FOR A GUY who threw only one official pass all year — a completion for 3 yards — Dennis Dixon has gotten a lot of mileage out of his rookie season in the NFL.
The former San Leandro High and University of Oregon star is a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which means he's in Tampa, Fla., this week for Super Bowl XLIII, albeit as the No. 3 quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich.
It's highly unlikely that he'll be pressed into service, but Dixon will settle for the next best thing — an optimum sideline view of the world's biggest football game and a chance to receive one of those gaudy rings players from the winning team receive.
"I realize that the Super Bowl doesn't come along very often, so I'm very fortunate that it's happened in my first year," Dixon said. "I'm just seizing the moment and taking everything in. And I've got my camcorder ready."
It's some small measure of payback for Dixon, who suffered a three-quarter tear of the ACL in his left knee on Nov. 15, 2007, against Arizona. At the time, Oregon was ranked No. 2 in the country and Dixon had the inside track on the Heisman Trophy. The first-quarter injury not only knocked him out of the Heisman race and finished his college career prematurely, Oregon lost its last three regular-season games and had to settle for a Sun Bowl win over South Florida instead of a possible BCS title game.
Dixon is over the pain of those misfortunes. He maintained that his knee is as good as new, so strong that he's trying to build up his right knee to balance them. He used much of this season to rehab the knee after the Steelers made him a fifth-round pick in last April's draft.
"I've put a whole lot of focus in the weight room during the season trying to get the knee 100 percent," he said. "I feel like if I went into a game right now I wouldn't have any concerns about it. Since I did the rehab in-season, the offseason will become a lot easier for me. I'm just doing extra work at this point and looking forward to next year."
The Steelers thought enough of Dixon's physical progress in the preseason not to place him on injured reserve. That enabled him to practice with the team all season even though he didn't play in a game until Dec. 28, mopping up a 31-0 win over Cleveland. He took about a half-dozen snaps, and threw that one magic 3-yard pass to Hines Ward, the latter's 800th career catch.
"It was great, because Hines gave me the ball and I'll always treasure that," he said. "It's nice to know my first NFL pass is going to be remembered for something special."
Dixon hopes to throw many NFL passes before his career is over, but he's keeping his options open. He remains in contact with the Atlanta Braves, who made him a fifth-round draft pick after his junior year at Oregon even though he hadn't played baseball since high school. Dixon subsequently spent the summer of 2007 playing rookie ball in Florida, hitting .176.
"It's still pretty much a tossup at this point," he said. "If it doesn't happen for me in the NFL, I can go back to baseball. But football is still my first choice. I believe I can be a successful quarterback in this league. Right now I have two excellent quarterbacks in front of me, so I'm just working to get better so when my name does get called I can answer the bell."
It's a good possibility that Dixon will be elevated to the No. 2 slot next year since veteran quarterbacks Leftwich and Charlie Batch — who spent the season on injured reserve — signed one-year deals that will expire after the Super Bowl. Dixon signed a three-year contract after being drafted by Pittsburgh, a development that surprised him.
"They already had some excellent quarterbacks, so I wasn't really thinking about the Steelers," he said. "I was happy about it, though, because I grew up watching Kordell Stewart and I know it's a great football town. It's been crazy here the last few weeks. Wherever you go in town, all you see is Terrible Towels."
Dixon is keeping his ticket list for Tampa modest. His father and sister will be in town as well as a couple of uncles and two friends from his high school days in San Leandro. He hasn't been back to the East Bay in a while but is looking forward to coming home with some serious bling on his finger at some point.
"Everybody would love a Super Bowl ring — that's the ultimate goal in the NFL," he said. "It doesn't matter much that I haven't played that much, because it's rare when a rookie gets to play much at my position anyway. So it would still mean a lot to me if we can get the W and the ring. And I like our chances."
Contact Carl Steward at (510) 293-2451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.