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RB AJ Dillon's path to NFL driven by mother's endless support

AJ Dillon has a confession to make.

"I have no shame in saying I'm definitely a mama's boy."

Now before you scoff at AJ, or judge, may I remind you that Dillon is a first-team All-ACC running back from Boston College, soon-to-be NFL Draft pick and is so careful about what he puts into his body that on a recent visit (pre-COVID-19), his mother, Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell, watched in awe at his discipline and then said, "You enjoy that boiled egg. We're going out to dinner."

Gatewood-Campbell laughs at the recollection, but she knew a long time ago that her son was right for this journey. He just had this way about him, a natural gift that would need to be nurtured. Not that that was easy. She was a single parent, raising the boy in New London, Connecticut, while doing everything within her power to better herself. That meant multiple jobs and, eventually, going back to school to get her master's degree. The two used to sit at the kitchen table, each working on their homework.

"Not typical," was how Gatewood-Campbell described it. "I just wanted to show him you can keep doing it if you set your mind to it. It's going to be a struggle, but you have to put in the effort."

"We grew up together," said AJ. "She had me at 20. She put herself through school, working four or five jobs, getting her master's degree, becoming a teacher, being Teacher of the Year in our town. It's unbelievable. She's unbelievable."

So is her son. When AJ was around 7 years old, he told his mother that he was going to be in the NFL one day. Gatewood-Campbell's father, Thom Gatewood, had been a terrific player at Notre Dame, the school's first African-American captain and a collegiate Football Hall of Famer.

"Him saying it is one thing. Every kid wants to do something amazing," she recalled, pausing, "and can."

But, she asked him at the time, what would that look like? So this single mother and her boy mapped it out. She taught him how to throw his first spiral, but as AJ grew, the plan grew. It went from the two of them in the backyard running plays -- in part, so mom could learn the terminology necessary to speak the same football language as her child -- to a constant reinforcing of the notion that if the blossoming athlete really wanted this, he had to be willing to show the necessary drive and desire.

"It was no longer me waking him up in the morning to go run bleachers, or do timed lifts," said Gatewood-Campbell. "He said, 'Mom, I'm going to show you that I want this.' I said, 'If that's the case, I'm not waking you up -- you wake me up. If you're real serious, you are going to put in the effort. We're action people.' He said, 'I know,' and so he's taken it seriously ever since."

There was guilt, of course. How could there not be? In working and with her schoolwork, Gatewood-Campbell had to call on friends and family to help care for her child. Despite trying her best to manipulate her schedule, she had to miss some events, some games. That would impact her going forward; she missed just two of AJ's games at Boston College during his three-year career. One was for a bar mitzvah -- she was the godmother -- and the other was during a hurricane, which she planned on driving into so she wouldn't miss BC at Wake Forest.

"We told her she can't do that," AJ said. "But that's her. Home and away, she's been there. She's had my back since I was a baby."

Now AJ is on the cusp. He put together quite the resume in Chestnut Hill, the school's all-time leading rusher, with well over 4,000 yards. That included a career-best 1,685 yards and 15 scores as a junior.

"Guys like him come around only so often," said former BC head coach Steve Addazio. "On top of being a great football player -- just watch his power, his burst, his explosion, you watch his change of direction -- but on top of all that, he is a wonderful, wonderful guy. He is really a beautiful kid. He is more than just a football player. He represents the best of everything."

Including best of his class in a number of events at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. The 247-pound powerhouse opened plenty of eyes with his athleticism, becoming the first running back since 2000 to weigh more than 235 pounds and record a vertical leap of 40-plus inches (he did 41). Dillon also topped all running backs in the broad jump, ripped off 23 reps in the bench press and ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash.

"I would definitely say the combine helped the outside perception," said Dillon, who's been training in Santa Ana, California. "I just think people see the weight, and they haven't really seen anything like it before, or at least not often, and they see 250 and say 'Ahh, fullbacks are supposed to be 250' or 'He's 250 and an RB, so he can only be a third-and-1 back, or down at the goal line.' But that's really not the situation. I feel like I showed that at the combine. I'm not just a power back."

No, in Dillon's mind, he is something else.

"I believe I'm the best back in the draft."

Both Addazio and Dillon's mother foresaw that prediction.

"I bet if you asked him, he'd tell you he is the best," said Gatewood-Campbell. "He just believes so much in his process."

"He's elite," said Addazio. "In my mind, he's the best back."

A back who piled up yards versus stacked boxes each and every week, and one who not only embraced contact, but thrived, gaining over 3,000 yards in his career after the first hit. Yet Dillon isn't expected to be a first-rounder -- or second, for that matter. Most experts peg him in the third or fourth round, with some scouts concerned about long-term durability, although Dillon didn't require a re-check on any of his medicals from the combine and only missed two games in college with an ankle sprain.

"I believe I've gone against the most adverse situations," he said. "I've had walk-on quarterbacks. No real pass game. I've ran the ball into the most stacked boxes that anyone has ever had and yet come out the other end consistently getting the job done. Every year."

Not that Dillon is fretting over the future.

"First, I have to get there, and we start all over again because it's just getting you in the door," he said. "Kind of like freshman year all over again. Not only do you have to get in there, but you have to stay there and prove you are the right choice."

As for that day, whether it surprisingly happens on Day 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft or, more likely, Day 2 or early on Day 3, the son and his mother won't be able to be together to celebrate the fulfillment of those long-ago mapped-out plans. Neither is willing to sacrifice their health with the COVID-19 pandemic. Dillon has promised his mother to have the iPad or phone on throughout, and his mom, stepfather and younger sister will put up a Fathead of AJ to pretend he's there.

"I want to spend it with her more than anybody, but to me, it's more important everyone is safe and stays healthy," said Dillon.

"It absolutely breaks my heart," said Gatewood-Campbell. "To not be able to be physically there to hug him, kiss him. This is what he has been working for forever. But he said, 'Mom, this is the first of many. We're going to keep going.' "

Of that last part, you can be sure.

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter @MikeGiardi.

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