Peyton Dixon was ready to give up football after his sophomore season of high school.
Pigeonholed as a fullback at Bishop Manogue High, Dixon earned just 67 carries that season, which ended with the Miners winning only one league game. A track star, Dixon contemplated his football future after that campaign ended and was leaning toward calling it a career on the gridiron. It felt like time to move on.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Dixon admitted during practice this week. “I was emotional. After that sophomore year, I felt like I had no purpose on the field. I was ready to go find my purpose.”
But a month after that season ended, Dixon found his purpose when Bishop Manogue made a coaching change, hiring Ernie Howren, who had built a powerhouse at Reed High. Dixon didn’t need any introduction to Howren. After all, Bishop Manogue’s final game that sophomore season was a 69-18 playoff loss to his Raiders. And when Howren was hired 37 days after that game, Dixon was all-in, no questions asked.
“That announcement alone forced me to play," Dixon said. "I could never repay what they’ve done for me as a staff.”
That coaching change kept Dixon a Miner and Northern Nevada should be thankful for that. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back has had a senior season to remember, the best in the North’s history.
Dixon has rushed for 2,646 yards and 41 touchdowns over 12 games this season, both marks being the most for a Northern 4A player, topping the previous bests of 2,272 yards and 33 scores. Dixon is 303 yards and seven touchdowns shy of the all-time state records, both within reach if Bishop Manogue beats Arbor View in its 4A state semifinal game Saturday at McQueen High, the winner likely facing nine-time defending champ Bishop Gorman for the state crown.
“He is the best I’ve seen,” Howren said if Dixon. “When we’re watching film of the previous night’s game, I just sit there and watch and say, ‘Did that just happen? Wow! That’s what a Division I running back looks like. That’s what a scholarship running back looks like.’ He’s the best I’ve seen.”
Dixon will have his pick of schools when Manogue’s season ends. He’s contemplating offers from three FBS schools (Nevada, Fresno State, UNLV) and five FCS programs (Northern Colorado, Montana, Idaho State, UC Davis, Northern Arizona). Dixon plans to select a school and sign during December’s early period, and while he hasn’t gotten a Pac-12 offer despite his big numbers, Howren says he’s deserving.
“I think they’re crazy,” Howren said of Pac-12 teams. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand. When you stand next to him, he’s a big kid, and he’s not done growing. He’s really long-armed, he’s got great hands and he has world-class speed. I don’t know what else you’re looking for in a running back. And he’s tough. The other thing that drives me nuts is people don’t see how tough this kid is. He runs through a lot of tackles.”
Howren said he knew Dixon was truly special earlier this season when Manogue fell behind Placer High. His star back never quit, and Dixon ended that game with a career-best 432 yards and six touchdowns. In last Saturday’s Northern 4A championship game against heavily favored Damonte Ranch High, Dixon rushed for 333 yards and scored five times, including one through the air. After he ran for a score in overtime, Howren called for a 2-point try, Dixon hauling in the winning conversion.
“That play call was designed to go to me and I was just thinking, ‘Don’t drop the ball. Don’t drop the ball,’” Dixon said. “I knew I’d be wide open and it’d be coming toward me. That play took about a minute-and-a-half in my head. Rolling out there and seeing the ball hang up there for like 10 minutes was tough, but bringing that in, I was in shock looking around. It was a great feeling.”
Dixon has given Miners fans great vibes all season. Despite missing a midseason game against Carson High, Dixon has rushed for at least 100 yards in all but one game (he had five rushes for 93 yards in a rout of Wooster in that other contest). Dixon has seven 200-yard games and is averaging 220.5 yards per game, gaining, on average, a first down (10.5 yards) each time he touches the ball.
“I can’t say enough great things about him,” Howren said. “I’ve been doing this now for 25 years and this is the first time I’ve had a Division I scholarship running back. He is our team.”
Dixon’s sensational season has put him seventh in Nevada large-class history in career rushing yards (4,739 yards, 211 shy of the Northern record) and fourth in state history in rushing touchdowns (70, most among Northern 4A players). He has legit college size and blazing speed, winning the Northern 4A regional 100-meter dash while placing fourth in state (he was third in state in the long jump). That size and speed combo is what differentiates Dixon from previous running backs in the area, Howren said, but it is his knowledge of the game that most impresses his coach.
“I’ve talked to a couple college recruiters and they’re just so impressed with his football IQ, how he’s able to talk football,” Howren said. “He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a really smart kid when it comes to football. His vision is probably the thing I notice the most, which probably comes back to his understanding of offense. He’s so smart that he just knows where he’s supposed to fit on every play.”
While Reno has produced a couple FBS scholarship players per year over the last decade, it’s rare for the area to be home to such a good running back. Studs like Tyler York and Chris Carr, both from McQueen, earned college scholarships but did so on defense. It’s fair to say Dixon is the North’s best running back since Hug’s Anthony Corley, who played for Nevada in the early 1980s before a brief NFL career.
“He’s amazing,” said Manogue quarterback Drew Scolari, the grandson of College Football Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault. “He just takes so much pressure off you. You’re in third-and-5 and you have a guy who can run it those five yards and get a first down. He’s such a great leader in practice, the way he works in the weight room, the way he lifts and he’s a great friend, too, so it’s awesome.”
Dixon said his historic season has been “definitely surprising." Howren, however, has not been surprised. Asked what he'd have said if told before the season Dixon would post 2,600-plus rushing yards and 40-plus touchdowns, Howren answered, “I would have thought, ‘No doubt.’” Howren had crazy expectations for Dixon, and he’s lived up to each of them, which has made it easy for the coach to brag about his star player to the college recruiters who have inquired about him.
“The biggest thing they’re all looking for is a guy who will play hurt and sometimes even play injured,” Howren said. “They want a guy like that. That’s something Peyton has proven in the two years we’ve been around him is he can play hurt and he can push his body beyond the pain. That’s something all colleges are looking for because once you start that first game, you’re pretty much hurt the rest of the season. The other thing they’re looking for is that leadership. That’s a quality he has just by example in the weight room, classroom, on the field and he’s been vocal when he’s needed to be vocal.”
Dixon's first football memory came when he was a 5-year-old going against players two and three years old than him. He remembers making his first tackle and looking at his dad cheering in the stands.
“That was a big moment for me,” Dixon said.
And nearly two years after quitting the game given the frustrations with his purpose, Dixon will soon be a college scholarship player. He doesn’t know which school he’ll attend just yet, but he knows how good of position his senior season has put him in.
“I’m so blessed to be in this position to have multiple choices, to have several schools with so many things to offer,” Dixon said. “It’s a position that I never could have seen myself in in the past.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.