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Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Updated: April 27, 9:44 PM ET
Draft prospect determined to address doubts about his character

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

This story has been corrected. Read below

LINDALE, Ga. -- Marcus Dixon will watch his uncertain future resolve itself this weekend on a big-screen television in the family room of his modest brick home.

At 6-foot-4, 294 pounds, Dixon, 23, is a gifted pass-rusher, a commodity NFL teams prize above all but quarterbacks. This spring, he was one of 350 players invited to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he ran a 5.2-second 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times, and his vertical jump was 26 inches.

But while the NFL is infatuated with these numbers scouts call "measurables," a slipperier, more subjective term now influences the choices teams make:

Marcus Dixon Update
Marcus Dixon went undrafted, but the Hampton defensive end signed as a free agent with the Cowboys on Sunday. According to his agent, the deal is three years for $1.1 million. Six teams made offers, agent Joe Linta said.

"I'm happy, man," Dixon said. "This is the way it was meant to be. It's never been easy for me."

The Cowboys drafted only one defensive lineman, Middle Tennessee State's Erik Walden, but he projects as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
-- Greg Garber

Character.

NFL draft experts project four defensive linemen could be among the top 10 picks in the draft, which begins Saturday. Virginia's Chris Long, LSU's Glenn Dorsey and USC's Sedrick Ellis are destined to become multimillionaires. Ultimately, a dozen linemen could go in the first two rounds.

Dixon, a defensive end from Hampton University, isn't expected to be one of them, partly because scouting services rank him 26th or 27th among the 162 draft-eligible defensive ends. Some teams assigned him a fifth-round grade, but most see him as a sixth- or seventh-round pick. Left undrafted, he almost surely will sign quickly as a rookie free agent.

But there is an asterisk next to Dixon's name. His character has been the subject of debate inside the NFL, because in addition to the statistics on his football résumé, there is this number: 15 months in prison for aggravated child molestation and statutory rape.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made character a priority. Current players have been disciplined strongly for running afoul of the law. Prospective players have seen their dreams deferred, even dashed with a single misstep -- throwing an ill-advised punch, smoking a joint, driving while drunk. Yet even with his record, Dixon is here, in this moment, with this opportunity.

There's a reason for that. Several, in fact.

And oddly enough, one prominent NFL general manager has told Dixon's agent, Joe Linta, that the experience might work in Dixon's favor.

According to Linta, the GM said: "Joe, it makes me more want to drive him to see what kind of character he has, that he has been able to fight through this situation and lead a great life after all the bad that has happened."

How, really, can this be?

A charged trial

The population of Lindale, Ga., is about 4,000, and almost entirely white. The average median household income is $28,800, nearly $20,000 less than the state average. Sixteen percent of the town residents fall below the poverty line.

Marcus Dwayne Dixon grew up in a housing project in the nearby town of Rome. His father had left early, and his mother, a drug addict, was often in trouble. So Marcus was raised by his grandparents -- and later, Ken Jones.

Young Marcus Dixon
A young Marcus Dixon, as a high school player at Pepperell High School in Lindale, Ga.

"When we play you, we're going to beat you again," a 9-year-old Marcus once told Jones, who was coaching an opposing baseball team. "I'm going to hit a home run."

Jones smiled and replied, "Well, I might just walk you."

Their friendship developed when Marcus played on Jones' all-star team. A year later, Marcus spent the summer at the Jones house with Ken, his wife, Peri, and son, Casey, who was the same age as Marcus. After spending the summer with them, Marcus asked them to be his godparents in case something happened to his grandmother. With the blessing of his grandparents, just before Marcus' 11th birthday, Ken and Peri became his legal guardians.

Jones, the head custodian at Pepperell High School, maintains an auto body shop with his father. Peri works at the nearby primary school. To them, Marcus is a son. He calls them Mom and Pop. But because they are white and he is black, sometimes there were problems. When Marcus moved in, Casey's grandmother moved out.

"We had some times when people were rude and ugly," Peri said. "There were things within the family and with our friends. We could see they didn't want us to bring him over. They would say, 'Is Marcus coming with you?' Of course Marcus was coming with us. He is our family."

Once, a guy got in Peri's face when she was in McDonald's with Marcus. Ken, livid when Peri told him about the racist remarks, choke-slammed him in the parking lot.

Marcus never made a big deal about the occasional slights. He maintained a 3.96 grade-point average and distinguished himself on the baseball diamond, basketball court and football field.

