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Taken from his birth mom at age 6, safety D'Cota Dixon found solace in a turbulent world, thanks to football and the kindness of a woman who stepped into his life

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published April 10, 2019

D'Cota Dixon squinted and grimaced, all the while hoping that looking harder might make it easier to find what he so badly wanted to see. As his sister, Lovie Fance, drove her sedan through the Coconut Grove section of Miami, he watched a smattering of lost souls searching for a safe spot to sleep within an intimate neighborhood he once called home. While surveying every street corner and back alley, Dixon kept his spirits high. His mother, Sheila, was out there somewhere among the homeless. If he stuck with this search long enough, he just might locate her.

When Dixon started this trek, his sister warned him it wasn't going to be easy. They had talked the night before, on the first Christmas Eve they'd spent together since D'Cota was a toddler, and Lovie reminded him about all the demons their mother had been fighting.

"Sometimes we find her," Lovie said to D'Cota during that conversation. "And sometimes we don't." D'Cota nodded somberly, aware he had nothing to lose at this point, especially because the trip already had been so fulfilling.

As soon as the Wisconsin Badgers had arrived in Miami for the 2017 Orange Bowl, D'Cota, a starting safety, had raced over to see Lovie and his other half sister, Royal Donaldson, immediately after eating dinner with the team. After rarely visiting for more than a decade, D'Cota hugged the two women tightly and laughed about the good fortune of Wisconsin playing a game against Miami in his hometown. A few minutes later, D'Cota plotted the next step in this reunion. He wanted to see his mom, and he wanted to do it as quickly as possible.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst understood. When Dixon approached Chryst after practice on Christmas and asked to skip a planned team activity to find Dixon's mother, Chryst had a brief response for his star defender: "What are you waiting for?" he said. But now, after a few hours of driving around, the reality of this part of the journey was hitting Dixon. Finding his mother, a woman he hadn't even seen a picture of in 14 years, might just be comparable to spotting an ant with a drone soaring high above the streets.

But then something strange happened. The car drove past a vacant home where a slender black woman wearing a tie-dyed shirt sat on a blanket in the driveway. Dixon snapped to attention and peered over his right shoulder as Fance kept moving down the street.

"Stop the car," Dixon said to his sister, all the while eyeing the woman from a distance. "We need to go back."

It's been roughly 16 months since Dixon went looking for his mother on that Christmas Day, and plenty has changed in his life. Instead of being an inspirational leader for the Badgers, he's now just another talented prospect hoping to hear his name called in this year's NFL draft. Many draft analysts project the 24-year-old safety, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year award last year, will end up being a mid- to late-round selection. It's even plausible he goes undrafted.

This is what happens when your greatest attribute isn't a physical tool. Dixon isn't the biggest guy at his position (he measured 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds at Wisconsin's pro day last month), and he's not incredibly fast (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds). However, the discussion changes quickly when considering his intangibles. You start talking about traits like heart, smarts and toughness, and Dixon's draft stock would shoot through the roof.

If he's going to make it in the NFL, it's going to depend largely on the same mindset that has helped him survive thus far. "This has been a journey," Dixon said during an interview in late March. "It can be hard when you don't know what the next step in your life is going to be like. But I know I'll have an opportunity, and I'm trying to maximize what God has for me. It's been fun and nerve-racking, and I definitely get anxious worrying about things I can't control. That's when I remind myself of why I'm here."

The best thing about Dixon is his maturity. He knows exactly why he's in this position and he's self-aware enough to understand his value. When most players talk about a career, he talks about a journey. When people grimace at the fact he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.81 seconds at the combine, he reminds himself that a tough day is when you wake up in your mother's house and go to sleep the same night in the foster home of a stranger.

The way Dixon sees it, nobody can question his passion for football because it helped him escape so much despair and tragedy. "D'Cota is a very positive, high-energy guy," said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. "He only knows one speed and he's going to be that way in practice, in the walk-through and in the games. Some guys who have that quality can't always be productive. But he can bring the energy and be consistent. I've only been around one or two players in my career who were like that, who could play with so much emotion."

Those players Leonhard referred to were Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy. That doesn't mean Leonhard thinks Dixon will have the kind of careers those players enjoyed. It's just there's something inspirational about Dixon. As his stepmother, Beth Caston, likes to say, "D'Cota believes he's here for a purpose."

Dixon projects as the kind of player who's likely to start his NFL career as a backup and make his name on special teams. He possesses an undeniable intensity when he plays, as he's not afraid to throw his body all over the field. He isn't that elite-level athlete teams crave on the back end of defenses, but Leonhard also has counseled him on how best to find a roster spot, saying, "You hear about players having limitations in the league, but there are plenty of guys who play a long time because they know how to provide value." In many ways, Dixon is similar to Leonhard, an undersized safety who played for six teams over 10 years in the NFL after going undrafted out of Wisconsin in 2005.

