From the time he was 6 years old, AJ Dillon can remember hearing the stories, gazing at the photos, watching the highlights, reading the press clippings reminding him that Notre Dame football ran through his bloodlines.
His grandfather, Thom Gatewood, was practically a walking monument for Fighting Irish football.
He was a pupil of legendary coach Ara Parseghian. He was the first black captain in Notre Dame history. He set school records for receptions both in a season and a career. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“When I was growing up, he always had all his film from back in the Cotton Bowl, all these great games,” Dillon said. “But I didn’t really understand it.”
It didn’t truly sink in for Dillon until he started walking the same path.
Long before the 6-foot, 240-pound running back landed at Boston College, he was a recruit out of Lawrence Academy in Groton who was starting to pop up on the radar of high-profile programs across the country.
Notre Dame was one of them.
When Dillon went to South Bend for an unofficial visit his sophomore year, Gatewood was by his side.
As they walked around campus, coaches and professors alike waving and shaking hands with Gatewood, Dillon realized the fingerprints his grandfather had left on the Fighting Irish program.
“It was really cool to see the impact he had on a lot of people there,” Dillon said. “People would notice him and be like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Try to talk to him.
“I saw his name up there with their NFL players. I got pictures from his Hall of Fame induction. It was really nice to see, obviously, growing up, seeing all that film and then being able to go actually with him at Notre Dame and seeing that kind of real presence he has there.”
But since Dillon was a child, Gatewood wanted him to see that and more.
Football was a vehicle, but the destination was outside the lines.
“He’s seen my photos, he’s seen my video, but he’s also seen my plaques that say I was an Academic All-American,” Gatewood said. “He’s seen that I was a dean’s list student for every semester that I competed athletically.
“So those were the benchmarks that he used as a gauge, and that was my influence. Just really emphasize the balance. Sports is no extracurricular, it is part of the curriculum.”
Which is why when Dillon was being courted by Notre Dame, Michigan, and Boston College, Gatewood was there with a level head and a lifetime’s experience.
“My first advice was strictly offering availability, and availability of a credible source,” Gatewood said. “Having been through every level that he’s been to, I’ve already experienced it.
“His big goals are, one, to achieve academic success, become an All-American, go to the next level, and if he can get to the NFL, great. And if he can just continue having positive work going forward, that’s going to happen for him.
“So for me, I’ve just made that clear that he was being responsible enough to look at each stage, including post-graduation. What happens to AJ if AJ doesn’t go to the next level and the next level for you is a professional career in the workforce? Are you prepared? Are you going to make sure you choose a university where you’re going to get an education when all is said and done?”
Dillon’s decision was a difficult one. The family ties at Notre Dame tugged at him. The history at Michigan was undeniable. But the atmosphere at BC offered something important to him as a native New Englander, raised in New London, Conn.
“I really wanted to be present in this area and kind of go against the stigma about New England football,” Dillon said.
The sentiment grew deeper during his senior year, when a fractured fibula cut his season short. That forced Dillon to truly prioritize what mattered to him. As he recovered from the injury, surrounded by family, he realized how important home was.
“I really sat down,” Dillon said. “I called my grandfather a lot because I was kind of down about the injury. My grandfather, we had a long talk, probably like an hourlong talk.
“He was just really, really down to earth with me and said, ‘That’s football,’ pretty much. Essentially, in a nutshell.
“It’s not a forever thing. It’s one of those sports where you really have to think about the next 40 years. What are you going to get out of it? Any of the schools I would’ve gone to, Notre Dame, Michigan, Boston College, they’re all prestigious academic schools, but it was just something where I really wanted to be around the people that supported me all the way through all this.”
It was there when BC opened the season two weeks ago at Northern Illinois. Gatewood was in the stands. Before the game, he checked in to make sure Dillon was ready.
“He was concerned about things like, ‘Oh, I’ve been studying this playbook, and I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes with this playbook,’ ” Gatewood said. “And I just tried to reinforce relaxation, being calm.
“I said, ‘If you feel really tight in that locker room before you go out the first time, just go off to yourself. Because you’ve got to rely on you first, then the team can rely on you.’
“But you can’t lead if you’re feeling nervous. They’re going to sense that. They’re going to read your body language.”
Dillon ran the ball five times for 20 yards in his first taste of college football. The next week against Wake Forest, he turned 15 carries into 43 yards. His role will increase as the season goes on.
From afar, Gatewood will have an eye on Saturday’s game at Alumni Stadium between the Eagles and the Irish, his allegiances split down the middle. He’s saving his first chance to see his grandson face his alma mater for South Bend.
But the model Gatewood laid out during his time at Notre Dame is one his grandson wants to follow at BC.
“That’s something I’m really trying to have,” Dillon said. “That’s something I aspire to be here at Boston College eventually. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’d like to be somebody who’s very influential here too.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.