"He really wanted to do well," said Jeff Shiflett, the head football coach.

Despite these achievements, there were issues. Two alleged incidents got him suspended from school for a total of 10 days. In March of his sophomore year, he exposed himself in a classroom, and a year later he inappropriately touched a 14-year-old girl after track practice. Neither episode was reported to the Floyd County police.

Dixon called the first incident a "stupid prank," and said of the second: "All we did was made out."

On Feb. 6, 2003, Dixon accepted a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University, historically the SEC's weakest football program and the strongest academic school. He could have gone to Georgia, but thought a Vanderbilt degree would carry him further. Four days later, after basketball practice, he had sex with Kristie Brown, a white 15-year-old virgin, in a classroom trailer behind Pepperell High School.

"It was consensual sex," said Dixon, who was 18. "When we came in there, it was set up like we was going to have sex. She unbuckled her own pants.

"At the end, the only thing she told me was like, 'My dad cannot find out about us having sex.' Because in my town, black people having sex with white girls is not something you do. She said, 'My dad cannot find out about us having sex, because he'll kill us both.'"

Later, Brown would confirm this final statement in an interview on "Oprah," but they differed on a key point. Kristie said she was raped. Marcus was called to the principal's office two days later, placed in handcuffs and taken to the Floyd County jail.

There it was: Three sexual incidents in three years.

"That's all reason to believe he's a pedophile," Floyd County detective Gary Conway, who investigated the case, told ABC's "Nightline." "And if he got away with this, he would do another one."

Prosecutors, led by assistant district attorney John McClellan, charged the football star with six counts: rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, sexual battery, statutory rape and aggravated child molestation. Marcus was represented by a public defender, who was working his first defense case. The trial dominated conversations in Rome through the first half of May 2003.

"[Racism] just underlies the whole thing," Peri Jones said. "If that had been [son] Casey instead of Marcus, they would have said, 'OK, this is a good kid -- they wouldn't have done that.' But they didn't do that with Marcus. They just judged him by his color.

"In my opinion, they charged Marcus with aggravated child molestation to make sure of a win. They wanted to make sure that they won the case because they knew he didn't rape her."

After deliberating for 20 minutes, the jury of nine whites and three blacks acquitted Dixon of the four counts that alleged he had used force. The jury clearly believed that the sex was consensual, but because Brown was viewed as underage according to state law, jurors found Dixon guilty of statutory rape, a misdemeanor, and aggravated child molestation, a felony.

In doing so, the jury had no idea the child molestation conviction carried a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of 15 years. Juror Kathy Tippett cried when she found out.

"My knees buckled, and I heard my mom cry," Dixon said. "I was like, 'My life's over with.'"

A Bonfire of the Vanities?

David Balser was puzzled when he read the story the next morning in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. If it was consensual sex between teenagers, he wondered, why was Dixon going to prison for 10 years?

Marcus Dixon
Dixon's case prompted supporters to hold a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, March 1, 2004, in Atlanta.

Balser, a successful corporate attorney for the Atlanta firm of McKenna, Long & Aldridge, works in a gleaming glass office tower, 46 stories above Peachtree Street. His curiosity was piqued, and he began to do what lawyers do: due diligence. What kind of kid was Dixon? How did the jury come to its conclusions? Were there grounds for appeal?

"I vetted him diligently," Balser said. "I wouldn't have taken this case if I thought he wouldn't make the most of a second chance."

He believed in Dixon so much that he agreed to handle the case pro bono. Criminal law wasn't Balser's forte, but while investigating the case he came to believe Dixon had been the victim of a gross injustice.

"Once the jury determined it was consensual sex, that should have been it," Balser said. "Statutory rape, misdemeanor, end of story. But [McClellan], he had this hook. When we started our work on the appellate process, we tried to find another example in which a defendant had been acquitted of rape but had been sentenced under an aggravated child molestation theory.

"We found none."

Because Dixon was 18 and Brown was 15, what transpired between them, according to Georgia law as it was written, was technically aggravated child molestation. The statute was enacted to protect children from adult predators, but in recent years other states have passed so-called Romeo and Juliet laws to distinguish between full-fledged adults and 18- and 19-year-olds.

While Balser planned to take the appeal directly to the Georgia Supreme Court, the heated story broke nationally. Georgia congressman John Lewis, a civil rights activist, had criticized the sentence. So did the NAACP. There were sympathetic reports from HBO's Bryant Gumbel on "Real Sports," and others on "Oprah," Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," and "60 Minutes." Web sites dedicated to freeing Dixon were set up.

