Joe Dillon is returning to the site where it nearly all came to an end.
The Tylertown, Mississippi native will walk onto the artificial turf inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the season opener between the University of Louisiana and Mississippi State on Saturday, August 31st.
The game, and venue, holds special significance to the UL redshirt junior outside linebacker.
In addition to being Dillon’s first game action since 2017, the Superdome is also the site of the day when the Ragin’ Cajuns star suffered an injury — one that nearly derailed his promising collegiate career.
“That is the game that I actually got hurt,” said Dillon of the 2016 New Orleans Bowl game between UL and Southern Miss. “So for me coming back to the place I got hurt, against a team from my home state which is also the rival of where my mom went (Ole Miss), and then it is my first game back… I already have the jitters for it. I am just ready to play football.”
Dillion’s career with the Ragin’ Cajuns couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
After being redshirted as a true freshman, Dillion was the breakout defensive star for UL during the 2016 season. Dillion would lead all defensive linemen with 51 tackles, while also leading the entire team with 12.5 tackles for a loss and 7 sacks.
Dillion earned All-Sun Belt Conference second-team honors and was selected to the USA Today Freshman All-America Team.
The season finale inside the Superdome on Dec. 17, 2016 though is where Dillon partially dislocated his hip — but he didn’t know that and nor did he realize how severe that initial injury would become.
“I knew something that was wrong but I just kept playing,” Dillon said. “I just wanted to help my team. I didn’t think it was that bad either. I thought it was a bruise or something like that. I had no idea how bad the injury was.”
Despite dealing with a nagging injury that took away his explosive first step, Dillon still led the Cajuns during the 2017 season with 4.5 sacks and managed to earn All-SBC third team honors.
The team ended the season 5-7 overall and longtime head coach Mark Hudspeth was let go and was replaced by Billy Napier. During his early offseason evaluation process, Napier noticed that something was off about the Cajuns leading pass rusher.
The team had Dillon get an x-ray and that’s when the extent of his injury was revealed.
Dillon was diagnosed with avascular necrosis which is essentially the death of the bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply. Dillon required an extensive surgery and his football future was very much in doubt.
“At first I didn’t understand because of all the doctor lingo,” Dillon said. “They use words in certain ways and all that. But I remember the trainer explained to me what happened and then everything around me slowed down. I was real quiet. I didn’t want to be around anybody.”
Dillon had surgery in March 2018 and would miss the entire season during an extensive rehabilitation process that saw him walking on crutches for more than six months.
Being forced to sit and watch his teammates claim the Sun Belt Conference Western Division title and play in a bowl game was a surreal experience for Dillon.
“It was weird because some games it was really aggravating to me because I wasn’t out there with them,” Dillon said. “But other games I got to watch my teammates have a good time and win that made me feel good in a way.”
The time spent away from the playing field, and the very real possibility of him never playing football again, helped Dillon become a better player — a more dedicated player — and a better student and teammate.
“I was out of football for a little minute,” Dillon said. “I actually thought that I wouldn’t play football again. I grew up never thinking about life without football you know what I mean? So me having to sit out that year helped me handle my business better, being more productive without football and handling school much, much better.”
Dillon added, “I have learned how to become a better teammate and a better leader.”
Dillon has also learned how he can be best utilized in defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ defense. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Dillon will line up as a pass rusher at outside linebacker in Roberts’ scheme.
Dillon is thrilled about what he has learned under Roberts, including becoming a more diverse player on the edge, and has no problem with the demands his coach puts on him.
“What he wants he is going to get,” Dillon laughed. “If he is going to tell you something it is his way or no way. But that is what it has to be. He sees that his defense works so why not be all in to his defense?”
“It is just not Joe’s ability because he is a really good player but Joe brings an alpha male presence into the room,” Roberts said. “Our kids respect him when he talks and that is huge.”
Dillon may bring an alpha male presence to the field but the Cajuns have made sure to slowly bring him back into the fold. Dillon played only 20 snaps during the spring game and the team continues to monitor his progress during camp.
The team though expects Dillon to be fully ready for the fall and play a significant factor on defense.
“Joe had a tremendous reputation as a playmaker, and a guy who could make impactful plays in a game when we first got here,” Napier said at the start of fall camp. “The thing I appreciate about Joe is that he’s an alpha male.”
For Dillon, he wants to back up that alpha male persona by performing on the field even better than he did three seasons ago when he was named an All-American.
“I already know I have to be better than what I was,” said Dillon who is majoring In kinesiology. “I have no room for error. I’ve got to make noise and help this team make noise.”
Even though Dillon wants to make the biggest impact possible for the team, at the end of the day he remains extremely fortunate to even an opportunity to once again suit up and don the vermilion and white.
“I am truly blessed,” Dillon said. “Just coming from what I have been through and the adversity I had to deal with it and to be back in this position is just feels amazing. I can’t wait to play in that game.”