Mike Casazza: WVU freshman unfazed on field by diabetes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The way last week started for K.J. Dillon gave him no reason to believe it would end how it did.
The freshman safety made a tackle on a kickoff and nearly blocked a punt in No. 8 West Virginia's 42-12 win last Saturday against James Madison. A day later he was named the team's special teams player of the week.
"I really don't know how, to tell the truth," he said. "I just gave a lot of effort, made a couple plays, almost made a couple more."
How things started the previous Sunday didn't point toward that outcome. Dillon was in the hospital.
"My diabetes was acting up," he said.
He'd made a mistake and hadn't monitored his blood sugar level as closely as he needed to, letting it get too high as he learns more about a life he's just getting to know as a diabetic student-athlete.
"My body started to shut down," he said. "I was in the hospital Sunday, but they released me. I was in class Monday. Didn't miss any classes and I was at practice Tuesday."
He practiced all week and traveled to the shadow of the Nation's Capital last Friday so that he might play with the rest of the Mountaineers a day later at FedEx Field, home of the NFL's Washington Redskins.
Quite a journey from Apopka High, a Class 6A high school in central Florida. Consider that for a time the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dillon wasn't sure any of it would ever happen. He committed to the Mountaineers in December, a few weeks before he'd ink a scholarship on national signing day and with no hint of the battle he'd soon begin.
"I'd been trying to gain weight and I was at 200-something pounds, but I went down and lost maybe 30 pounds," he said. "I got real skinny. I couldn't gain weight. I was going to the bathroom a lot. I finally told my mom, 'I can't take it anymore.' "
A doctor checked out Dillon and came back with the stunning news. Dillon was not only diabetic, but critically close to danger.
"I was a day away from going into a diabetic coma," he said.
It was Jan. 31, a Tuesday, the last day of the month. National signing day is the first Wednesday of February every year.
"I was supposed to sign the next day, but I was nervous," he said. "I didn't know if West Virginia was going to take me."
Dillon didn't know then what he knows now, which is that his diabetes can be controlled and though it affects his diet and his lifestyle, it doesn't affect the way he plays football. He could have sat on the news for a day or a week or until he could no longer hide it, but he decided to call Coach Dana Holgorsen and tell him and, who knows, give him a chance to get out of the deal.
"Coach," Dillon said, "I just found out I'm diabetic."
Dillon wasn't smiling when the words came out of his mouth that day. Nearly eight months later, he grins as he recites the conversation.
"OK," Holgorsen replied. "We have a staff here to look after you and take care of you."
And that was that. And that was the truth. Dillon said the team's medical staff checks in and watches over him and makes sure he's putting the right things into his body. They educate and assist him and make sure he's not doing things to hurt himself, especially when he might not know that's a consequence.
"I'm still learning," he said. "I'm in college. I'm going to want to go out. I'm going to want to eat all the bad things I'm not supposed to eat. It could be pretty hard to manage it, telling a college kid he can't go out and have a hamburger. But it's not that tough. It's want to."
Dillon's here to play football, to make an impact, to leave an impression. He wants to. If his past is any indication, the kid who bowled in the 200s the first time he rolled, who connected 15 times on 20 pitches from a Division I pitcher the first time he picked up a baseball bat, who took up track as a hobby as a sophomore and won three state titles as a senior, will fare well.
"Off the field I have to take care of my body better," he said. "I can do the same things on the field I always did."
He showed as much against JMU, flying down the right side of the field on kickoffs and sharing one tackle with special teams savant Cecil Level and getting beaten to the play a few other times by Shaq Petteway.
Early in the second quarter, JMU lined up for a fourth punt and Dillon had figured out the Dukes. He took his spot in the middle of the line of scrimmage, slipped past the long snapper and then between two of the three protectors in front of the punter. He nearly blocked the punt.
"I was mad," he said. "That's money right there."
There's plenty of time to change. Dillon, who played every special teams but extra point and field goal for Apopka, is on kickoff and punt block for WVU, but he's also proven to be reliable on defense. When the Mountaineers slide extra defensive backs on the field for a swift pass defense package, Dillon, who normally backs up Darwin Cook, comes on as a safety. Dillon made three tackles on a fourth quarter drive against JMU, including two on third down.
"I got a lot of good reps against JMU and Marshall," he said. "They say good special teams play gets you good reps and it looks like that's true. I guess I'm doing the right things."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.