Friday’s Texas Bowl was senior offensive lineman Dustin Dickinson’s final game as a Cougar, but the lessons he learned as a freshman are still on his mind.
"I can remember my very first day walking through the doors (of the Athletics/Alumni Center), meeting the coaches and talking to them," Dickinson said. "I’m from (Springtown, Texas), a town of 1,600 people. I came to Houston where there’s like four and a half million people. It was overwhelming at first."
When Dickinson arrived at UH, he met Al Jones, a former Cougar football player who would become one of the biggest influences on Dickinson’s college career.
"He would’ve been a senior in 2003, which was my first year," Dickinson said. "He was the starting center. I’ve seen tape on him, and from people talking and everything, he was a very talented player (and) would’ve been in the NFL no doubt.
"Unfortunately, he had a career-ending injury one day at walk-through. I believe he went to plant his foot and tore his knee and had some nerve damage."
Jones would not play football again, but he began to contribute to the Cougar football program in another way – by taking Dickinson under his wing.
"He’s got so much heart and love for the game even though he had an injury like he had. A lot of guys would’ve hung their head and felt sorry for themselves, but he chose to hang around and pass on his knowledge to other people," Dickinson said. "A guy like that, his knowledge is priceless."
Jones’ previous football experience has helped him communicate in teaching Dickinson.
"He comes up to practice every day, and he can watch our technique and see how we’re doing," Dickinson said. "He just taught me something about the game you wouldn’t think about unless you played the game – things that the defensive lineman will do that you only learn through experience."
In addition to helping Dickinson with the technical aspects of football, Jones also taught him to treasure every moment he played the game – a lesson that Dickinson thinks about whenever he’s on the field.
"You never know when your last snap’s going to be," Dickinson said. "It could be a game, or it could be a walk-through. It’s such a physical game and so demanding on your body. That’s one of the things you realize; you never know when your last snap’s going to be. It’s an eye-opener.
"You want to play as hard as you can, because how are you going to feel if you take a play off and it’s your last play?" Dickinson said. "How are you going to feel about yourself in the future thinking, ‘Well, I wasn’t going hard and I got hurt and that’s the last play I ever played?’ If I’m going to get hurt I want to know I was going as hard as I could."
Dickinson has had to persevere all his life. He was born in Irving, Texas, but his parents were divorced when he was four years old and he moved to Atlanta with his mother.
"It’s hard when you’re a little kid and your parents split up," Dickinson said. "It’s always hard, especially (since) we moved all the way across the country and I hardly ever got to see my dad. It was rough."
After four years, Dickinson moved to New Jersey when his mother got remarried, but he eventually returned to Texas to live with his father. It was then he played football for the first time.
"I moved down here with my dad, and he decided that he would put me in football," Dickinson said. "(It was) a life-changing decision. I fell in love with the game from day one."
Dickinson’s football playing has helped bring his family together, in spite of the divorce.
"I’ve got a huge support system with my family," Dickinson said. "Even though my mom and my dad are separated, there’s still a close bond with everybody located around me. I’ve got a great relationship with my parents that most people don’t have. I’ve usually always got somebody (at games) between my mom, my dad and my girlfriend."
Throughout all the changes in his life, Dickinson has always played the same position.
"I’ve been a lineman my whole life," he said. "My dad played defensive lineman in high school, and he always wanted me to play defensive line, but I just never really had a knack for it. In high school the coaches decided to keep me on offense and let me just work on that."
Dickinson’s hard work in high school paid off when Houston offered him a scholarship in 2003. Even though he graduated in December, he doesn’t plan to slow down at all.
"Eventually I’d like to become a head coach," Dickinson said. "But my plan right now is to stay on in the spring (and) take a few extra classes, maybe work on a second degree."
Dickinson will continue to work with coaches Larry Jackson and Chad Dennis while training for the NFL.
"Hopefully I can get picked up somewhere. And if that doesn’t work out, I’d like to try to go somewhere as a graduate assistant and try to work my way up."