illiam Green is arguably the greatest running back in Boston College football history. Before leaving Alumni for the NFL in 2002, he recorded close to 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground in his career. One more season on the Heights, and the former Big East Offensive Player of the Year would be sitting atop the program’s all-time leading rushing list. He had the size to run through linebackers and the speed to outrun defensive backs.
Green’s former teammate Paul Zukauskas has only seen one guy with the back’s elusiveness and physicality. That’s freshman A.J. Dillon. And he’s 30 pounds heavier.
“A.J. is a rare talent,” Zukauskas said. “I’d like to think I might get a player like him sooner than later. But I think he’s a rare kind of player. I’m not going to come across many A.J. Dillons around high school football ever again.”
Zukauskas coached Dillon during his high school days at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. He figured out pretty quickly that the best way to utilize Dillon was to get the ball to him as much as possible—and it worked.
While at Lawrence Academy, the New London, Conn., native set the school record for rushing yards and touchdowns. In his junior year alone, he racked up 1,887 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on 10.9 yards per carry. At 6-feet, 245 pounds, Dillon was a force to be reckoned with, not only on offense, but also on defense. His aggression in the backfield simply carried over to the linebacker position. Whether he was running the rock or making a tackle, Dillon was none other than a game changer.
But he wasn’t invincible.
illon entered the fourth game of his final season at Lawrence Academy on pace to finish the year with 1,500-plus rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Yet he exited without knowing if he’d ever play another down in a Spartan uniform.
After scoring a late fourth-quarter touchdown—his third of the day—Dillon took the field to hold off St. Sebastian’s School for Lawrence Academy’s fourth win of the season. But with 30 seconds left in the game, he took a hit to the shin, fracturing his fibula in his right leg. His season and high school football career were over.
At the time, Dillon was devastated. In addition to preventing the four-star recruit from leading his team to its third-consecutive ISL and NEPSAC bowl victory, the injury also kept him out of the annual Army All-American game—a staple for the nation’s most highly touted recruits.
“It was just really bad timing, cutting the season [short] and everything,” Dillon told MLive.com in November 2016.
But actually, it was perfect timing.
The injury gave Dillon time to reflect. For the first time in his life, he saw football through a different lens.
“It really opened my eyes,” Dillon said. “As much as I love football, it’s not something that I can play forever. It’s not golf, it’s not baseball. It’s something you know, eventually your time is going to come to an end.”
Although he had already committed to Michigan the previous spring, Dillon began to rethink his college decision in December 2016. Instead of choosing a school around its football team, he focused on the opportunities and people that would surround him.
So he turned to BC—a school that he has always held dear, and a place that serves as a second home of sorts. Having gone to prep school near Boston, Dillon is quite familiar with the area and even has friends and teammates that have also played for the Eagles. His Twitter location says it best: “Connecticut raised me, Massachusetts adopted me.”
On Dec. 2, 2016, Dillon made his first official visit to BC. He bought into head coach Steve Addazio and responded to running backs coach Brian White. Above all, he realized what kind of difference he could make in Chestnut Hill. No matter where he ended up, a Jim Harbaugh-led team would mostly find success. But BC provided Dillon with a chance to leave a lasting mark on both its program and the City of Boston.
A few weeks later, he officially flipped his commitment to BC, via Twitter. Fans, followers, and analysts alike found themselves in a state of confusion. Many couldn’t fathom why someone would choose BC—one of the worst Power Five programs in recent history—over a Michigan team fresh off a near-College Football Playoff appearance. Some even falsely hypothesized that Dillon switched schools because Michigan was planning on using him as a two-way player.
Dillon didn’t bat an eye. He was doing what was best for him, just like he has his whole life.
"I’m not going to come across many A.J. Dillons around high school football ever again.” Paul Zukauskas, Lawrence Academy football coach
ccording to his stepfather, Charles Campbell, Dillon didn’t even know what football was until he was 9 years old. At a young age, he was lost in baseball—the antithesis of the gridiron.
A natural at first base, Dillon flourished on the diamond. Every year he played, he was voted to his league’s all-star game. But with a stepfather in a semi-pro football league and a grandfather who played at Notre Dame, it was only a matter of time before Dillon ditched the glove and put on the pads.
