Fred Dickson is a cancer survivor, a father of three, an aspiring author, a master plumber and an inspirational speaker
The 53-year-old also happens to be a semiprofessional football player.
The 6-foot-5 defensive end with the white mustache and shaved head is the oldest player on the Arbutus Big Red, a team that's made up largely of teenagers. Dickson believes he is the oldest semipro football player to start a game.
A Woodlawn alumnus and a former college player at Salisbury, Dickson was inspired to return to the field by an apparent recovery that was not supposed to happen.
On Jan. 18, 2010, Dickson realized that his throat was bleeding internally. He was swallowing blood. He went to the hospital and in a three-day period was passed from an emergency room doctor to a throat specialist to a surgeon.
“I go to the surgeon, he says, ‘You've got the worst cancer you can get,'” Dickson said. “The following day, I'm meeting with a funeral director.”
Diagnosed with Stage IVA tonsil cancer, Dickson decided to become the first patient in a new treatment process suggested by Johns Hopkins surgeon Patrick Ha.
The surgery was a success. The cancer was removed. Then came rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
For a while, Dickson could ingest food only through a tube. He bears the scars of his treatment — on his stomach, where there was once a hole for food, and on his upper chest, where the doctors installed a port for chemotherapy.
A long scar runs down the left side of his neck, which had to be sewn together after his skin was pulled back during surgery.
“You can't swallow, you can't sleep, you can't talk. Everything. Your taste goes away. You don't have nothing,” Dickson said. “You're just waiting for somebody to bring a can of food to shoot into your stomach.”
The pain was unimaginable. “I cried to die every day,” he said.
Dickson doesn't like to dwell on the low moments. He prefers to remember the good ones.
He was a cast member in “The Replacements,” a 2000 Warner Bros. film about a group of football flameouts who replace striking professional players.
Dickson was one of the players on strike, but his size — he was 320 pounds at the time — became a problem.
“Every scene I was in, I was causing problems because I was so big,” Dickson said. “They said, ‘Fred, put your hands up,' and my hands are 9 to 10 feet in the air.”
Dickson stayed in touch with people from the set. In 2006, he went to Las Vegas with Craig Comstock, an assistant director who worked on the movie.
Dickson won $10,400 playing blackjack. But instead of saving the cash, he decided to get something to commemorate the trip.
He bought two giant King Kong posters, one for Comstock and one for himself, paying $9,600 with shipping.
“I don't have anyplace for this thing; it's like 7 feet tall,” Dickson said.
“Fred is a crazy guy,” Arbutus quarterback Stuart Long said.
While stretching before a recent game, Long, 31, noticed Dickson tumbling down the hill next to the football field. He was walking up, then rolling down — again and again in helmet and full pads.
“He was barrel-rolling off of his head,” Long said. “He had a bruise.”
Dickson has been an inspiration since he joined the team early in the season, Long said. Dickson has started a few times on defense, usually returning to the bench after a few plays, and has received spot duty at tight end in certain packages.
“On a semipro level, a lot of guys ... have been told, ‘You can't play. You will never be that,'” Long said. “The semipro level is where guys can [become] who they want to be. It's up to you. Fred is living proof of that.”
After Dickson gave a speech about his battle with cancer to his college team, he asked Arbutus coach Ulander Giles whether he could speak to the Big Red. The team was special to Dickson, who won two Mason Dixon League championships with Arbutus during the 1983 and 1984 seasons.
A few games after giving his speech, Dickson asked whether he could join the roster.
“He approached me about it and I had no problem about it at all,” Giles said. “He told me that he understood at his age that he's not trying to be a starter or a four-down [player].”
That hasn't stopped Dickson from dreaming big, though. He believes that just about anything he does in a semipro game would set a record. Catch a pass? Oldest player ever to do so. Make a tackle? Oldest ever.
The Guinness Book of Records lists Paul L. Morton, 67, who suited up for the semipro Stateline Miners in 2008, as the oldest to ever play American football. But Dickson believes Morton never made it onto the field.
Guinness did not respond to requests for comment.
“Everything I do and touch is a record,” Dickson said. “[Morton] didn't play both ways; he played one way. That's the record, to start both ways.”
There are two things that bring Dickson to tears.
The first is the cancer patients who were in therapy with him and didn't make it.
“All those friends who were with me, who had the same cancer, they're all dead,” Dickson said. “And I had it worse than all of them.”
The second is his family: his wife, Leslie, and their three kids, Arlynnell, Philip and Marissa. Leslie Dickson is a manager of special projects at The Baltimore Sun.
Dickson says he hopes to set an example.
“I'm trying to leave memories for my kids,” he said. “What I'm saying is, I want them to say, ‘My dad did these things' and [for the kids to] see me do them.”
Many of his stories seem like tall tales. He talks about the 800-page memoir he is working on and imagines it becoming a best-seller. If the team wins a championship this year, he thinks it could turn into a big movie deal.
He shows a photo of the King Kong poster he bought in Las Vegas, which he is donating to a local movie theater to help fund cancer research.
“You think you are a big gorilla,” Dickson said, “and then you get cancer and you turn into a little baby.”
Dickson says his doctor told him he shouldn't play football. His bones are too frail from the chemotherapy, from the radiation. He could be severely injured.
None of that matters to Dickson.
“The cancer is going to get me. It's just a matter of time,” he said. “I have so much time and space to do something, and if I do it, it will help others. If it helps others, it helps my kids. I'm not afraid to die.”
Meet Fred Dickson
High school: Woodlawn
Family: Wife, Leslie, and three children: Arlynnell, Philip and Marissa
Other: Baltimore radio host on 105.7 the Fan in 2008 ... Royal Arch Mason Chaplain and recently baptized Catholic ... Arbutus Big Red tight end and defensive end ... first trans-oral robotic tonsil patient at GBMC