Rickey Dixon, the great Oklahoma defensive back, will join the likes of Vince Young and Jacob Green, icons of Texas and Texas A&M, in the next class of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Only Dixon won’t make it to New York for the ceremonies in December. He doesn’t get out of DeSoto much these days.
Takes a lift just to get him out of bed.
Dixon, 52, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2013. Doctors gave him five years, tops. He can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t hardly breathe on his own.
Dixon’s body fails him every day in ways he’s no longer able to measure, but his mind still works. His wife, Lorraine, could see it in his eyes Monday as he watched the Hall of Fame news on television.
“He was a little teary-eyed,” she said.
Believe it or not, Lorraine will tell you these are good times. Besides the HOF news, Rickey finally received his portion of a $1 billion class-action settlement with the NFL. Never mind that it came more than three years after the deal was reached. Lorraine said the Dixons also settled with a law firm that previously represented the family.
The payout allowed the Dixons to move from Red Oak to a larger home in DeSoto, one that better suits their family. An adult son with special needs occupies a bedroom next to the master. Now Lorraine can hear if her son suffers a seizure in his sleep.
The new lift also makes it easier to get her husband out of bed without help. Rickey’s deteriorating condition has left him unable to operate the automated wheelchair. She pushes him wherever he wants to go.
On nice days, they sit in the backyard. Look up at the trees. Listen to the music of birds.
Monday, she read Rickey an article from the Tulsa World. Barry Switzer told a story about how only Oklahoma and Houston were interested in Rickey coming out of Wilmer-Hutchins. He was a skinny 5-11. Switzer gambled on him and came up big.
Rickey became a key member of the ’85 national title team and a consensus All-American in ’87. Set a school record that season with nine interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award. His 17 picks overall at Oklahoma rank second only to Darrell Royal’s 18.
But Rickey was better known at Oklahoma and with the Bengals, who made him the fifth pick of the ’88 draft, as a hitter. A 5-11, 183-pound safety, he managed to make his meager presence felt. One NFL teammate called him one of the biggest hitters, pound for pound, he’d ever played with.
And that was the problem, because Rickey led with his helmet. The Dixons believe the fallout of that style is what’s killing him now.
On Monday, Lorraine asked her husband what everyone wants to know:
“Would you play football again, knowing what you know now?”
Answering by text, Rickey said he’d simply do it differently.
“He loves football,” she said. “He watches it all the time.”
How can he love something that left him like this?
How can she not be bitter about their life?
“I don’t know, I guess it’s our faith,” said Lorraine, who met Rickey in college and married him more than 25 years ago. “I don’t believe in coincidences.
“We don’t hold it against anyone.”
The fact that the NFL has finally lived up to its end of the bargain has made it easier. Caring for her husband and son while working as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas took a considerable toll. These days, she doesn’t feel her husband’s stress as acutely.
Watching a man wither away before his time is hard on everyone who loves him, though. Switzer cried while telling the Tulsa World about his latest visit. He went knowing about the Hall of Fame election but wasn’t allowed to tell. Before leaving, Switzer hugged Rickey close, looked into his haunting eyes and told him, “Good things will happen this year.”
Just the same, New York and December are a long way off. Rickey won’t go, Lorraine said, but his children will represent their father on his big night.
What makes it so special, she said, is that Rickey didn’t play football for the accolades. Of course, he didn’t count on ALS, either. If it hardly seems an even trade, at least he’s at peace with it.
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