SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Before Jaylin Dickerson ever played in an organized sport, he already was hearing that one day he would make it as a pro athlete.
He was 4 years old then, two years shy of first playing basketball and flag football, but the notion had dreams of playing pro sports rolling through his head. So, the work started at home in the backyard, shooting a basketball, throwing a football and running around in an East Carolina football uniform he adored.
He told his father, Walter Matthews Jr., he wanted to be an NFL or NBA player, but the latter held the highest appeal.
“I guess most young human beings, basketball is the dream,” Dickerson said. “Everybody wants to be the next Michael Jordan. I just worked toward that. It’s just a dream.”
So, the dream was set: He wanted to play at North Carolina — a fandom inherited from his mother, Cecilia. He and his AAU basketball teammates talked about playing in the NBA, conversations that took place across the Southeast as they competed for national championships.
A few years later, Dickerson is playing a different sport at a different Carolina, wearing football pads and playing safety for South Carolina.
Dickerson had hoop dreams in the truest sense, and everyone around Southern Pines knew it. Even as he excelled on the football field, playing multiple positions and starring, the word around the soft-spoken and sneaky-funny Dickerson remained that he was headed for the NBA one day.
He was working for it, doing drills at 5 a.m. and going to basketball camps at UNC to be coached by Roy Williams. The Tar Heels showed early interest, and Southern Pines Pinecrest basketball coach Ben Snyder slotted Dickerson as his starting point guard as a freshman.
“You got to see glimpses of it as a freshman,” Snyder said. “You knew right then he was a Division 1 athlete. He would have his choice. He could play Division 1 basketball or football. He probably could have played in the ACC as a point guard. He’s a pretty special athlete.”
Pinecrest football coach Chris Metzger heard the buzz and was keeping his ear close to it. He met Dickerson when he was an 8-year-old at youth camps hosted by the high school and knew the kid had special talent in both sports. Metzger also saw a kid who made friends with everyone and had humility in all he did, qualities he still sees today.
It was a matter of whether Metzger would get a chance to coach Dickerson. Metzger approached Matthews Jr. while Dickerson played youth football to see if he was going to have the opportunity to coach him on the gridiron. Matthews Jr. said the decision was up to Dickerson, who opted against playing football as a freshman.
The decision was partially about focusing on basketball, but Dickerson also felt a responsibility to help his parents.
“That’s just who he is,” Cecilia Dickerson said. “If he has got a dollar in his pocket and I need it, he gives it without any hesitation whatsoever. My thing to him is, let me worry about that.”
Dickerson soon found he missed football dearly. The more games he attended and saw his friends playing and winning — Pinecrest went 11-2 that season — the more he wanted in and the more he told people he made a mistake by not playing.
“I went to the games, and he went with me,” Cecilia Dickerson said. “Two games into the season his freshman year, ‘Mom, I should have played.’ Well, duh.”
Metzger wasn’t alone in trying to bring Dickerson back to being a two-sport star. He had some help in his efforts from Antwon Murchison, his defensive coordinator. Murchison dated Dickerson’s older sister, Ashley, when Dickerson was young and was in Dickerson’s ear about returning to football.
One day in school, Metzger and Murchison approached Dickerson with a simple pitch: “Do you want to play BCS football?”
“I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Dickerson said. “They were like, ‘Man, you can make your dreams come true with football.’ I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time. I was thinking about (my parents).
“I sat down and I thought about it, went to a couple games and it clicked. I talked to them and said I wanted to play.”
In a year, Dickerson went from not playing football to all-conference, an honor he would net three consecutive years. He also earned conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. He still shone brightly on the basketball court, but the reality that his brightest future could be as a football player gained clarity.
It also became clear he could be special defensively after growing up starring offensively.
“He’s reckless — just reckless,” Pinecrest defensive backs coach Aaron Powell said. “He has a nose for the football. I don’t care how big you are, if I see you and I see him meeting 1 on 1, I’m going to put my money on him every time. Every single time.”
Powell saw plenty of himself in Dickerson. A former Division 1 basketball player at Lee University, Powell chased his hoop dream before attending college in Canada, playing football and spending a year in the Canadian Football League.
