A year ago, Mark Dixon's professional football career appeared to be over before it started.
One semester after completing an All-America senior season as a guard at Virginia, Dixon ruptured a disk in his neck while lifting weights.
The injury required surgery, and it forced Dixon to begin a year of rehabilitation by basically doing nothing for six months. During that time, he returned to school to earn credits toward his sociology degree.
Then, last spring, Dixon's agent called the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League of American Football. The German team invited a surprised Dixon to Florida for a workout.
"I wasn't playing football anymore, I only weighed 240 pounds," Dixon recalled. "I went and worked out for Frankfurt anyway, and had a real good day. They kept me. In the third game, they put me in, and I kept getting stronger and playing better each week."
While Frankfurt was driving toward its World Bowl title, the Baltimore Stallions took note of the tough left guard. And after Dixon was cut at the NFL Atlanta Falcons' training camp in August, the Stallions signed him.
Dixon is back, bigger and better than ever. At 6 feet 3, 290 pounds, he's an animal in the weight room again, and in one month the rookie has emerged as a fixture on the Stallions' veteran offensive line.
Today against Saskatchewan, Dixon will start his third straight game at right guard.
Injuries have helped open the door for Dixon. Baltimore has had five offensive linemen go down this season. But, as Baltimore coach Don Matthews said, Dixon's strength, skill and smarts would have forced the coach's hand eventually.
"The injuries hastened his insertion into the lineup, but we were going to get him ready and work him in anyway; we thought he was that good," Matthews said. "After some on-the-job training, now he's getting comfortable. He's an excellent pass blocker, and if he continues to play like he's playing, he's going to stay there."
Dixon got his introduction into the Canadian Football League during the first two weeks of September as a reserve, before getting his first start three weeks ago in Shreveport. There, he played left guard because Mike Withycombe was filling in for the then-injured Shar Pourdanesh at left tackle. The rules and the pace of the game demanded an adjustment on Dixon's part.
"I remember in my first game, I was out there on third-and-short, thinking we can get the first down. But they were sending in the punt team," said Dixon, 24. "Somebody pulled me on his way off the field and said, 'That's it. Get outta here, dude.'
"I felt like I was in good shape until I played in Shreveport and that heat and humidity. That's where the fast pace of the game got to me. I was dead after three quarters. But I could have been reading a book and gotten tired in that heat."
Dixon, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., made an impression here during his first week, when he could be seen whipping defensive linemen in one-on-one drills at practice. In his three starts, Dixon has earned high marks for his pass protection.
Veteran right tackle Neal Fort, who has started every game in Baltimore's two-year history, likes what he sees in his new sidekick.
"I love playing next to him," Fort said. "He's all work, real strong, a throwback. He could be a play-without-a-helmet guy. He does not lose in one-on-one drills."
Dixon also recognizes the unique advantages of his situation. As a rookie learning a new offense and new game, he is surrounded by accomplished veterans like quarterback Tracy Ham, running back Mike Pringle and slotback Chris Armstrong.
"If I miss a block, Pringle has the talent to make it look like a good block," Dixon said. "He's done it several times. I can miss a block, and Tracy still can turn it into a touchdown. If they believe I can do the job, that can do nothing but help my confidence. I've still got a long way to go."
Not so, said offensive line coach Charlie Carpenter.
"You can't practice every stunt a defense will try or every front a defense will show you," he said. "The more they [the line] play together, the more they will know each other, and that's what you need to have a good offensive line. What Mark has is good balance, good feet and he's strong as a bull. That's the combination you're looking for."
NOTES: After catching three passes for 57 yards as a backup in his first game as a Baltimore Stallion, slotback Gerald Alphin will start today. . . . At halftime of today's game, individual tickets for both the Southern Division semifinals Nov. 4 and the divisional finals Nov. 12 will go on sale at the Memorial Stadium ticket office. A refund policy will be announced if the Stallions do not play host to both games.
Opponent: Saskatchewan Roughriders
Site: Memorial Stadium
Time: 2 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)
Site:Site: Memorial Stadium
Radio:Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)
Records:Records: Baltimore 12-3; Saskatchewan 5-9.
Last week:Last week: Baltimore came from behind to beat Saskatchewan in Regina, 28-24.
On the sidelines:On the sidelines: Baltimore's Don Matthews, in his 11th CFL season, has a 122-69-1 record. Saskatchewan's Ray Jauch, in his 13th CFL season, is third in career victories with a 132-108-4 record.
What Baltimore has to do to win:What Baltimore has to do to win: Do a better job of getting running back Mike Pringle into the offense, avoid turnovers deep in its territory and neutralize the Roughriders' short passing game with good zone defense.
What Saskatchewan has to do to win:What Saskatchewan has to do to win: Duplicate last week, when the Roughriders played their most inspired football of the season by containing Pringle and quarterback Tracy Ham.
Injury report:Injury report: Baltimore -- CB Karl Anthony (knee), FS Lester Smith (foot), SB Reggie Perry (knee), WR Robert Clark (ankle), LB Reggie Givens (knee), WR Mike Cook (knee) and DB Kareem Bacon (back) are out. Saskatchewan -- RB Darren Joseph (ribs), DL Troy Alexander (elbow), FS Errol Brown and OT Michael Lamy are out.
Outlook:Outlook: With a victory today, the Stallions will clinch the Southern Division title and home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. It's hard to envision Saskatchewan playing any better than last week, even with the return of starting QB Warren Jones from a heel injury. Baltimore should go into its bye week on a good note.