season; by that measure, they're one of the best outfits in the league. Observed Tice during practice last week: "In the last four games, they have, as a unit, five mental errors--and I think that's absolutely phenomenal."

Nonetheless, Tice says, Dixon has room for improvement, particularly in the area of run-blocking: He has a tendency to revert to his old ways every now and then--the ways of a brawling rugger. Playing in the shadow of his more prominent and polished mates on the line, Dixon says he's still studying the game, still working on getting better. Just as he always has, ever since he left New Zealand to explore this unfamiliar sport.

"I'm always learning," he says. "Always learning."

SIDELINES

DECONSTRUCTING DAN: When Star Tribune sportswriter Dan Barreiro sat down to compose his October 28 column, he was, in his words, aiming to "salute the team." But head coach Dennis Green and some of his players--not to mention a few local civic leaders--didn't quite see it that way.

At issue is the following bit of Barreiro, which served as the column's climax: "Red McCombs walks around the Vikings' locker room in a hideous electric purple blazer and exchanges high fives with players who have nothing in common with him, yet they treat him as if he's their chicken-fried Moses."

To some that last phrase smacked of racial stereotyping. "I really had no choice but to talk to the team about the article because the players were furious," Green told the New York Times, which ran a story about the flap that Sunday.

Barreiro, who has spared little vitriol in past screeds about Green--referring to the coach in one piece as "Denny Amin Dada"--feels his column was misinterpreted. "I was just trying to be a little more vivid in my language," he explains. "A lot of people just didn't get it." The veteran columnist says he routinely employs the term "chicken-fried" as a fill-in for "Southern" and notes that team owner McCombs resides in San Antonio. "Moses," he says, was intended as a synonym for "leader."

Barreiro says he got a few complaints about the piece, including phone calls from a representative from the Minneapolis Urban League and from Vikings cornerback Corey Fuller. He adds that his bosses at the paper have no problem with the column. "They think it's much ado about nothing," he says. "I tend to hope that it will blow over, but that's out of my hands."

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