D'Cota's older half brother, Daryl Dixon, spent some time talking to D'Cota after D'Cota's final home game at Wisconsin, a 37-15 loss to Minnesota on Nov. 24. The day before, Daryl had asked D'Cota about the next steps in his life. D'Cota already had earned his degree in rehabilitation psychology and was in the process of pursuing a master's degree in counseling psychology. The point Daryl wanted to stress was his brother had created some nice options for himself if he wanted to give up the sport.

When D'Cota said he wanted to go forward in football, Daryl started thinking about how he could help. Since Daryl had been a standout defensive back at Florida -- one who played for the Indianapolis Colts from 2004 to '05 -- he knew where his brother should look in terms of finding an agent, as well as a trainer to assist in the pre-draft process. However, what stood out about D'Cota during that weekend wasn't that conversation. It was the way he handled his final home game.

A sprained ankle that kept D'Cota out of that contest didn't ruin his spirit. He limped out in front of the home fans, cherished the hugs he received from his family and smiled throughout the entire process. As Daryl knew well, it wasn't that long ago he would've seen a different reaction from his brother, one far darker and uglier than the people in Madison had ever known.

"You could see his maturity," said Daryl, who now coaches cornerbacks at Army. "He didn't get to play, but he was able to walk out of the locker room and enjoy being with his family. He didn't feel like he was letting anybody down or that he'd been done wrong. He was able to see his family and know he was loved."

Dixon jumped out of the car before Lovie could even slam on her brakes. He raced toward the woman he'd seen in that driveway. He sensed it was his mother sitting in front of the vacant home when his sister initially drove past the building. Now, as he edged closer to her, he was even more confident in his instincts, as tears welled in his eyes. She caught his gaze, as well, and her uncertainty quickly shifted into elation.

The last time Dixon had seen his mother in front of a house with a car parked behind him, the circumstances were far more painful. He was 6 years old at the time, a kid who had grown up in Miami with Sheila and four other siblings. Sheila struggled with manic depression so much that she ultimately suffered a mental breakdown, according to Lovie, who is 13 years older than D'Cota and helped raise her siblings as their mother's health declined. As a result, D'Cota grew up in a home where he'd hear gunshots in the streets, see rats crawling around on the kitchen floor and view ketchup packets as suitable options for dinner when times were at their lowest.

The local authorities eventually interceded in that living situation after a neighbor called to log a complaint about Sheila leaving the kids alone. One morning, Sheila walked out of their house with D'Cota and his older brother, Dexter, intent on going to a local store to find them new shoes. Instead, they found a sheriff's deputy and a representative from the Florida Department of Children and Families waiting for them, with orders to take the boys from their mother. By the end of the day, D'Cota and Dexter were sharing a bedroom in a group home on the other side of the town.

They didn't pack any clothes. They didn't grab any toys. They barely even managed to say goodbye to their mother (local authorities also took Royal, Sheila's youngest daughter and D'Cota's half sister, shortly after that day, while Lovie, Royal's 19-year-old sister, was legally an adult and their brother, also named Daryl, was serving a 10-year prison sentence). "They just told us we were moving," D'Cota said. "I would see my mom from time to time after that, but we wound up in foster care."

Everything changed in D'Cota's world on that day. His life wasn't easy before that point, but he believed his mother -- who owned her own home, worked at a local post office and even had a real estate agent's license -- cared about him. "I had a loving mom," he said. "She loved me well and she taught me well. She always talked about not being a lover of money and the importance of being connected to yourself. As a kid, you don't know the difference between good and bad. You just follow your parents."

D'Cota spent the next two years in foster homes while his paternal father, Daryl, and Caston, his father's girlfriend, fought to gain custody of him and his brother. Even after he moved to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Dixon's life continued to be marred by unexpected challenges. Daryl Sr., who worked as a computer engineer, loved his sons as much as Sheila did. The only problem was, he battled a severe drug addiction, which sometimes led to him disappearing from their home, as well.

As much as Daryl bonded with D'Cota through sports -- the father made his boys learn all the patterns in the route tree and showed them constant videos of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders -- he also knew his addiction might cost him his children. So Caston eventually became legal guardian to D'Cota and Dexter. She spent many afternoons holding up tackling dummies, sitting in bleachers at football practice and trying to help D'Cota stabilize his academics after enduring so much instability in his home life.

