IRVING, Texas -- Marcus Dixon knows all about wanting -- and waiting -- to prove himself.
After spending parts of his first two seasons on the practice squad, the Dallas Cowboys defensive end has high hopes to make it on the 53-man roster.
"He's really reshaped his career as a football player," coach Wade Phillips said. "The first day he came in, two years ago, he couldn't run one lap without collapsing. Now he's on special teams runs and he's up to 294 now, and he was 270 when he came in."
Dixon will have steady competition for an end spot that is occupied by starters Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky. The backups are Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen. Spears, Hatcher and Bowen are currently in the final year of their contracts.
It's something Dixon has noticed.
"My mindset is it's got to be my year," Dixon said. "This is a league of 'What have you done for me lately?' I know the coaches and the owner like me and they kept me, but it's still a league of 'What have you done for me lately?' I've been here. I got to show them something. I got to get this done and stay healthy, and I got to showcase my talents because I want to be here."
The fact he's here at all is a story unto itself.
Dixon, a highly decorated player and honors student at Pepperell High School in Lindale, Ga., accepted a scholarship to play at Vanderbilt in 2003.
However, Dixon, then an 18-year-old senior, was arrested on a number of serious charges -- rape among them -- after he had sex with a 15-year-old classmate. After being acquitted on a number of charges -- including the rape charge -- because of conflicting testimonies, he was found guilty of aggravated child molestation and statutory rape, which carried a mandatory 10-year prison sentence with no chance of parole under Georgia law.
Afterward, several jurors protested the sentence, saying they had thought the charge was minor and hadn't intended to impose such a harsh punishment.
But the damage to Dixon's reputation had been done, and his scholarship offer to Vanderbilt -- and other major colleges -- had disappeared.
Dixon accepted a scholarship offer from Hampton, a historical African-American college in the MEAC. There, he finished his senior season with a team-high six sacks and was third on the team with 58 tackles, including a team-high 16 tackles for loss.
But the damage to his reputation still lingered, and he went undrafted.
After signing with the Cowboys as a free agent in 2008, he battled a back injury and was cut before the final preseason game. The Cowboys, however, saw enough potential to sign him to the practice squad.
Last season, groin and abdominal injuries slowed Dixon's progress. The Cowboys still kept him around.
And each day, as he sat in front of the end locker that leads to the shower and equipment area at Valley Ranch, Dixon never complained ... kept saying he was waiting for his chance.
"You really pull for a guy like that because he's worked so hard at it," Phillips said. "His time is now, and he looks like he's stepping up."
Dixon often talked to former Cowboys running back Calvin Hill, a consultant in the team's player development program.
"Watch him," Hill said of Dixon toward the end of last season. "He's going to make an impact."
He already has.
"It would be a great story to get out and play and represent the Dallas Cowboys," Dixon said. "For me and my family, it will be a great story. I feel like I can overcome a lot of stuff, just going through that, just being here after being hurt for two years.
"I have to get this done, and I've got to get out there and play."