On May 3, 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court, ruling 4-3, said Dixon should have been prosecuted solely on the statutory rape charge, which carries a maximum one-year sentence, rather than the child molestation charge. He was released immediately, amid cheers and applause from family and friends, after serving 15 months in prison.

Peri and Ken Jones talked with Dixon every day on the phone and visited him each week. Peri fell on the floor when she got the call at school after he was released. That night, she just stared at him with a goofy smile.

"My face was hurting, and I didn't want to go to bed," she said. "I was afraid I would wake up and he wouldn't be there."

Dixon felt that way, too.

Ken Jones
Ken Jones, right, wife, Peri and son Casey were overcome after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the black high school football player's conviction and 10-year prison sentence for having sex with a younger white classmate.

"When he woke up in his bed, he thought he was dreaming," Peri said. "He jumped out of his bed and ran into [Peri's bedroom]. He said that's when he knew he was really home."

Afterward, NAACP national president Kweisi Mfume said he was elated. Following the recommendation of the Supreme Court, the Georgia legislature changed the law that the Floyd County district attorney had used to convict Dixon of child molestation. It is no longer a felony when teenagers have consensual sex.

The Floyd County district attorney's office -- critics argued the Dixon prosecution was racially motivated -- took a beating in the national media. Four years later, the wounds are still there.

John McClellan, who directed the case, chatted last week about the summer his son played baseball with Dixon. Smiling, shaking his head, he declined to discuss details of the case.

District attorney Leigh Patterson, standing in the door between her office and the lobby, didn't smile often in a tense 15-minute conversation. She vehemently defended her office's actions and disputed a number of facts sympathetic to Dixon that have been reported.

A second chance

Dr. William R. Harvey stepped out of his elegant presidential mansion and strode across the grass like he owned the place. He's the president at Hampton University in Virginia, and a few Fridays ago he was wearing a blue double-breasted suit and an air of amiable authority.

He made his fortune as the owner of a Pepsi-Cola bottling company in Michigan. Thirty years ago, after serving a variety of roles at Tuskegee University, Fisk University and Harvard University, he came to the predominantly black school then called Hampton Institute. In three decades, the school's student enrollment has doubled to more than 6,000, and the endowment has increased fivefold to greater than $160 million.

Marcus Dixon
Dixon was a three-time team captain at Hampton and finished this past season with six sacks and a team-high 16 tackles for losses.

Presidents don't often engage in the mundane affairs of a single student's admission, but it was Harvey, after prompting from then-head football coach Joe Taylor, who signed off on Marcus Dixon.

"I talked to the [Jones'] minister [Rev. Terrell Shields] and some other people in Georgia in the judicial system," Harvey explained. "When the coach said he would like to give him a chance at redemption, I said that was fine with me."

Vanderbilt had rescinded Dixon's scholarship a month after his arrest. Middle Tennessee State had promised a scholarship if he was released, but he'd have to sit out for a season. That's when Hampton, which originally recruited Dixon, re-entered the picture. Taylor, who had reached out to troubled athletes before -- with marked success -- thought Dixon could help the Pirates' I-AA football team. He offered him a full scholarship.

Even setting aside the 15-month jail term, Dixon was not a tremendous prospect. A knee injury had kept him out his senior season, and he hadn't played a down in two years. He was soft, out of shape.

"My mind-set was, 'All right, this is your chance,'" Dixon said. "'A chance to go to school, play football. You've got to take advantage of it.'"

Midway through his freshman season, he became a starter at defensive end. He was a three-time team captain and a two-year member of an athletic leadership committee, and finished the 2007 season with six sacks and a team-high 16 tackles for losses. According to school officials, Dixon has a 3.33 grade-point average, was a regular on the dean's list and is four classes short of graduation. They also say his four years at Hampton passed without a single off-field incident. And he is one of three national finalists for Diverse Magazine's Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholars Award, which will be awarded next month.

"He's been in no kind of trouble," said head coach Jerry Holmes, a former NFL defensive back. "They can say all they want about what happened in the past, but from spending that time with Marcus, I think that the sky's the limit."

Said linebacker Franklin Frazier: "He's playing for something more than football. He's playing for his family; he's playing for a new life. That excites him. That's why he has so much energy all the time."

Small wonder, considering where he has come from, that Dixon has such a sense of urgency.

"You wake up in a metal bed and the door only opens up when they open it for you," Dixon said of prison. "You can't go to the bathroom unless you ask. White walls, a steel toilet. Every freedom you had is taken away from you.

