When Isiah Dixon entered the halls of Ferris High School in Jersey City for the first time a little more than three years ago, he had never played a game of organized football in his life.
Dixon then signed up for the Bulldogs’ football program, and as a freshman, he was turned into a tight end on offense and a defensive end on defense.
“He was a nice sized kid with speed and aggressiveness,” said Ferris head football coach Wilbur Valdez. “We figured that’s where Isiah would fit in, since he just started playing.”
Dixon was happy just to be on the field, but he had bigger goals in mind.
“I really wanted to play running back,” Dixon said. “I knew I could do it. When I was a freshman, I was just bigger than everyone else, so I played on the line. But I always told my coaches that I wanted to play running back and linebacker. I was a little frustrated as a freshman.”
But as Dixon moved through the ranks of the Bulldogs’ program, Valdez realized that he was too valuable of a talent to be just a burly blocker up front. So a year ago, Dixon was inserted into the role as the fullback in the Bulldogs’ Wing-T offensive set, although his playing time was limited due to a series of injuries.
“He was always just a step away,” Valdez said. “He only ran what the play was designed for. If there was a five-yard hole, Isiah ran for five yards. If it was for three yards, then he got three. We needed Isiah to carry the play further, gain more on his own. We needed him to get the extra yard, because he was bigger and tougher. He had to trust his speed, because honestly, he’s our fastest back.”
“I knew that I had to get more than the blocks,” Dixon said. “I had to be more of a playmaker.”
It also helped Dixon that there was a key addition to the Ferris coaching staff, namely former Parade All-American and Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year Tyrell Dortch, who played the same position in the same offensive set when he was a standout at Hoboken High School in the late 1990s.
In fact, the Ferris coaching staff has two former Red Wing greats, Dortch and Keeon Walker, who collectively rushed for more than 6,000 yards in high school playing the same position as Dixon.
“Having guys like Tyrell and Keeon in his ear every day didn’t hurt,” Valdez said. “These guys ran for miles in that same offense. They knew how to how to get the most out of that position.”
Dixon would be the first to admit that having Dortch along as a personal tutor has been a huge assistance.
“He’s actually helped me a lot,” Dixon said. “I feel since he’s come to Ferris, that I’ve become a better running back. I’m trying to use the skills he taught me. I know that both Coach Dortch and Coach Walker were great running backs in the same offensive system, so they’re big helps. Coach Dortch wants me to become just like him and have all the facets to the game that he had.”
That may be hard to do, considering that Dortch is an all-time legend, one of the greatest football players to ever grace the fields of Hudson County, before he headed off to Michigan State.
However, the way Dixon is going this season, he could be well on his way to becoming a lot like his teacher.
Dixon started the season with a 120-yard performance in a huge win over Dickinson, but last weekend served as his coming out party.
In a 34-8 thrashing of Bayonne, increasing the Bulldogs’ seasonal mark to 2-0, Dixon rushed for 206 yards on 14 carries and scored three touchdowns, elevating him into the status of one of the premier running backs in the county.
For his efforts, Dixon has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Dixon is the first such honoree for the 2008-09 scholastic sports season and the weekly feature culminates in June with the presentation of the newspaper chain’s Male and Female Athletes of the Year.
“He had a great game,” Valdez said. “He knows now the position of fullback can evolve in this offense. It used to be a position where you would pound into the line and try to gain six, seven yards. It’s not that way anymore. Isiah was always just a step away from being a great one. I knew that he had it in him. He just needed something that would give him the confidence, the swagger. Now, he wants to get in the open field and run. He can make a cut on a dime and simply go.”
Dixon did exactly that on just his second carry of the game against Bayonne, taking a simple handoff, making one cut and then exploding for a 70-yard touchdown jaunt.
“He can run away from people and he’s demonstrating that now,” Valdez said. “Isiah is just loaded with potential and it’s now becoming a reality.”
So much so that Dixon is now getting looked at by some solid college football programs, schools like the University of Ohio, Maine, Temple and Central Connecticut have come calling.
“Those schools like him as a tailback or at linebacker,” Valdez said. “He’s getting some nice looks and he’s already academically qualified, so that’s not a worry. I think all he’s needed was a year of confidence. He just needed to know he could do it. I always felt he could become a superior athlete.”
Valdez now feels that Dixon can fall right in line with some of his All-Area backs of the past, like Ramir Henry and Devon Shaw, except for one thing. Dixon is blessed with good size, while Henry and Shaw were both mighty mites.
“He’s bought into the program and trusted it,” Valdez said of Dixon. “It’s now all paying off for him. It goes to show everyone that the sky’s the limit if you work hard. I always preach to the kids to stick with the program. You can see that working with a kid like Isiah.”
Dixon said that he’s just doing as instructed.
“I just put my heart into it,” Dixon said. “Just like coach has asked me to do. I just continue to work hard. I wanted to be able to put my name out there this year and get a little recognition. I was definitely inspired to show what I can do and who I am.” After last week’s performance, it’s safe to say that everyone knows who Isiah Dixon is and that he’s far removed from that freshman tight end of a few years ago. – Jim Hague