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Julian Benbow

AJ Dillon’s connection with Notre Dame? His grandfather was a star for the Irish

AJ Dillon holds BC records for career yards and rushing touchdowns
AJ Dillon holds BC records for career yards and rushing touchdownsFILE/BILL sIKES/Associated Press

As the calendar flipped closer to the day that Thom Gatewood’s legendary past at Notre Dame would intersect with the present-day feats of his grandson AJ Dillon at Boston College, Gatewood’s mind started to time travel.

He sorted through fond memories, the ones he would share whenever Dillon was starving for even the smallest morsel of football knowledge.

Gatewood found a set of photos Dillon sent him when Dillon was but a high schooler.

Dillon had heard time and again of his grandfather’s accomplishments over his four years at Notre Dame. Gatewood was the first black captain in Notre Dame history. He was the Fighting Irish’s record-holder for catches in a season and a career (both since broken). In 2015, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

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One day, Dillon did some digging for photos to see his grandfather in action. As he pored over them, he started comparing them with photos of himself.

“He married them side by side in a column — a photo of me in uniform and a photo of him, a headshot,” Gatewood remembered. “He sent it to me and he said, ‘Hey grandpa, ‘Look what the DNA did!’ ”

The pictures were almost identical.

“We were both surrounded in each of those pictures by tacklers, looking to gain more yardage after first contact,” Gatewood said. “It was amazing how we were both stepping through people in the exact same motion, holding the ball tight to our bodies and moving north and south.”

What Gatewood knew — and what Dillon would have to learn for himself — was that no matter how alike they were, their paths would always be their own.

There was a book Gatewood often told Dillon to pluck through whenever he had time: Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

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“The more you try to compare me to you, you’ll find a broad, broad difference,” Gatewood said.

Dillon first picked up a football at the age of 6. Gatewood didn’t start playing until the 10th grade. Dillon grew up in small-town New London, Conn. Gatewood grew up in the Mid-Atlantic hub of Baltimore. Gatewood was the oldest of six children. Dillon was an only child until 13, when his younger sister was born. Gatewood went to high school at Baltimore City College, where he was one of 4,000 boys. Dillon went to Lawrence Academy, a school about 1-10th of the size. Dillon was recruited by 17 schools. Gatewood had 175 knocking at his door.

“For me, it’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ” Gatewood said. “I’m, on paper, so totally different than him. Yet we have a commonality and a respect level that we’re like contemporaries.”

There’s one distinction that’s probably the most telling. When Gatewood was choosing colleges, he was attracted to Notre Dame and the serene setting of a Catholic school in South Bend. Dillon was drawn to BC, another Catholic school just a T ride from the heart of New England’s urban center.

When Gatewood chose Notre Dame, he had no idea about the extent of the school’s lore. He remembered watching recruits from Catholic schools being mesmerized by the school as soon as they touched soil on campus, but it didn’t have the same effect on him.

“I didn’t even know anything about any of that going into this, because I didn’t even know anything about Notre Dame,” Gatewood said. “The tradition of Notre Dame, it was meaningless to me as a recruit. I had never even watched a game that they had played because football was all new to me in 10th grade. I became a part of that thing once I got here, but I wasn’t romancing over it as a recruit.”

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Receiver Thom Gatewood was the first black captain in Notre Dame history.
Receiver Thom Gatewood was the first black captain in Notre Dame history.Associated Press

Dillon, on the other hand, grew up watching Notre Dame because of Gatewood. He watched clips from his grandfather’s heyday playing alongside Joe Theismann and going to the Cotton Bowl in the 169 and 1970 seasons. Dillon took his first trip to South Bend as a kid, then went back for a football camp when he got older. When the time came for official visits, Gatewood was by his side to check out Notre Dame.

“It was pretty cool to see his legacy there,” Dillon said. “All his records up on the boards. Even since then, being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. It was a cool experience having someone to look up to like that and see what he’s done.”

The aura is unmistakable, but it didn’t overwhelm Dillon. He had seen plenty of big stages on his recruiting tour, including Michigan. He was comfortable.

“It’s a really cool thing to see, it’s one of a kind,” Dillon said. “Just like the Big House at Michigan. When I visited there, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ You walk in and you see 110,000 seats. I feel like Notre Dame is definitely one of those places where you have Touchdown Jesus, you’ve got the Golden Dome and the helmets made with the paint from the dome. So it’s definitely cool to see how they uphold that tradition.”

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Having a family legacy at a tradition-rich university might have made Notre Dame a no-brainer for some recruits. But although Dillon admired the path Gatewood walked, he saw a different one for himself.

“I remember a part of me not 100 percent wanting to go to Notre Dame because I wanted to start my own legacy,” he said.

Gatewood didn’t try to sway him.

“I respected him for the fact that he said that because I understand that,” Gatewood said.

At Boston College, coach Steve Addazio understood as well.

“Sometimes it works both ways,” Addazio said. “I’ve seen it work where a guy wants to follow in those footsteps and I’ve seen it where a guy wants to carve his own path. I just think it’s different for everybody.

“I would say this, in hindsight, he made a hell of a decision coming here. He’s having a spectacular career and he’s showcased and he’s in an offense that features him and I’d say things have gone well for him.”

It was a decision that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Everett-born and Chelsea-raised, could only lament so much looking back.

“I think there were other reasons maybe that he didn’t want to come here,” Kelly said. “I don’t know what they were. We never really had an opportunity, but he felt like BC was the best fit for him and it’s obviously worked out quite well for him.”

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In three years, Dillon has rewritten BC’s record book in his image. This season, he became the Eagles all-time leading rusher with 4,148 yards and set the school’s rushing touchdown record with 37. He’s the only back in BC history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. His work isn’t close to being done.

AJ Dillon breaks a long run for a first down against North Carolina State earlier this season.
AJ Dillon breaks a long run for a first down against North Carolina State earlier this season.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“I went with my gut and I feel like it’s panned out well,” Dillon said.

Whenever Dillon has needed a sounding board for any other gut decisions, he’s been able to lean on Gatewood, part grandfather, part life coach, part advance scout.

“We message each other after every game, before every game,” Gatewood said. “He knows what I’m watching, he knows what I’m looking for. I can give him scouting reports just like he can. I’m watching other ACC games before he’s going to play them on the schedule to see where their strengths are.”

Gatewood’s advice as Dillon prepares to walk into Notre Dame Stadium Saturday was the same as it’s been the past three years.

“Our conversation was, ‘It’s a road game,’ ” Gatewood said.

Dillon’s mother, Jessyca Campbell, will be there, just as she has for all but two road games since he got to BC. He’ll have family from all corners — Ohio, California, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas.

“This will be fun for me to see him in action on that field,” Gatewood said. “Looking forward to it with nothing but pride.”

Gatewood’s sense of fulfillment will come from knowing that his footprints were there as guides for Dillon, but Dillon ultimately made his own.

“He’s been a legacy builder this whole time,” Gatewood said. “He wanted to rise to the top of wherever he was going to go. He wanted to make sure that they knew when he was done at Boston College you would know that AJ had been there. That’s legacy and that’s been his chief goal: to make memorable marks and be remembered that way.”


Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.