Caston also sensed something in D'Cota that was both understandable and concerning. "D'Cota was more relaxed when he came to live with us, but he had a lot of anger in him," Caston said. That rage only intensified when D'Cota was a freshman at New Smyrna Beach High School. He was heading to his third-period class in October of that year when he saw Caston sitting in a counselor's office with one of D'Cota's cousins. He suspected something was wrong because Caston was crying. When D'Cota walked in, his stepmother broke the news: Daryl Dixon Sr. had died of a heart attack that morning at age 50.

Caston described that moment as "the hardest thing I've ever had to do." The tragedy predictably devastated D'Cota, who found himself wondering why his life had to be filled with so much heartache. "I was angry," D'Cota said. "When my dad died, I just started thinking about why everything good in my life had to go wrong. The people I loved in my life kept getting taken away. As a kid, you're dealing with all this stuff and you just keep asking yourself, why? You have all these questions and you can't get answers."

Football eventually became D'Cota's most reliable outlet. He cherished the game ever since his father introduced him to it -- "He started as a freshman, which tells you what kind of drive and work ethic he had," said Dwayne "Snap" Wood, who coached D'Cota in Pee Wee and high school football -- but D'Cota also held onto it with a desperation that couldn't be ignored. For every outstanding play he made, there was a moment when he'd do something that would stun his teammates, largely because his frustration at things not going his way was so dramatic. A loss would lead to a helmet flying into a locker; a blown play would result in him jumping in somebody's face.

That fury never emerged away from the field, but one of D'Cota's close friends, a fellow defensive back named Jonathan Reisz, said, "It went past the normal stuff. It was the kind of thing where he'd do something, and you'd think maybe he should sit down and take a breath."

D'Cota tried to control his temper as he turned into a Division I prospect. He spent the summer before his senior year living with his brother, Daryl, who was an assistant coach with Ball State at the time. Daryl immediately saw the rage everybody else had told him about and advised his brother to mellow his mood swings. Every time something didn't go his way, D'Cota was always looking to blame somebody else for the result. When he wasn't doing that, he would shut down emotionally altogether.

Reisz also played a key role in helping to calm D'Cota's anger. Prior to their senior year, they took a walk along the beach and talked about their plans after high school. D'Cota kept thinking about his rapidly increasing collection of scholarship offers, while Reisz was pondering something shocking: a decision to quit football to focus on his religious faith. When D'Cota asked Reisz -- who also had grown up in a broken home -- why he would do such a thing, Reisz simply said football had become too big in his life, that the escape he needed from his own struggles was a deeper spiritual base.

"I'd gotten to a point in my life where there were only two paths I could take," Reisz said. "And football had become my idol. It was everything I wanted, and I realized Jesus Christ was my savior. I felt a calling to that."

D'Cota couldn't help asking more questions after hearing that. He pressed for more information on how Reisz came to such a life-altering choice. "He opened my eyes when he quit football," D'Cota said. "I asked him why he did it and he just said God was calling him someplace else. I thought that was pretty deep because I was playing football to get a scholarship. He spoke the Gospel to me that day."

Sheila and her son talked for hours. D'Cota stretched his muscular, compact frame across the blanket, then leaned back on his left elbow and smiled at the sight of his mother. Sheila beamed while listening to him tell stories of how his life had unfolded. D'Cota hadn't seen his mother since he was 9, and now, at 23, he wasn't bitter or judgmental. He simply wanted to know if his mother remembered him.

That maturity didn't come easily. His revelation started with that walk on the beach with Reisz during their senior year in high school, but the transformation had been happening long before that. D'Cota just couldn't see it as clearly. He was looking for something to believe in when he already had so much to appreciate.

All the three-hour drives Caston and his father made from New Smyrna Beach to Miami to fight through family court to win custody of D'Cota and Dexter. The devotion Caston showed him when his father was grappling with his own demons, and the patience "Snap" Wood displayed when the kid's temper erupted in ways most coaches wouldn't tolerate. There was even the phone call his brother, Daryl, made to D'Cota during his senior year, when he warned his younger sibling that his prickly attitude might cost him some of the 17 scholarships offered by various Division I programs.

D'Cota ultimately chose Wisconsin -- "It just felt right for him from the start," Caston said -- and Badger fans learned about an entirely different version of him. When a shoulder injury and a sports hernia limited D'Cota to just three games in his freshman season, he didn't pout or complain about bad luck. He simply prayed more, read the same tattered Bible Reisz had given him during that walk on the beach and thanked God for the blessings in his life. That same religious faith helped D'Cota deal with even scarier medical news at the end of his redshirt sophomore year.

