ASHBURN - The little child sat in the homeless shelter, trying to figure a way out of this life. At that time, his answer was to pray. So he did it all the time. Little Antonio Dixon was hit by a grand slam of obstacles: he stuttered; had a learning disability; had a father in prison and was in and out of shelters.
That beat him up on occasion. It didn't beat him down.
And Dixon would make a constant vow to his mom.
"He always used to tell me he would take care of me when he was older," his mom said. "And when he said he wanted to do something, he did it."
He's on his way. Dixon is an undrafted rookie free agent practicing with the Washington Redskins, trying to make the roster at a stacked position (defensive tackle).
He's also one of six people in the country who will receive the Wilma Rudolph Student Athlete Achievement Award this Saturday, for overcoming tremendous obstacles to graduate. Dixon graduated with a degree in liberal arts from the University of Miami last month, the first in his family to graduate.
"I know I deserve [the award]," Dixon said. "When everyone else was partying and having fun, I'm doing my work."
He did it with a background few could match.
"Stuff would get good and then it would just turn bad," Dixon said. "And when it turned bad, it was real bad."
Dixon once estimated he attended 15 elementary schools. He was in and out of shelters in Miami and Atlanta six times, at least. Dyslexia prevented him from learning to read until the sixth grade. His stuttering has improved. Still, he often taps his knee or arm or even his chest when he struggles with words.
His mom was a single parent raising five kids. Dixon's dad, Frazier Hawkins, was released from prison two months ago after serving 17 years for drug trafficking charges. And the burden eventually got to Corenthia Dixon.
"I started using drugs and I was using for two years," Corenthia said. "I was really stressed out."
Because of that, for a year Antonio Dixon, then around 10, and his siblings lived in foster care. When they were reunited with their mom -- who would visit them every Sunday -- they again would occasionally live in shelters.
"We were in the shelter and he would try to hide from his friends," said his mom, who now works as a server in the kitchen at the Miami shelter they once lived in. "He would say, 'Why do we always have to come back here?' He would be sad some days É I used to see him in his room praying all the time."
By the time Antonio Dixon was in eighth grade, his mother had turned her life around. A couple years later they moved into an apartment. And Dixon attended only one high school (Booker T. Washington in Miami).
Football became a salvation for Dixon, who started playing in the ninth grade. He wasn't a star at Miami. But at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, he has the size and ability to play inside, provided he controls weight issues.
He's a longshot to earn a roster spot. He also was a longshot to earn a college degree.
"He's the kind of guy you want to hug," said Redskins defensive line coach John Palermo, who coached him for one season at Miami. "He's such a good person and a hard worker."
Corenthia Dixon said, "I told him if he doesn't make the team [he's] still my son and I'm really proud for what [he] did already. He was like, 'I'm making the team.'"