MAXWELL: Coach’s biggest wins scored off the field // A few moments with Otis Dixon
11/12/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

When I read about Lakewood High School football coach Otis Dixon last week in the St. Petersburg Times, I was so impressed that I visited him in his office. A former standout at Clearwater High School and USF, Dixon is in his second year at Lakewood in St. Petersburg.
Shortly before his death, Dixon’s father, Charles, gave his son a powerful challenge: “Be a better man than I was.” In his father’s honor, Dixon is dedicating his life to being the “best man” that he can be.
I sat down with Dixon, 28, for a question-and-answer session. Following are edited excerpts from our talk.
Maxwell: What role do you see yourself playing in the lives of the young men at Lakewood, especially the black ones?
Dixon: I try to use my power as a coach to benefit my players. I know what football meant to me. It shaped and molded me. It gave me discipline, my belief in God and my principles.
I try to tell these young men that I spell love as TIME because you make time for what you love. I invest so much in them. I try to give them the knowledge I wish I could’ve gotten when I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. I was just like them. I thought I knew everything.
While they have their mind on … going to the NFL, my mind is on is winning in their lives. What are you going do after you take the pads off?
Define “winning in their lives.”
Teaching them how to conform, how to follow the laws of the land. It isn’t about selling out or anything. It’s about speaking properly. It’s about learning. You’re in America, and you need to know English. You need to know how to read and write. It’s not always cool that you’re talking slang.
Ten years from now, you’re going be a young man. Are you going be a respectful businessman who’s able to take care of your family, your kids? Or will you still talk like you did in high school and behave like you did in high school?
Do you worry about being criticized for speaking out so boldly?
As a head football coach, I am an educator, and I take pride in that. I have the right to speak out because I know I’m trying to live my life right. I’m trying to make a positive difference in a great percentage of kids’ lives, not just one person.
Making a difference in one person’s life is good enough for some people. That’s a failure to me. I come across many kids, and I need to succeed with at least 80 percent of them. I grade myself hard. Some of my former students still call me when they have problems.
Describe the typical young man you try to help.
Well, a typical young black man in today’s society doesn’t lack confidence, self-esteem. Most of them come here thinking they’re the next Deion Sanders. But I try to humble them and hope that they’re going to be the next “great man.”
Football is great, and I had a passion for it. But when I took the pads off, I dedicated myself to changing young men’s lives for the better, educating them on real life – how to dress right, how to speak well and how to treat people right.
I teach them that you don’t come in here and say, “What’s up, dog?” No, you say, “Good morning, Coach Dixon.” You say, “Have a good day.” You say, “How was your weekend?” You have a real conversation with people.
Are young black men misunderstood?
We tend to judge a lot of them by their outward appearance. Many of these guys wear doo-rags, dreadlocks and earrings. But they’re the kindest people once you get to know them. To society, they’re just jocks. But we have some very intelligent kids here, just walking the campus.
We have to reach out to them. A lot of people take the attitude that if these young men “don’t tell me, then I don’t know.” I used to take that attitude. Now, I know that if I don’t ask, I’m never going know.
I’m the adult. I have to always act like the adult even though a lot of time I don’t want to .You have to ask these young men what’s going on in their lives.
And once you break that barrier and they see that you care about them – other than their performance on the football field – that’s when you start making a difference. And when you share personal testimony like I have done with them, with my father, that’s how I gained their respect. Right now, I could say, “Boy, pick that piece of paper up,” and he’s going to do it for me. I gained their respect by serving them, by saying I am here for you and, in return, you’re here for me, and I need you to do this in order for us to be successful.
Are black males, especially fathers, doing their part? Are we playing the right kind of role in the lives of our young men?
No, we’re not. I try to surround myself with my African-American friends who are college graduates. We’ve seen the world through college life, and we’re trying to make the best for our children. And I know people in bigger shoes than I am, like a Bill Cosby. People get mad at him. But the truth is that as black males, we’re not being the fathers we’re supposed to be.
Society thinks we’re good dads as long as we’re paying child support. That’s not it.
I’m involved in my kid’s life. I coach her soccer team. I give them baths. I do hair. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to do. I show my sensitive side to my children. That’s what a father’s supposed to be. A father’s supposed to be there all the time, not just bringing the money home. So, I challenge young black men to do it right from top to bottom.
What’s one of your toughest challenges?
Getting the young men to stop using the past as an excuse for what they do. Regardless of what your dad did in his life, it doesn’t mean you need to continue to do it. I had to make that choice with my dad. I needed to break the cycle. You don’t have to do what your father did. That’s a cop-out. I try to transfer the game of football to the game of life. Every day, show up to work, to practice. Every day, you do what’s right.
When you break the rules in football, you get penalized for it. But when you break the rules of being a father, your kids are penalized.