The most snaps that Johnnie Dixon has played in a game as an Ohio State Buckeye also happens to be the first game he ever played in three years ago, which gives you an idea of the way his career has gone to this point.
Knee issues — including tendinitis and arthritis — have cost Dixon most of his opportunities. A redshirt junior, Dixon played in two games in 2014, five in 2015, and seven last season. He was only able to play in one of the Buckeyes’ final seven games last season due to his recurring knee issues. Despite the struggles, he did finally earn his first varsity letter last season.
After three straight years of having his season cut short due to knee issues, Dixon wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort to try and get back on the field again. Watching his teammates in the playoffs, Dixon began having serious thoughts that it might be time to give up on football.
“Honestly, I kind of had that feeling at the Fiesta Bowl,” he admitted. “I felt like it might be over. I got back in town and a couple weeks went by. I was just thinking about it, why not give it another shot? Thank God these guys gave me another opportunity.”
There is a marked difference between just giving something another shot and succeeding at that last best effort, however. Dixon decided to stick his feet back in the water, but never really knew how his knees would respond. Tireless work with Ohio State head physical therapist Adam Stewart, however, began to show some extremely positive results.
“I want to say in the winter workouts I started feeling much better, then spring every day I came out I felt just great,” Dixon said. “It was definitely pushing through, had to be a little tougher in my mind. Sometimes I got down on myself and I thought it was my fault, but it was like nothing I could really control.”
What changed his mind?
“My teammates really,” he said. “My coaches, family, and my P.T. guy Adam Stewart. I owe a lot to that guy. Every day he’s on me, so I owe a big chunk of it to him. He helped me through everything, honestly.”
In situations like Dixon’s, no player can do it alone. It’s too difficult physically and mentally. For Dixon, he had plenty of help. Teammates Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin were there to not only encourage Dixon to stick it out, but to pick it up.
“The leaders in my room are really close to Johnnie and I think that’s what kind of brought it out of him,” said receivers coach Zach Smith. “Everyone else left, and it was two kids and him. And he’s kind of not like the other two. They’re really good friends and it was an accountability deal. They’re good friends, they’re teammates, they’re kind of brothers. He made a decision after the season, like, ‘Listen, I’m not doing this the way I need to do it. I’m healthy now. I need to train harder. I need to go harder. I’m buying all the way in.’ And he did. It’s really cool to watch.”
Getting to where he is now has been a process for Dixon, and each step has been significant. The first step was deciding to keep at it. The second step was getting healthy. The third step was coming to the realization that the journey was far from over.
“Sometimes it takes time to buy in,” Dixon said. “I think I’ve finally bought into the program. It’s not about me, because these guys are my family. I realized that over the spring. I got really, really humbled, not that I wasn’t, but seeing how I kept getting hurt, I was like I don’t know if I want to do that anymore. Talking to Parris every day boosted me up, so I decided to give it another shot. That just turned everything around for me. I was an inch away definitely. I was almost done playing football. I rehab every day, hit it hard, hard.”
Now healthy, this is the best that Dixon has felt in a very long while. Even the rigors of practice are welcome because he doesn’t have the number of reps that most fourth-year juniors have. Every snap is a blessing, but it’s also an opportunity to get better.
Dixon is finally back to his old fast ways. He looks like the explosive playmaker that the Buckeyes recruited way back when, and showed plenty of evidence of that in the spring game. He will be one of Ohio State’s six starters at receiver this year and big things are expected of him.
He’s expecting big things as well.
“I kind of felt that if I could stay healthy I’d be able to show something, but unfortunately it wasn’t my time yet I guess,” he said. “There’s greatness in everyone. You have to reach down and get it.”
Few players have had to reach as far down as Dixon. Fortunately for him, he had help every step of the way.