JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Corey Dillon looks around at the jostling five-deep cluster of cameras, microphones, and notepads recording his every utterance here and smiles. ``Unbelievable,'' he says, shaking his head. ``It's like Hollywood.''
Who would have pitched this script to a studio -- the Bad Guy who was dying in Cincinnati born again as a Good Guy in Foxborough? ``I couldn't have written it up any better than this,'' says the Patriots star running back, who finds himself 60 minutes from the Super Bowl ring he'd once dismissed as fantasy. ``This is a dream come true. Who would have ever imagined it?''
All the 30-year-old Dillon wanted out of this season was a fresh start with a contending team and a chance to change his image as a malcontent. ``The stigma of being a bad guy in the locker room and being selfish,'' he says. ``That's never been me and I don't know where that came from.''
Where it came from was seven years of losing with the Bengals, seven years of frustration that culminated in Dillon hurling his helmet, pads, and cleats into the stands after last year's final game against Cleveland. ``It was never a situation of me going off for no apparent reason," he says. "It was never like that. It was due to a lack of winning." Sixteen victories and a career-high 1,635 yards later, Dillon has gone from grumpy to giddy. "I laugh every day because I can't believe I'm in this situation," he says. "I can't believe it. Even during the season, I'd wake up and get a chuckle out of it. We're winning football games."
And Dillon has found himself described as a model player -- hard-working, committed, selfless. "I can't picture it, but a lot of people wrote bad things about him," says guard Joe Andruzzi. "We haven't seen anything like that here. The first day he showed up, he had a smile on his face. He's just a great teammate."
Is this the same guy who refused to go back into the game during a 37-0 loss at Baltimore in 2000? That incident was part of a rap sheet, both formal and informal, that went back to Dillon's adolescence, including a bunch of juvenile charges and arrests for domestic assault and driving violations while with the Bengals.
Everybody knew Dillon was a bad guy -- particularly people who'd never met him. "People are going to view me how they want to," he shrugs. "People didn't think Jesus was Jesus, so who am I?"
For the record . . .
The rap that hurt the most, Dillon says, was that he was a cancer to the Bengals. "For a guy that for seven years went out and put his heart and soul on that field and at the end of the day be looked upon as the reason why we weren't successful, that rubbed me the wrong way," he says. "I think that was the worst thing that was said."
Nobody ever questioned what the man did on the field -- he always ran like a demon, even on afternoons that were lost causes by halftime. In each of his first six seasons with Cincinnati, Dillon rushed for well over 1,000 yards, making the Pro Bowl three times. Only three other backs (Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin and Eric Dickerson) had ever done that.
But as the losses, 78 of them, piled up, Dillon grew disheartened. Was this team ever going to get even close to a Super Bowl? "I never imagined it," he says. "For years, I really lost hope. I can say for about seven years I did."
All Dillon knew after last season was that he'd be somewhere else for this one. Dallas or Oakland were the likely places, he reckoned. Then the Patriots came calling, waving a second-round draft pick as trade bait. They wanted an upgrade at running back and Dillon's credentials were unimpeachable. The groin strain that undermined his 2003 season had healed. The only question was his character, which the club checked out with its usual thoroughness.
"The people I talked to were coaches and players who had been with Corey in Cincinnati, and nobody had one negative thing to say about him," says coach Bill Belichick. "He was a player that everybody wanted on their team, had confidence in him and thought he would perform well in critical situations. That's what really carried a lot of weight with me."
Though Dillon took a hefty cut in his base pay (from $3.3 million to $1.75 million) to come to New England, the decision was a "no-brainer," he said. The opportunity to join the two-time champions and remake his image was too tempting to pass up.
"There were a lot of misconceptions out there that I wasn't going to be a good fit here," Dillon says. "I think people labeled me as selfish and an `I' guy, which is totally not true."
So Dillon set out to prove it the day he arrived on Route 1. He didn't need a rundown on the team's rules and regs. "It's real simple," he says. "If you're willing to come in and be a team guy and do what's asked of you, things just work out easier and that's what I did. Whatever they told me to do, I'm going to do it."
From the beginning, the rewards were self-evident. "He walks into that locker room and the guys all have rings," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Right off the bat, the message is: This is how we do it."
His teammates welcomed him with open arms, Dillon says, and his quarterback didn't hesitate to call his number and stuff the ball in his belly. "He makes all of our jobs easier," testifies Tom Brady. "He makes the offensive line's job easier by making people miss. He makes the receivers' job easier because he can give those guys more room to work. He's done a great job of fitting into the role."
For the first time in his career, Dillon has the luxury of merely fitting in. "When I signed with the Pats, I knew we were going to win football games," he says. "I also knew that the pressure wasn't going to be on me to strap a franchise on my back and take them to a Super Bowl. Without me, they won two out of the last three. Coming in, I was more relaxed in knowing that we had guys that could get it done. All I had to do was focus on doing my part."
The weight is off now, and the spotlight is shared, which suits Dillon fine. He doesn't mind being just one worker bee in a star-spangled hive. "I'm boring," Dillon insists. "I'm a boring guy. I just like to go to work, do what I've gotta do, go home and just be Corey. That's just basically me."
It could never be that way in Cincinnati, where Dillon might as well have been branded with the mark of Cain by the time he left. While he won't forget about the bad-guy label he was hung with there, Dillon has put those seven years behind him. "I've moved on," he says. "I'm at ease with it." When he hugged coach Marvin Lewis before the game with the Bengals in December, it was a symbolic end to hostilities.
"I decided just to take the high road," Dillon says. "Why am I going to keep going back? I don't need to. I'm a year removed from Cincinnati. It makes no sense for me to keep talking about them or them talking about me. It would do both sides no good."
What Dillon doesn't say, and doesn't have to, is that the Bengals missed the playoffs again and that he helped his new team get to the Super Bowl with the best season of his life.
"It speaks volumes that it wasn't you, it was just the situation you were in," says Eagles quarterback Jeff Blake, who played three years with Dillon in Cincinnati. "If you're in a good situation, the real you is going to come out. Like Terrell Owens with us. We've had no problems with T.O. all year. Hasn't talked back to the coach, nothing. It's the same with Corey."
His employers, who paid out an extra $1.375 million when Dillon made his rushing yardage incentives, have no complaints. "He has pretty much been everything he was advertised to me," says Belichick.
And Dillon, who'd thought the only way he'd ever get to a Super Bowl was to pay his way in, is a happy warrior. When the season is done, there'll be time to talk about an extension once his contract ends after next year. "I've got bigger things on my mind, and that's Sunday," he says. "That's something I'm not going to worry about."
But it's clear that he's not in the market for change-of-address labels anytime soon. "No doubt, this is it," Corey Dillon says. "When it's said and done, this is the last stop for me."