Home FEATURED Black belts, Eagle Scouts and do-it-yourself ingenuity: Eagles’ Landon Dickerson’s journey to...

Black belts, Eagle Scouts and do-it-yourself ingenuity: Eagles’ Landon Dickerson’s journey to the NFL

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Alabama’s Landon Dickerson holds the trophy following the College Football Playoff National Championship game win at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)

Mike Kaye
nj.com

Landon Dickerson couldn’t help himself.

Just seconds after receiving the life-changing news that he would be the Eagles’ second-round pick, Dickerson decided to stick it to his new boss with his friends and family eagerly awaiting the results of the call.

“Hey, Coach,” Dickerson said, “you’re still a little upset that I beat you in rock-paper-scissors, huh?”

Dickerson, an offensive lineman from Alabama, was one of the prospects who passed Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni’s often-ridiculed test during the draft process. Sirianni, hired in January, spoke with Dickerson on a Zoom call during the Senior Bowl and challenged him to the schoolyard game, just as Sirianni had with other draft hopefuls.

Dickerson doesn’t remember his winning combination — he’s been a little busy since — but the rookie told NJ Advance Media that he beat Sirianni on the first go, then they tied on the second, before Dickerson beat him in the best-of-three.

“Originally, I thought it was a psychological evaluation,” Dickerson said. “It was really about seeing how competitive guys are.”

Dickerson liked Sirianni’s unique approach to the interview. After all, Dickerson is known to be a bit of a wild card, himself.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman describes the oft-injured, but uber-talented lineman as having a nasty, Jon Runyan-like approach on the field. Off-the-field, Dickerson has the makings of a future HGTV show host.

“I like to be outside, I like to try new things,” Dickerson said. “Be in uncomfortable situations and try to figure it out from there.”

Dickerson’s arrival in Philadelphia could come with some discomfort. Critics, which include a healthy chunk of the fan base, believe the Eagles took a massive gamble by using a top-40 pick on a player recovering from his second knee surgery in five years.

But to Dickerson, this is just another game of rock-paper-scalpel, and he intends to win again.

“I’ve had injuries before, I’ve come back from them and they’ve never made an impression on my game,” Dickerson said. “I’ve dealt with these in the past, I’ve overcome it, and that’s what makes me confident.”

Those who know him best say Dickerson’s mental toughness and overall drive have pushed him to where he is. His resilience helped him overcome two ACL surgeries and a pair of major ankle injuries during his award-winning five-year college career, split between Florida State and Alabama.

Dickerson likes to say he has a switch in his head that helps him balance his daily life with his competitive spirit. That switch comes in handy when he’s on the field.

“If I treated people the same way on the field and off the field,” Dickerson said, “I’d honestly be in jail somewhere.”

There’s crying in karate

Seven-year-old Landon Dickerson had his birth certificate in his hand as he entered a crowded Myrtle Beach gymnasium for a karate tournament. Because he towered over his age group, he needed proof of his age to participate. Entering the tournament as a “wild card,” Dickerson was in for a busy day. Unseeded, he had to beat everyone in the division to win.

“By the end, all the kids were sitting around the ring, crying,” said Joshua Page, Dickerson’s sensei. “Landon was holding up the first-place trophy, as happy as he could be.”

But it wasn’t just size. Dickerson separated himself from the rest of his class in Hickory, N.C., because of his ability to stay focused on repetitive tasks. Page says that while other kids were easily bored by the monotony of training drills, Dickerson took them in stride, which helped him rise to a black belt by the time he was 11. While learning discipline, Dickerson also found his competitive fire.

“Usually, 16 is the earliest we do black belt,” Page told NJ Advance Media. “He was one of the rare exceptions. If he competed as an under-belt, it was a little too easy. He needed that challenge.”

Said Dickerson: “It’s not about doing something until you can do it right. It’s about doing something until you can’t do it wrong.”

Dickerson insists those years at the Hickory Academy of Martial Arts — like his years in the Boy Scouts that taught him problem-solving — eventually made him a better football player.

