THE TRAINING facility at the University of Oregon looks like the spa at a five-star boutique hotel, if all the guests were between 18 and 23 and the bulk of them weighed more than 300 pounds. The floors are finished oak, the walls smoked glass, the lighting soothingly dim. The 15,000-square-foot complex includes 25 stainless steel massage tables, a pharmacy lit with green neon and examination rooms for a dentist and an ophthalmologist. So many flat-screen televisions hang from the walls that SportsCenter is within constant sight, even during eye exams.
The only screen not tuned to SportsCenter, in fact, is the one broadcasting Dennis Dixon’s lower half. It is a Tuesday in mid-March, and Dixon is running on one of three underwater treadmills, each of which is equipped with a pair of submerged cameras. As Dixon runs, he can watch his legs churn on the screen in front of him. Even more remarkable, the NFL can watch too. Tony Fisher, an intern in the football office, stands about five feet from Dixon, recording his every move with a Sony Handycam. Fisher then edits the footage and posts it to Dixon’s personal website, dennisdixon10.com, so that NFL coaches, scouts and general managers can monitor the progress of his surgically repaired left knee.
This is rehab, Oregon style, where even a torn ACL can seem glamorous. The Ducks already have more than 300 uniform combinations, lockers with Internet ports and a training facility featured in Interior Design, all thanks to Nike founder and Oregon überbooster Phil Knight. For five months Oregon has deployed its considerable resources to another project: reconstructing the quarterback who was once the nation’s best and preparing him for the NFL draft on April 26–27. In a field crowded with intriguing but relatively unknown QB prospects, Dixon is the true wild card—a known superstar who became a forgotten man.
The week of Nov. 4 started with big plans. Hotel representatives from New Orleans were calling the Oregon football program to get a room count for the national championship game. The school was launching a website for Dixon’s Heisman Trophy campaign. None of it was premature. The Ducks were 8–1 and second in the nation, with three winnable games remaining. Dixon, their 6’4″, 205-pound senior quarterback, was the most dynamic dual threat west of Tim Tebow, piling up 230.4 yards passing and 61.0 rushing per game. He was making a serious move up the draft charts.
There was just one kink in the plans. In the fourth quarter of a 35–23 victory over Arizona State on Nov. 3, Dixon ran an option right, kept the ball for an 11-yard gain and was tackled around the legs. He felt his left knee twist but never heard a pop. After a few seconds of screaming, he jumped up and jogged gingerly to the sideline. The crowd at Autzen Stadium let out a relieved roar. Trainers examined the knee and said it was stable. Dixon wanted to go back in, but with the Ducks ahead by 19 the coaches wouldn’t let him. Precautionary reasons, they said.
An MRI taken the next day revealed that Dixon’s left ACL was three-quarters torn. “I was shocked,” said Oregon head trainer Kevin Steil. Dixon could still run and cut. The swelling was minimal. Dixon didn’t understand why he didn’t show more symptoms. Steil consulted three doctors, who presented Dixon with two options: He could have surgery immediately, or he could postpone it and try to play on the knee. Coach Mike Bellotti made his position clear to the QB: “It’s not in your best interest to play for us anymore.”
For a young football star, it seemed the ultimate dilemma: Give up a shot at the Heisman and a national championship, or suit up and jeopardize your future draft status. Four months later, over dinner in Eugene, Dixon thought back on his decision to keep playing and said, “It really wasn’t so hard.”
Practicing with the injury was easy; keeping it a secret was not. Outside of coaches, trainers and doctors, no one knew the results of Dixon’s MRI. He did not tell his teammates, his roommates, even his father. “I didn’t want anybody to panic,” he says.
On Nov. 15, Oregon played a Thursday night game at Arizona, a nationally televised showcase for Dixon and the Ducks. Before the kickoff Dennis Dixon Sr. visited his son in the locker room and found him stretched out on a massage table. “Dad, I’ve been keeping something from you,” Dixon said. His father laughed. “No you haven’t,” he said. “I could tell you were hurt.”
Trainers fitted Dixon for a knee brace, and coaches devised a game plan to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. “We were holding our breath,” said trainer Kim Terrell. On the game’s first series Dixon scrapped the plan and ran 39 yards for a touchdown. The medical staff exhaled. But later in the first quarter Dixon faked a handoff, rolled left and planted his left foot in the turf. The foot stuck. The knee buckled. He went down without being touched. The ACL was completely shot. “It was like someone punched you in the stomach,” said James Harris, Oregon’s director of sports nutrition. “And as soon as you started to breathe, someone punched you in the stomach again.”