"I don't take my freedom for granted now. My thing was just, 'All right, every day I wake up, I'm proving that you made the right decision. I'm proving that I wasn't that guy that was supposed to be in prison.'"

The next level?

Marcus Dixon, his forehead already glistening, blasted out of a three-point stance and upended a truck tire, then another, then sprinted past an orange cone. He worked out for a camera crew at the Velocity Sports Performance gym in Trumbull, Conn., where he spent two months earlier this year preparing for the NFL combine. Linta, his agent, urged Dixon through a series of drills.

"Come on, get there," Linta shouted.

Linta's specialty is finding diamonds in the rough, players like Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, whose draft stock has soared to the extent that he may be a first-round choice. Linta's livelihood depends largely on his ability to assess talent -- and character. He saw Dixon on film and only later realized he was the guy whose story had appeared on "Oprah." He investigated the "red flag" extensively and came to the conclusion that character was not an issue.

"You don't have to talk to Marcus too many times to realize what a class act he is," Linta said. "I would venture to say that of the 252 guys that will get drafted, there is not one of them who has led a more exemplary life in the past five years than Marcus Dixon."

Linta is paid to promote his client, but the NFL seems to be on the same page.

Scouts Inc. Breakdown

Marcus Dixon, DE, Hampton
(6-foot-4, 292 pounds, 5.32 40)
Concerns: Character, Speed
Grade: 32

Strengths: Has adequate lower body strength and can drive tight ends back when he plays with sound technique. While inconsistent in this area, has shown above-average upper body strength and flashes the ability to shed blocks. Works from snap until whistle, takes adequate angles to the ball and makes some plays in pursuit..

Weaknesses: Plays too high and can get driven back by offensive tackles. Doesn't deliver a violent punch and isn't physical enough. Base narrows at times and can lose balance. Appears hesitant at times and can have problems locating the ball. Doesn't anticipate snap counts well, lacks an explosive first step and isn't fast enough to consistently turn the corner.

• Read the entire report here.Insider

"Consistent with our process of evaluating players for the draft, we have thoroughly researched Marcus' background," said New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. "We are comfortable with keeping him on our draft board."

And if an NFL team did express doubt about Dixon's character?

"They're wrong," said Nancy Lake, Hampton's athletic compliance coordinator. "They would definitely be wrong. He is very well-rounded, and he's grounded, not trying to live the high life. He is a great person of character."

Dixon will watch the NFL draft at home with his family, less than a half-mile from the grocery store where Kristie Brown works these days. Last Thursday, Brown arrived for work just before 3 p.m. in a navy blue work polo shirt. Slender and slight, she was holding a lighter and a pack of Newports when asked if she'd consent to an interview.

"I've moved on with my life," she told ESPN producer Ben Houser. "I have no comment."

Some folks in Lindale believe Kristie's father was behind the rape charges. Trial testimony for the defense painted him as a racist who was furious his daughter had had sex with a black man. Others say it was all about money. The Browns eventually sued the Floyd County school system for $5 million for not reporting Dixon's two previous incidents. The case was settled for $130,000 -- the system's original offer plus legal fees -- in June 2005.

If the whole thing sounds like a movie, well, it's probably going to happen. Paramount has acquired life rights from Dixon. And Thomas Carter, who directed "Coach Carter," is on board.

How will it end?

"Either way, I'm going to a [training] camp and working on making the team," said Dixon.

It's easy to be skeptical when Dixon says he holds no grudges. But when you thumb through his worn King James Bible, you begin to understand. He said he recited Psalm 91 every day he was in prison, and every day since.

Last summer he had the first verse tattooed inside his left forearm: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."

Every time he has visited with NFL personnel, Dixon has been asked to repeat his complicated, convoluted story. He has it down to just several paragraphs, which he delivers in a soft monotone, beginning with, "I had sex with Kristie Brown, a Caucasian female …"

"I'm still trying to change people's perception of who I am," Dixon said. "They have character concerns because I was in prison. The scouts I talked to actually said it shouldn't be a problem."

Still, he worries.

"I do," he said. "I definitely do."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

In an April 24 story on ESPN.com about NFL draft prospect Marcus Dixon, a scouting breakdown provided by ESPN's Scouts Inc., erroneously reported that Dixon had been charged with criminal damage and disorderly conduct in August of 2007. Dixon was not involved in any such an incident and was never charged with those crimes.