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Catching On

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Ed Dixon was in the same boat as many parents when it came to his son choosing a college to attend. In his case, however, the circumstances were different.

Dixon’s son Connor was already a back-up quarterback at Michigan State, but he had suffered an injury and decided to transfer. He was looking for another school where he could not only play football, but also start. Connor, a South Park High School graduate, ultimately chose to play at Duquesne University.

It was not a decision that was immediately popular in the Dixon household.

“His decision to go to Duquesne was probably the single most important decision,” his Ed Dixon, said. “I let him make that decision. I was skeptical at first. I didn’t necessarily think that was the right thing for him to do, but I let him make the decision and I am really glad I did.”

Despite the transfer, numerous injuries and a position switch from quarterback to wide receiver, Connor Dixon finally reached the NFL in April, when he signed with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent.

Dixon played high school football at South Park under head coach Tom Loughran, where he was a two-year starter, compiled a 25-2 record and led the Eagles to the 2005 state double-A championship. He was the Associated Press Class AA Player of the Year as a senior after throwing for 2,208 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Dixon accepted a scholarship from Michigan State upon graduation. He redshirted as a freshman and fought injuries throughout his two years in East Lansing.

Even after transferring to Duquesne, Dixon continued to struggle with the injury bug. Dukes’ head coach Jerry Schmitt realized that something had to change and began to have conversations with wide receivers coach Dave Loya about converting Dixon to a wide receiver. Loya, himself a former quarterback, was excited.

“I made (Schmitt) promise me not to ever take that back,” Loya said. “Once he made that move I was going to have him forever, because I knew what I was getting. I knew what Connor was capable of athletically…  He had the height, he had the speed and he had the jumping capabilities.”

Dixon’s father said that Michigan State had talked about converting Connor to wide receiver after shoulder surgery, so it was not an unexpected move. In fact, it was something that he felt was for the best.

“I was actually really relieved because he was in a lot of pain,” the elder Dixon said. “He wasn’t able to rest the shoulder and was throwing the ball up to 250 times a day… He had a dead arm. You could see it hang down to the side after he threw the ball. Jerry [Schmitt] handled it really well and he pulled him in, talked to him and told him, ‘I think you can do this.’”

It was a difficult time for Connor, who had by that time accumulated three surgeries, two schools and two positions.

“After my second and third shoulder surgery, I had switched schools already and at that point I was just worried about getting my degree,” the younger Dixon said. “I never thought about giving up football, but it became a focus on getting my degree. I always thought that if I could get things to go right at the right time, then I would be alright.”

Photo by Duquesne UniversityThings finally did begin to go right for Dixon, who had some familiarity with the receiver position, as he spent a significant amount of time with the group at both Michigan State and Duquesne.

In his first game, Dixon had no practice whatsoever, but he caught a touchdown pass on his first play of his final season. He flourished and tied the school record for touchdown receptions in a season with 16.

When his senior season ended and the draft had concluded, Dixon found himself—for the first time since before high school—without a team. This changed quickly as the Steelers offered him a free agent deal.

Loya remembers the moment that he heard the news.

“I was at a restaurant with my wife and a few friends, and got a text message from Connor that he was a Steeler,” Loya said. “I jumped up and I ran outside and called him immediately, not realizing that my wife and her friends thought it was an emergency. Luckily it was nothing but great news.”

Another person who is very proud is Ed Dixon. He believes his son is a great fit for the Steelers’ organization.

“The Rooney’s have looked at not just someone’s physical talent, but they always look at the intangibles: character, integrity, work ethic, smarts and discipline,” Ed Dixon said. “I think he has all of those things and I think the Steelers saw that.

“As a parent, you look to see if they are developing the tools along the way,” Dixon said about raising his son. “A lot of kids who transfer fizzle. He not only did not fizzle, but he reinvented himself, and as a parent it makes you feel that whatever he does in life, he is developing tools he needs along the way.”

The Steelers will gather for their mandatory minicamp in mid-June, and for an undrafted player like Connor Dixon, there are no guarantees.

“I have a lot to work on,” he admits. “And I’m going to get right to it. I mean I have no time to rest and certainly no time to waste. All the little things that I’ve been slowly learning out here I need to keep working on.”

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