The day after Boston College tied a bow on its season, the wheels in freshman running back A.J. Dillon’s head were still turning.
The Eagles had just gone into the Carrier Dome, a building that had haunted them the past seven years, and steamrolled Syracuse, 42-14. Dillon did most of the damage, piling up 193 yards and three touchdowns.
The performance all but finalized his status as the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year. But once his highlight reel was cut, his mind was on something bigger.
He was thinking about growing up in New London, Conn., how much he loved home and how he would always show his appreciation by giving back.
From the time he was a child, he and his mother, Jessyca Campbell, would volunteer at soup kitchens. When he went off to Lawrence Academy, he would come back to help coach his pre-teen basketball team. He mentored elementary schoolers.
“I don’t have millions of dollars to give to some charity or anything,” Dillon said. “But I’d like to be there firsthand and just kind of show people that somebody cares.”
The connection to his community is as important to Dillon as the identity he has carved out for himself on the field.
He realized how much those things worked hand-in-hand whenever he looked at another New London product: Kris Dunn.
Before Dunn starred at Providence and went on to be selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, he was one of the sons the city was most proud of. So much so, that last year, it dedicated an entire day to him.
“New London, it’s not the biggest city, so everybody knows everybody,” Dillon said. “I remember he gave a bunch of stuff back to the community. I just remember how impactful it was.”
Dillon thought about how he could make the same impact.
The day after the Syracuse game, Dillon found himself sifting through Twitter. He came across BC athletic director Martin Jarmond’s profile and shot him a message.
Dillon’s question was simple: How can he be of help in the community? Getting that message at that moment took Jarmond by surprise. The two got on the phone to brainstorm.
“I just got off the phone with him, and I was amazed,” Jarmond said. “Here he is, just finished the season, just ran for 190 yards the day before, you know, you’re tired. And he’s thinking about what can he do to help his community — his new community. He wants to serve.
“I just said, this guy is a freshman, a true freshman who is thinking about this stuff and wanting to serve. I’ve never had a call like that. In all my years of doing this, I’ve never had a call like that.”
Jarmond put Dillon in touch with Father Jack Butler, BC’s vice president for the Division of University Mission and Ministry. Together they found a kitchen and during a brief lull as BC began its preparations for Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl in New York, Dillon jumped at the opportunity.
“Where I’m from, it’s not the worst of the worst, but inside my community, there’s a lot that I’d like to help out with,” Dillon said. “That’s always been my goal. Besides helping my mom and family, I really wanted to eventually give that to my city. So I kind of wanted to do the same thing out here. I’m very passionate about where I’m from — and I include Boston in that.”
It’s been years since a freshman has made anywhere near as splashy of a debut as Dillon did this season. He smashed BC’s single-season rookie rushing record with 1,432 yards. He became the first freshman in BC history to win ACC rookie of the year (and also took home offensive rookie of the year honors). He was just the second ACC freshman to post two 200-yard games.
And for a revitalized Eagles program making its fourth bowl appearance in five years, he may offer something that’s been missing since the Matt Ryan era: star power.
“I think when you have marquee players, first of all, it brings everybody up,” said Eagles coach Steve Addazio. “You start to see a lot of guys making a lot of plays, because playmaking’s contagious. I also think when you have marquee players, it’s attractive to the fan base and it has a chance to increase your attendance, your ticket sales, and all of those things. People want to come out and see great players. I think that’s exciting.”
When the Eagles set their sights on Dillon in the recruiting process, they had an idea of the impact he could have. But Addazio admitted he wasn’t certain it would be this immediate.
“We really felt like that could be the case, but you never know,” Addazio said. “I would say he has exceeded, Year 1, our expectations.”
What they were well aware of was that Dillon was chasing greatness. He had offers from Notre Dame, where his grandfather Thom Gatewood, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was a walking memorial. Michigan was also after him. But BC was close to home. Plus Dillon only had to look to 2013 when Andre Williams rushed for 2,177 yards and threw himself into the Heisman race to see the Eagles’ history of success with power running backs.
“He’s a smart guy,” Addazio said. “He wanted to come here. He wanted to build his platform here. He wanted the chance to be in an offense that would feature a tailback. He wanted to be able to come in and be ‘that guy,’ if you will. Honestly, I think it’s a tremendous decision.”
Dillon was never concerned with whether the weight of being the face of a program was too much to carry. It was something he embraced before it was ever on his shoulders.
“I think about it sometimes,” Dillon said. “Then I realize, this is what I wanted. I didn’t want to come to BC just to say I played college football. I wanted to be this. I wanted to win Heismans. All these things that I’ve dreamed about, written down in my room. I can’t shy away from it. It’s going to be a lot of responsibility and that’s why I push myself so hard.”
In his dorm room, he keeps a running list of goals and records pinned above his bed. What would read as a wish list to some comes off more as a to-do list for Dillon.
He already has his 2018 checklist lined up.
Win an ACC championship.
Win Doak Walker as the nation’s top running back.
Win a Heisman next year.
“Next year, I want to be completely night and day. I want to be so much better next year,” he said. “Not junior year, not senior year. I want to do that next year. I’m really goal-oriented in that way.”
There’s also an understanding that with great debuts come greater expectations.
He got words of wisdom from someone who understands overwhelming expectations as much as anyone: 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Jackson scorched the earth a year ago throwing for 3,543 and 30 touchdowns and rushing for 1,571 and 21 scores in a breakout sophomore season at Louisville. He ran away with the Heisman, making everyone believe they had seen the second coming of Michael Vick.
This season, the fairy dust seemed to wear off. He threw for 3,489 and 25 touchdowns and ran for 1,443 yards and 17 touchdowns — numbers still eye-popping enough to have him named ACC player of the year — but the attention around him was subdued.
At the beginning of the month, Dillon went down Charlotte to pick up his awards at the ACC’s Night of Legends ceremony. If anyone remembered Dillon, it was Jackson, who was on the sidelines when Dillon delivered the stiff-arm that ostensibly ended Louisville’s season.
Dillon and Jackson ended up chatting.
“He was a really nice guy, really down to earth,” Dillon said. “I mean, look at it. The year he had this year was better than the one he had last year. And people were still expecting more.”
Jackson tried to show Dillon what was ahead of him, telling him, “The way this is going to work, you’re the best running back in the ACC. The way everything is going to work out, you’re going to keep doing well and people are going to keep expecting more. They’re going to expect that there’s no ceiling — and there shouldn’t be. There’s no limit to what you can do. But never let that alter how you see yourself.”
The advice stuck with Dillon. Being a star was always bigger than numbers.
“That was perfect,” Dillon said. “Because that’s really how I live my life.”