As soon as Charles handed his son the pigskin, Dillon fell in the love with the game. Charles and Dillon’s mother, Jessyca Campbell, immediately signed the 9-year-old up for youth football. It didn’t take long for coaches to figure out what position Dillon should play. Once they saw how fast he could run, they instantly inserted him into the backfield. But Dillon wanted to be more than fast. He wanted to be a complete running back.
So he went to work.
Because his parents strictly prohibited weight-lifting until high school, Dillon stuck to bodyweight exercises for the bulk of his childhood. When he woke up, he’d start the day with push-ups and situps. Then, throughout random points of the afternoon, he’d do some more. And if Dillon ever misbehaved, he was back on the ground doing push-ups. No yelling, no scolding, just push-ups.
Some mornings, Dillon would even ask his mom if she could drive him to the local football field and time his splits. When he was struggling to memorize the running holes in the playbook, his parents bought cones and set them up in the backyard to simulate an offensive line. For hours, Dillon practiced associating each hole with its respective cone.
“He was never satisfied with being good enough, when he thought he could be better,” Jessyca said.
The hard work paid dividends. As time went on, Dillon started to dominate the competition—to the point where parents on the other team questioned his age.
“Even before he got to high school, and he was still playing youth ball, you recognized A.J. as a man amongst boys,” Charles said. “Teams around here would look out, and be like, ‘Where’s No. 7, we have to find him, because he’s going to change everything.’”
Dillon finally hit the weight room the summer before his freshman year of high school. Although he put on more mass, he didn’t lose a step, thanks to school basketball and AAU hoops. Whatever time of year it was, Dillon was always running.
After that summer, he started his high school football career at New London High School. Dillon saw time at all three levels—freshman, J.V., and varsity—during his first year of play. But after his freshman season, he couldn’t help but wonder what he could do on a bigger stage. After visiting Lawrence Academy, Dillon asked his parents if he could transfer to the prep school. They said no, under the belief that if anything is worth having, it’s worth fighting for.
Dillon sure did fight for their approval.
Following his sophomore year at New London High School, he wrote a 13-page letter to his parents, detailing why he needed to attend Lawrence Academy. The letter proved to his parents how much he really cared about both his academic and football career. And even though transferring meant that Dillon would have to repeat freshman year to completely matriculate through Lawrence Academy’s system, Charles and Jessyca gave their son the go.
Prior to leaving for Lawrence Academy, Dillon let his stepfather cut his hair one last time. But Charles gave Dillon more than just a back-to-school cut. He provided a nugget of wisdom.
“Right now you’re the big guy in a small pond,” Charles told Dillon. “And you’re moving on to the next level, where you’re not going to be the big guy, you’re going to have to fight your way to become the big guy.”
Dillon didn’t forget that.
nce he got to Lawrence Academy, Dillon emerged as a prototypical high school superstar, on the football field and on the track.
In 26 career games for the Spartans, Dillon rushed for a ground-breaking 4,280 yards and 65 touchdowns. And in the spring of his junior and senior years, he set the school record in the 100 meter dash (10.6), 110 meter hurdles (17.1), shot put (51’ 10”) and discus (108’ 4”).
But he hasn’t let the success go to his head.
After his senior year, Dillon gifted every accolade and recruitment letter that he ever received to his best friend: his five-year-old sister, Olivia. As far as he was concerned, whatever he accomplished was in the past. Jessyca says that his mindset was quite simple.
“I start at the bottom now,” she said. “New team, new year, here we go.”
Now at BC, Dillon is once again a small fish in a big pond. While he may be the Eagles’ first four-star recruit since 2014, he is by no means guaranteed playing time. Guys like Jonathan Hilliman, Davon Jones, and fellow freshman Travis Levy are all vying for the starting gig.
Dillon stresses that no matter what happens, he’ll be the player that his coaching staff wants him to be, whatever that entails. Whether that means sitting behind upperclassmen or carrying the ball 25 times a game, Dillon is all in. And that’s just the kind of person he is.
Growing up, Charles always referred to Dillon as “the boy”. But now, he says it’s time for him to retire the nickname. Not because Dillon is 6-feet, 245 pounds, but because he is well on his way to becoming a man.
Photos Courtesy of A.J. Dillon
Featured Image Courtesy of A.J. Dillon