He was preparing to take over a starting safety spot during spring practices when he woke up one morning with immense pain in his lower body. "There was so much pain that I physically couldn't move my legs," he said. "So, I went to the hospital and the next thing I know, I'm in critical condition. They didn't know what it was -- and they still don't -- but I was hospitalized for seven days. They eventually tried some different medications that got my white blood cells under control, but I didn't practice that summer. I came into training camp 10 to 12 pounds lighter than normal."

Dixon wound up earning third-team All-Big Ten honors and a spot on the academic all-conference team during that 2016 season. He also made a huge impression on Leonhard, who was in his first year on the Wisconsin staff. After Dixon intercepted a pass in a huge win over LSU in Lambeau Field, he was so disappointed in missing a couple of tackles that he wanted to immediately correct the error. So when Chryst showed up to his office the next morning around 7, the coach glanced out his window and saw his young safety banging into a tackling dummy on the practice field below, intent on honing his technique for corralling ball carriers.

That type of commitment turned D'Cota into an inspirational leader. Leonhard often talked to his star defensive back about the importance of moderation -- "He was giving so much energy to helping everyone else that he was wearing himself out," the coach said -- but the impact was undeniable. Dixon made the all-conference team in his junior and senior seasons, along with winning several awards for leadership and volunteer work, including the Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award (2017) and his impressive haul this past year (along with the Witten award, Dixon was a recipient of the National Football Foundation National Scholar Athlete and earned a spot on the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team).

When Dixon won the Witten award, he proudly displayed the trophy to his brother, Dexter, and recalled how far they'd come. "He told me we had gotten that award together," Dexter said. Added D'Cota: "When I think back on college, I feel like God had been preparing me for a lot of things. He was giving me opportunities to grow. I made some mistakes, but I can look back now and see that he was trying to get my attention. What's the saying? If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have a plan? That's why I am who I am today. I don't know what the future holds, but I feel like he's prepared me for it."

The people around D'Cota can see that as well. After his graduation ceremony ended at Wisconsin in May 2018, he took his family to a local restaurant that was predictably overcrowded for such a hectic day. As Dixon waited patiently, a gentleman worked his way across the room and thanked him for speaking at his daughter's high school. The man said Dixon's speech had a huge impact on everyone in the room.

A few minutes later, one of the restaurant employees came by to shake Dixon's hand, as well. That man had been catering an event for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and had been moved by Dixon's words. "I sat back and watched that and just thought, 'Wow, he's an adult now,' " Caston said. "These guys were coming up to him, and they weren't talking about him as a football player. That's what D'Cota wants. He doesn't want to be known as some guy with a hard-luck story. That's why it was so big when he won the Jason Witten award. I always thought D'Cota would be fine in life, but that cemented it. It told me that a lot of people saw the same things in him that I did."

Caston was just as proud of D'Cota for tracking down Sheila. The entire reunion had started with D'Cota chatting with his sister, Royal, on FaceTime after the Badgers had secured a spot in the Orange Bowl. D'Cota knew he wanted to see as many people as possible, and he felt confident about handling all the emotions that would come with such a visit. All the work he'd done in building his religious faith -- and studying psychology -- had made him see that so much of the trauma in his life was outside of his control. This trip was the next step in the process of him letting go.

D'Cota stayed with his birth mother well into that Christmas night. They shared a meal together, posed for a picture he posted on his Instagram account and agreed to not let so much time pass before their next meeting. When D'Cota finally decided he had to head back to the team hotel, at nearly 1 a.m., he told Sheila he just needed "a couple years" to make things better. His mother left him with a simple message: "Come back and see me again."

"It was like I was 6 years old all over again," he said. "Just to be able to call her mom and have her hear me. It was like we hadn't missed a beat."

D'Cota acknowledged there isn't a day that goes by when he doesn't think about that moment. He's earned plenty of awards, played in an assortment of big games and gone farther than most kids facing similar challenges usually do. However, as Caston said, D'Cota long ago stopped thinking of himself as a victim. He knows he's capable of bigger things, and a shot at an NFL career is merely the next chapter for him.

So, while there will be hundreds of draft parties around the country in a few weeks, D'Cota has yet to determine how he'll spend the three days. What he does know is, it really doesn't matter how the draft goes for him, whether his name is called or he has to compete for a roster spot as an undrafted free agent. D'Cota Dixon has been fighting his entire life. It's just that now, he truly understands what winning is supposed to feel like -- and how strong he's ultimately become.

"This is all a blessing," he said. "I don't know what is coming, but I can see that it's not the end of something, it's the beginning. I know that now, and I want to have an impact. That's what this thing called life is all about. It's all just one big adventure."

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