He and Dickerson shared many conversations about the path and the challenges of being 6-foot-1 and trying to make it to the NBA.
“It was real,” Dickerson said. “It stuck with me. Football, you can be as small as you want to be if you have heart and you’re doing everything right and you’re coachable.”
Dickerson remained a basketball player, but injuries limited him during his three high school seasons. He flashed shooting ability, hitting more than 40 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore and was the team’s unanimous winner of the “Foxhole Award,” given to the player teammates most trusted in the final 3 minutes of a game.
He hit a game-tying buzzer-beater as a freshman against Richmond to send the game to overtime, dribbling through a full-court press with 6 seconds left and rattling home the shot. But the highlight that everyone at Pinecrest talks about came on the football field, and it changed everything.
Dickerson fielded a punt return against rival Scotland, cut to the sideline, spun out of a tackle, changed direction, hurdled a tackler and ran away from everyone. Everyone but one person — his mother, who always is on the sidelines and was running with him into the end zone.
He had more than 100 yards receiving and 100 yards rushing on top of his defensive performance. Colleges took notice.
“I actually got my first offer after the Scotland game from Virginia,” Dickerson said. “That just triggered everything. Teams just started coming in from the Carolinas, Coastal Carolina, N.C. State, App State, ECU.”
Said Matthews Jr.: “At that point, I knew it was a change in his life and a change in our lives coming, and his dream was coming true.”
Going Cocky, but not being cocky
South Carolina came into the picture later for Dickerson. It was May when defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson came to Southern Pines to watch a spring practice.
Dickerson texted Robinson the night before, saying “just give me a chance.” Robinson saw Dickerson play quarterback and defense. South Carolina offered him soon after, and one month later, Dickerson accepted. He was sold on the coaching of Will Muschamp and Robinson, South Carolina’s top-ranked international business school and the way everyone talked about winning.
“That’s all they talk about is championships,” Dickerson said. “We want to win a championship next year. I fell in love with that.”
The way that Robinson, Muschamp and running backs coach Bobby Bentley recruited Dickerson caught Metzger’s eye. He let them know he thought the world of Dickerson as more than a football player, praising his humility and focus on faith.
“It’s how he treats people,” Metzger said. “They are getting a better person than they are a player, and he’s a pretty good player.”
This season, Dickerson suffered a hip injury that sidelined him for five games. The first thing he said to Powell was he would be at practice to help him coach the next morning. He arrived at 5:45 a.m. for 6 a.m. practices, and Powell said Dickerson’s “million-dollar smile” never diminished.
Snyder saw the same thing when Dickerson missed basketball games as a freshman and junior, yet he was first player at practice and always cheered loudly on the bench. Dickerson even approached Snyder about taking on a team manager role before he left Southern Pines for South Carolina in early January.
“That just tells you what type of kid he is,” Snyder said. “I just like having him around. I don’t care if he’s playing, not playing. Just the type of kid he is, you want him in and around your program.”
Dickerson’s first public appearance as a South Carolina football player came in a fitting manner Saturday night. The early enrollees — Dickerson is one of four — were introduced along with many of their Gamecocks teammates at halftime of South Carolina’s basketball game against Ole Miss.
There was Dickerson, the kid who had hoop dreams, walking out of the tunnel at Colonial Life Arena, his name echoing from the speakers as he walked to midcourt.
He still misses basketball and likely always will. One of the final games he attended in Southern Pines had a roaring crowd and a gym packed with more than 1,000 people, leaving him pining to be on the court. His experience now has served to help him share with others that basketball isn’t the only way.
“Jaylin now does a really good job mentoring younger kids in saying if you are going to do both, do both because football can be your meal ticket,” Powell said. “At the end of the day, you can get a free education to better yourself. He does a good job mentoring those kids that they don’t have to stick to basketball.”
He is walking proof of that and, after all, Dickerson got where he always planned in a way. His hard work led him to a Division 1 scholarship, just at a different Carolina for a different sport.
“For football and that’s crazy,” he said.