“There’s a lot of striking, punching and hand placement stuff,” Dickerson said. “That really helped me when it came to football, especially being an offensive lineman. We use our hands all the time.”

Do-It-Yourself

When Alabama shut down the university on the first day of spring football, Dickerson found himself buying ice at the grocery store at 5 a.m. — buying the essentials his teammates would need in his makeshift home gym during the coronavirus pandemic. The Crimson Tide had nowhere to lift, so the former Eagle Scout jumped into action.

Dickerson called his former gym in Hickory, which was shut down due to COVID-19, and asked to buy some used equipment. He spent roughly $2,000, rented a trailer and transported the equipment to a 25-foot-by-10-foot carport.

“Spring is a huge developmental time when it comes to getting stronger and really pushing your body to those higher limits of strength and conditioning,” Dickerson said. “That whole springtime is really a necessity.”

He also reached out to healthcare workers and the Alabama strength-and-conditioning staff to develop protocols. The lineman would start workouts around 6 a.m. and finish some days as late as 9 p.m. While he kept the port open, Dickerson would let only three players in the covered area at a time. Outside the port, there were jump ropes, box jumps and ladders.

Sophomore right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr., one of the players who regularly worked out, said the gym not only kept the Alabama players in shape, it also brought them closer together.

“It was great to see he cared enough to do that,” Ekiyor said. “Taking that role and making sure everybody was able to work during the pandemic was really big.”

Dickerson’s teammates had different preferences for workout times, so he eventually hung a whiteboard to keep track of the schedule. While position groups typically work together, the pandemic put an end to those lifting cliques. The ad hoc lifting schedule — which split up the position groups — nurtured bonding across positions.

“You might have an offensive lineman with a linebacker and defensive back,” Dickerson said. “Having these interactions between different position groups really kind of helped connect our team.”

Dickerson cleaned the gym every morning and night. Sometimes, a teammate would text him late at night to ask if the gym was open, and Dickerson would stay up to keep the facility in tiptop shape.

“It didn’t bother me if I had to lose a couple of hours of sleep to help a guy get a lift in,” he said.

Pain and Patience

Months later, Dickerson was sitting on a cart in the middle of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta during the SEC Championship Game against the University of Florida. With a freshly torn ACL, his season was seemingly over. His teammates figured he wouldn’t join them in the upcoming College Football Playoff, and he wouldn’t be on the field as they competed for a national championship.

They agonized for one of their captains — the unanimous All-America selection and the Rimington Trophy winner as the best lineman in college football — as he was about to be wheeled off the field. One by one, virtually the entire team consoled him before the cart headed to the tunnel.

“I think that moment showed the impact he had on the team,” Ekiyor said.

Alabama ripped Notre Dame, 31-14, during the CFB semifinals in the Rose Bowl, but the offensive line still missed Dickerson.

“It definitely hurt a lot,” Ekiyor said. “The next game, it was felt really weird not having him there.”

But Dickerson’s college career wasn’t over. With less than a month to recover, Dickerson pulled himself out of rehab and dressed for the national championship game against Ohio State. With Alabama blowing out the Buckeyes, 52-24, coach Nick Saban allowed Dickerson to snap the ball on the final play of the game.

“Everybody just felt good for Landon,” Ekiyor said. “Everyone was feeling bad because we knew how badly he wanted to play in the national championship, and him getting a chance to heal up that fast was crazy. To actually get a chance to snap that ball at the end, we wanted to do that for him.”

Dickerson sat out of the Senior Bowl practices in January and took it easy at his pro day — outside of his famous cartwheels during Mac Jones’ SEC Network interview — but still maintained heavy draft buzz. Ultimately, he was drafted by the Eagles with the 37th overall pick, a projected building block of the future.

What are the Eagles getting besides a rock-paper-scissors champ and black-belted Eagle Scout who knows how to build park benches, erect a makeshift gym overnight and, because he’s frugal, a guy who can jerry-rig a $12 railroad tie into a rear bumper on a pickup truck? Debbie Heavner, one of the Boy Scouts coordinators, had this scouting report:

“He’s a team player, and he’s so darn likable,” she said. “He’s just a positive force wherever he goes.”

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