When the conversation turns to Dillon's past, he becomes uncomfortable. His head bobs when he speaks. He rarely makes eye contact. His voice isn't so much defensive as it is hopeful; he wants you to believe his explanations for the many transgressions he has been accused of. "My thing has always been, sit down with me for an hour and base your judgments off that," Dillon says. "That's all I ask. Don't go by what you read in the paper or hear in the streets. I get treated like I'm John Gotti."
You wanted to find Dillon when he was a teenager? You went to a tough, inner-city neighborhood in Seattle, and then picked the kid making all the wrong moves without regard for the repercussions. Though he had close contact with his father, he grew up in a single-parent home, raised by his mother, Jerline. His lengthy juvenile record included a conviction for conspiracy to sell cocaine to undercover police when he was 15. To this day Dillon denies he was ever involved in selling drugs.
Dillon graduated from Seattle's Franklin High as an all-state running back and a centerfielder with enough potential to be selected by the San Diego Padres late in the 1993 draft. However, failure to meet the NCAA's minimum academic requirements kept him out of a Division I football program. He enrolled at Edmonds Community College in Lynwood, Wash., where he wanted to play baseball but couldn't hack the 90-minute bus ride from home to campus and quit after six weeks. He mostly lay around the house for the next year until Jerline nagged him into taking a job as a night janitor. Two months later Corey returned home from work and announced, "I can't live like this, Mama."
Dillon made Garden City ( Kans.) Community College his next stop, in the fall of 1994. On the field he starred as a running back and a free safety, but off it he was disciplined by coach Jeff Leiker for skipping classes and getting into senseless skirmishes. By August 1995 Leiker had seen enough. He kicked Dillon off the team, but not before calling the coaches at Dixie College in St. George, Utah, and suggesting that they take a flier on Dillon. "Corey was a guy who wanted to succeed but didn't know how," says Leiker. "He was also the kind of guy that you wanted to help."
Dillon had a knack for doing things the hard way. When someone else started a fight, he had to jump in and finish it. He approached life much in the manner that he carried a football: If something got in his way, he dipped his shoulder and ran right through it. "I don't think he would be where he is today if he wasn't so aggressive, but he couldn't control himself," says Bob Larson, Dillon's offensive coordinator at Garden City. "When he was on the field, it was fine to let loose. But when he was in math class or walking down the hallway, he had to learn how to harness his aggression."
Realizing at last that he was jeopardizing his dream of playing in the NFL, Dillon arrived at Dixie a different man. He took his homework on road trips. In practice he raced to the end zone every time he touched the ball—even if the goal line was 80 yards away. "I knew he had a rep as someone who bounced around and got into trouble," recalls Dixie coach Greg Croshaw, "but he was at a point where he knew what he had to do."
Dillon rushed for 1,899 yards that season, became a highly coveted juco All-America and returned to Seattle to play for Washington—where he had wanted to play all along. Dillon didn't waste that chance either. Despite starting only eight games in 1996, he set Huskies season records for rushing yards (1,555), carries (271) and touchdowns (23).
After one season at Washington, Dillon decided he was ready for the NFL and declared for the 1997 draft. However, his checkered past apparently made many teams wary, and he slipped to the middle of the second round, and the Bengals chose him with the 43rd pick. Dillon didn't hear his name called, because when he wasn't among the first 10 selections, he retreated to his bedroom, locked the door and wept. He didn't emerge until the next morning. "He thought it was the end of the world," says his brother Curtis. Still, he readily agreed to a three-year deal with Cincinnati and reported to camp on time.
When Dillon was a rookie, Boomer Esiason, the Bengals' backup quarterback, took him under his wing, tutoring him on the offense and on life in pro football. "I saw a kid who was going to be a superstar," says Esiason, who retired after that season. "He had the instincts, the ability and the raw talent to play what is physically the toughest position in football. But I also saw someone who was impatient, who wanted everything right now."
Says Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, "The best test of a guy like Corey, someone who comes out of school with a lot of baggage, isn't what happens after the first year. It's what you do the year after that and the one after that. The question was whether he would become one of those guys who fell back or continued to grow. He's become a man."