The Project

Christopher Peters

Reclining on a swath of brittle, impossibly green Astroturf in the Minnesota Vikings' field house at Winter Park, David Dixon winces slightly as he works over an ache in his shoulder. The injury, aptly known as a stinger, arises from a compression of nerves in the neck. It is a familiar cause of annoyance among professional football players. Dixon, the Vikings' hulking right guard, acquired his stinger during his team's disheartening loss at Tampa Bay, and despite a chiropractor's efforts, the discomfort has lingered on through a midweek practice. Four days from now, he'll aggravate the injury and be forced to sit out the fourth quarter of the Saints game, but for the time being only a hint of discomfort is etched on his face; Dixon has spent too many years sweating it out on the sidelines, the practice squads, and the waiver wire to give the pain much thought.

Though he now starts for one of the NFL's top pass-blocking units, Dixon's place in the league was not always so assured. A classic "project player," the 29-year-old guard had never even lined up on offense before he first came to the Vikings.

He gets up, stretches, walks about gingerly, and settles back down. Like a lot of big men--and at 6'5" and 350 pounds, Dixon is very big indeed--he seems to prefer to move about slowly, nearly wearily. Off the field he resembles nothing so much as a tractor in low gear. You see the power, not the speed.

In the skewed world of professional football, ordinary bigness seldom merits much notice. Linebackers who tip the scales at less than 235 pounds are now deemed on the small side. Any quarterback under 6 feet tall is viewed with suspicion. And, these days, 300-pound offensive linemen dot the rosters of every NFL team. Yet even by those unusual measures, David Dixon stands out. Last year Dixon and right tackle Korey Stringer combined to make the biggest side-by-side tandem in the history of the league--a canoe-sinking, glacial outcrop of humanity totaling well over 700 hundred pounds. (For his part, Stringer embarked on an off-season diet and training regimen, dropping from 388 pounds to a comparatively svelte 340.)

Dixon's bulk, along with a less-obvious measure of raw athletic aptitude, has taken him a long way--literally. Over the years the Vikings have employed nine foreign-born athletes, most of whom were place-kickers; but none journeyed as far as Dixon. The son of a cab driver and factory worker, Dixon grew up in the small town of Papakura, just outside Auckland, New Zealand. As a teenager he lived about a 15-minute drive away from his three siblings and busy mom and dad under the supervision of his grandparents, and from the start, sports seemed a way out. But not football.

"Rugby, that's what everybody played in New Zealand--I really didn't know much about football, and I really didn't care about it," Dixon says, chronicling how he starred on club and high-school rugby squads and made the national junior team, which toured Japan and Australia as well as his native land. But even as he aimed himself toward a spot on the country's top rugby outfit, the All Blacks, Dixon's prowess in the scrum was attracting attention from other quarters. In 1986, thanks to a visiting collegiate football scout, the young New Zealander found himself armed with a football scholarship and a ticket to...Rexburg, Idaho. At a medium-size Mormon institution called Ricks College-- whose teams, coincidentally, are known as the Vikings--Dixon began to learn the basics of defensive-line play.

Though rugby may well be father of football (the first organized football game, Princeton vs. Rutgers in 1869, was a contest waged between former rugby players), in Dixon's view the two sports don't really have much in common. "Football is much harder," he says. "You're going one-on-one every play, and there's more pressure if you let up."

At Ricks Dixon met his future wife, but his stay in Idaho was brief. He found schoolwork difficult and felt out of place. "I got in a little trouble. It was a church school," he explains simply, and declines to elaborate further. "It was hard. I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing. I didn't know a damn thing. That's probably why I messed up and had to go home."

His tenure at Ricks did lead to a second stateside opportunity, this time with the Arizona State Sun Devils, a Division I team. After two seasons as a defensive lineman, he was selected by the New England Patriots in the ninth round of the 1992 draft, only to be waived in the final preseason cut. That move, the low point of his career, came as something of an affront to Dixon, who thought he'd performed well in the Patriots' camp. When the Vikings signed him to their practice squad that October, head coach Dennis Green, whose defensive approach has tended to favor quicker, smaller players, made the decision to convert the beefy lineman to offense.  

The adjustment to the other side of the line was trying. As a defensive tackle, Dixon played what he calls "a freelancing defense, doing whatever I could to get by my man." Offensive line play required a more disciplined approach, with an emphasis on footwork and positioning. "I had to start from scratch to learn the position. I didn't even know how to get into an offensive stance," he says. After the 1993 training camp, Dixon again found himself on waivers. He spent the rest of the year on the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys. Although the Cowboys won the Super Bowl that year, he didn't get the ring--those only go to players on the active roster--and the Cowboys didn't re-sign him. Back with the Vikings the following year, a still-unpolished Dixon managed to make the active roster.

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."


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."

Urban League president Clarence Hightower, who says his organization has expressed its objections to the Star Tribune, denounces the piece as "very insensitive." Corey Fuller declined to discuss his chat with Barreiro in-depth. When asked whether he was satisfied with the sportswriter's explanation, he had only two words to say: "Hell, no."

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