January 3, 2010
Andre Dixon took us into his locker room. Randy Edsall took us into his heart.
It was quite a tour.
UConn saved its most complete performance for last. The Huskies ended the longest football season known to man Saturday by picking up the yoke a final time at Legion Field. This time they pushed collectively, they pulled all together, and in the end they forged the kind of bowl victory over an SEC opponent in SEC territory that screamed, wow, this was real and next season could really be something.
It was the kind of triumph that would have seemed surreal seven or eight years ago.
"When we called the team together before the game, I said, 'I challenge you on offense! I challenge you on defense! I challenge you on special teams!'" Dixon said after UConn had smothered South Carolina 20-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl. "To put everything together and do it for Jazz, you saw what happened out there today."
All weeklong Edsall said he had watched Dixon practice and all week long he said, "Boy, he's got a bounce in his step."
They had all been through so much, this group. There had been all those heartaching losses, five of them by a total of 15 points. The Huskies could have won any one of them. There was the death of Jazz Howard, a tragedy that taught 105 young men the real meaning of heartache and sorely tested their resilience as teammates. There was the great victory at Notre Dame, one that Edsall said bought his program the kind of cosmic lift no amount of money could. And now here he was, saying in all his years as coach he had never seen a team like this and marveling at the bounce in his senior running back's step.
"I don't know if it was my last game or if it was Jazz, but I felt good this week," Dixon said. "I always put everything on the line, but when it's the last one, it's a special one. I wanted to do everything to help the team be successful."
His help came in the form of 33 carries, 126 yards and one touchdown. His success would be found in the game's MVP trophy he held in his hands.
"The Horse," Edsall said. "What a way to go out. He got hurt early in the game with his elbow. He came over and said, 'Coach, tell them to put me in.' I told him, 'Relax, they've got to look at you first.' That's the competitor in Andre."
Dixon had entered the game 33 yards short of 1,000 for the season, and, dang, if for a time it didn't look like he was going to do it one yard at a time. The one-handed circus touchdown catch by Kashif Moore, well, that's ESPN highlight stuff. And joining his teammates in the corner of Legion Field to celebrate with the UConn fans who made the trip to Alabama would be the giddy stuff.
Yet so much of this game was a study in immovable objects. South Carolina's defense was as good as advertised. UConn's defense, blitzing, demon-tackling, was better than anyone could have imagined. So maybe this all ended exactly as it should have. With the Huskies grinding the way they had grinded through a season full of challenges. Life isn't one-handed circus catches. Life is three yards and a lot of bruises. Life is hard.
Andre Dixon knows that better than anyone.
He had been suspended for off-field behavior early in the 2007 season. He went on to make the all-Big East second team. But he didn't work hard the following offseason. He hurt his ankle. He watched Donald Brown become the leading rusher in the nation. He was suspended again near the end of last season after a DUI. He had some choices and one of them was to quit. Edsall had some choices and one could have been telling Dixon to leave. They stayed together. And from the start of this season, Dixon blossomed, as a runner, as a leader, as a man.
"You want me to cry don't you?" Edsall said when asked about the journey. He would fight through tears during 30 seconds that could only be described as the essence of the coach-player relationship.
"Now you know why I never gave up on the kid, because of what he is all about and what he has inside of him," Edsall said. "This guy was probably the true leader of this football team. We had captains and our captains did a great job. But this was the glue right here. This was the rock. I love him to death.
"He has got his degree [in sociology]. There is no doubt in my mind he'll play at the next level. I'm just so proud of him to see how far he has come. That's why in coaching when you know you've got somebody that has a good heart and who is a good person you don't turn your back on him. I'll do anything for Andre. One day I might even grow my hair just like his."
And with that Edsall reached through Dixon's dreadlocks and hugged him.
"To know somebody really loves you as a coach, as a second father, as a friend, it's amazing to hear those words come out of Coach's mouth," Dixon said.
"This is a real special year. This is a really special team. It's amazing when 105 guys come together and commit to something great."
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