- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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Phillip Dillard has passed any obstacle or test that stood in his way.
When he was 9, Dillard had to move in with a new family after his ailing, single mother could no longer afford to raise him. Until then, home consisted of $150-a-week motels. That's all his mother, Martha, could afford. While Dillard and his mother bounced around from motel to motel, one of his four older brothers was sent to jail for robbery.
Somehow Dillard persevered, and his hard-luck childhood would prove to be the foundation he needed to survive many more challenges.
He had a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost him his sophomore season at Nebraska in 2006, and a painful ankle injury kept him out of the last four regular-season games of 2008. After the ankle injury Dillard went from starter to fourth on the depth chart under a new coaching regime. Then came the biggest setback of his life. Martha died after years of battling heart and kidney conditions in January 2009.
"Even though me and my wife raised him, he was still very close to his mom," said Tyrone Lynn, who has raised Dillard since he was 9. "He really respected her in terms of how hard he saw her fight just to live. When she was really sick before she passed, it was having a negative impact on his life. But the interesting thing is after she passed, at that point, he started becoming a lot more focused. His life totally changed in every aspect. He just became more focused and more driven to get where he wanted to get."
With all these negative things going on, Dillard didn't take the victim mentality. He drew strength from it, vowing to use it as a source of motivation.
When he arrives at Giants' rookie minicamp, more than a year removed from his mother's death, Dillard faces his next great challenge.
The fourth-round pick has been drafted with the hopes that he can be the man to ultimately replace Antonio Pierce in the middle of Tom Coughlin's defense. If his past is any indication, Giants fans will learn Dillard is prepared for the challenge.
"I learned that nothing is promised to you," Dillard said during a phone call on Wednesday. "I already knew growing up that nothing is given to you. But it was like starting over. I could only control how I handle myself. Now I'm in the situation that I am in now. I handled it like a man."
Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., Dillard didn't have a male presence in his life until Lynn, whose mother was good friends with Martha Dillard, took him in as a part of his family. Lynn said Dillard's father was never really in the picture and while Phillip had four older brothers, it was just him and his mother for a handful of years. She tried to raise her boy, but her salary at a local mental health care center wasn't enough to provide a stable life.
Her health was also deteriorating as she battled a congestive heart condition and a muscle disease that led to kidney failure. Unable to care for herself and Dillard, she turned to Lynn for help. She asked Lynn to take care of Dillard and provide him with the discipline, attention and father figure she couldn't provide.
"She always had to work all the time and it was tiring raising a son and working all the time," Dillard said. "So she did that for me. Back then, I didn't see it that way. I thought she was getting rid of me. For me in the long run, it worked out better and made me a man."
Lynn and his wife, Ronda, gladly took in Dillard. Lynn, a police officer for 20 years in Tulsa, knew what would've likely happened to Dillard if he had not agreed to raise him.
"Phillip's situation wasn't anything new to me," he said. "I've seen a lot of kids grow up with that lack of structure and lack of male representation and they are killed or in jail. All his brothers weren't on the right track. None of them had an active father in their lives. One of his brothers speaks five languages. All of them are extremely talented but got some really dysfunctional lives."
According to Lynn, one of Dillard's brothers, Darryl Haynes, was sent to prison for 14 years on charges of robbery and kidnapping.
With Lynn watching over him and Martha remaining close to her son, Dillard's only connection to that kind of life was through letters he received from Haynes from jail. Lynn said Haynes wrote his younger brother and encouraged him to work hard. "He is a big part of Phil's life," Lynn said. "[Haynes] just got released two years ago and is doing really well."
Lynn admitted when he took Phillip in he could see he was heading in the wrong direction. "By the time he got 13 or 14, he would have been out of control," Lynn said.
Lynn decided that part of Dillard's structure would come through sports. He introduced Dillard to football. Dillard, who is now 6-foot and weighs 245 pounds, was always bigger than other kids but that didn't translate immediately on the football field.
"He was a horrible football player," Lynn said chuckling. "Oh my God, he was a little fat kid. I remember the first time we put him in a uniform, he put on a helmet and he looked like a hostage in that helmet. He was scared to death."
It didn't take long before opponents would fear Dillard. In eighth grade, Dillard hit a quarterback so hard he broke the player's ribs and shoulder with one hit. By his sophomore year in high school, Dillard was a film junkie, breaking down endless hours of video tape from practices nightly with Lynn. He didn't just study his own technique but tendencies displayed by offensive linemen as well. Playing for Tulsa prep powerhouse Jenks High School, Dillard became one of the nation's top linebackers before committing to Nebraska under then head coach Bill Callahan.
After showing promise in 11 games as a freshman at Nebraska, Dillard tore his ACL in the season opener of his sophomore year while running down field on special teams against Louisiana Tech. After medical redshirting that 2006 season, Dillard played in all 12 games in 2007. In 2008, he started five games of nine games before missing the last four of the regular season due to a severe ankle injury. After rehabbing to come back for the Gator Bowl, Dillard felt he was ready to play but first-year coach Bo Pelini thought otherwise and used him in limited action.
The hard-nosed Pelini wanted Dillard to shed 20 pounds and earn a starting job. This was around the same time Dillard's mother died. Lynn said he believes Dillard had to let go of some of the struggles he went through during his childhood in order to grow into a man.
"Phillip had some things, I believe, in his heart that was still causing him some distrust with his father not being there," Lynn said. "Overall, Phillip really didn't let people get close to him. If they got too close, he would force them away. When his mom died, he just put it all together."
Stripped of his starting job and forced to compete with walk-ons, Dillard had to start over as a fifth-year senior. He decided to focus on a promise he made to his mother while in high school. He vowed he would do whatever was asked of him and focus on what he can control.
He worked harder than ever and despite sitting on the bench for his first two games of his senior year, Dillard was such a good soldier that Pelini not only put him back in but he eventually gave Dillard the responsibilities of calling the defense. Dillard emerged as a leader and finished with 83 tackles, second-best on the team behind Ndamukong Suh, who was drafted second overall by the Lions.
"I remember everything my mother said to me," Dillard said. "God has a plan for you and it is how you handle it and everything happens for a reason -- good or bad. I can't control when she passed. I can only control what I can do now which is working hard and carrying myself the right way. That carried me."
Martha's advice to her son may just lift him all the way to Pierce's old starting job one day as well.
"Over the course of my life, everything I went through made it possible for who I am today," said Dillard, who already has started studying NFL starting middle linebackers who play in 4-3 schemes like the Giants. "And it's the reason why the Giants took a chance to believe in me. I can help this team and that is what I plan on doing."
Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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