A.J. Dillon, grandson of Irish great Thom Gatewood, seeks Notre Dame offer

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

There was a moment when Thom Gatewood visited his alma mater earlier this month, while listening to running backs coach Autry Denson — another Notre Dame alum — talk about the school and the program and all the things that make this place special, that Gatewood had a thought:

This man would be a great coach for my grandson.

Gatewood, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this year, led the Irish in receiving in three consecutive seasons, from 1969 to 1971. He finished his college career with 157 receptions, a school record that stood for 35 years. Today, his name is etched on the walls inside the program’s athletic facilities — a meaningful thread in a storied tradition.

And in the first week of June, he came back — to participate in the program’s fantasy camp, to toss a football around with new starting quarterback Malik Zaire, and yes, to put in a word for the future of the Gatewood bloodline.

“I launched a PR campaign while I was there,” Gatewood said, “making a connection with the coaches that I have a grandson and I’d love for them to go online and look at his footage. ‘He doesn’t have my last name, so you’re not going to know he’s my grandson. So I’m going to tell you: A.J. Dillon. A.J. Dillon. A.J. Dillon. People are going to be recruiting him, and you should be on the list.’

“The next thing I know, before I left campus, I called my grandson, and he said, ‘I got an invitation to an invite-only camp on the 19th. I’m going out there. I’m so excited.’”

Of course, Dillon seems to be doing just fine without his grandfather’s persistent promotion. A sturdy 6-foot, 228-pound running back, and only a rising junior at Lawrence Academy High School in Groton, Mass., Dillon has already garnered scholarship offers from Boston College, Connecticut, UMass, Syracuse, Temple and Virginia.

As a sophomore, he chugged for 1,368 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging a robust 8.6 yards per carry. He's ranked as a four-star recruit by 247Sports and a three-star prospect by Rivals.

He’s barely 17 years old, owns a 38-inch vertical leap and runs the 40-yard-dash in 4.5 seconds.

And, as his recruitment blossoms, this is only the beginning.

“I’m not only a big, third-down back,” Dillon said. “I may be 6 feet and 230 pounds, but I can still move. I’m working on my footwork, because in my film, there aren’t many jukes. Normally I just run people over if they’re in my way. But I’m working on that to add another dimension to my style.”

It’s hard to say how much of that style can be attributed to superior genetics. Even at 65 years old, Gatewood is still remarkably active, consistently demonstrating the athleticism that once made him Joe Theismann’s go-to receiver.

“It’s still difficult, thinking about myself as a grandfather,” Gatewood joked. “I give tennis lessons in the community I live in. I work with adults and kids as a personal trainer. That’s something I’m really interested in and passionate about.”

And it doesn’t take long to discover another of Gatewood’s passions:

Notre Dame.

“He has all his old newspaper clippings and all the interviews and TV shows he was on,” Dillon said. “A couple months ago, we went to his house, and he was showing me the pictures of him and Joe Theismann and all these other things that he has done. He tells me stories about Notre Dame all the time.”

For many years, however, Gatewood resisted pushing his personal allegiances onto his grandson. There would be a time and place for that, he reminded himself. Because Dillon’s high school mascot is a Spartan, Gatewood even wears Michigan State garb to his grandson’s games, simultaneously conceding small battles to his wife, a proud Michigan State alum.

But regardless of his attire, Gatewood’s heart has never strayed from the golden dome.

“The network that Notre Dame has, that solid, solid base, is incredible,” Gatewood said. “That makes guys go to those fantasy camps. I’m still getting eight or nine autograph seekers per week, mail coming to my home as a 65-year-old. That tells me that there is a following that’s out there that makes this school more unique than any other place.

“I’m a big endorser of the school. I’ve never really hyped it to him (Dillon), because I was waiting for him to be in a position where he could really appreciate it and be into it.”

Now, the wait is over. Last weekend, Dillon arrived in South Bend for the first time, touring the same campus Gatewood roamed more than 40 years earlier. As part of the invitation-only Irish Invasion camp, he changed in the Notre Dame locker room, ran through drills inside Notre Dame Stadium and gained a greater appreciation for his grandfather along the way.

“It never really sunk in until I got there, that my grandfather was a really good football player and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he played at this really big-time school that nobody ever gets to go to unless you’re really smart or the best of the best,” Dillon said. “It’s crazy that now as I become a bigger recruit, people are noticing me and I got to go there. It was an awesome experience.”

Dillon did plenty to warrant the invitation. Alongside some of the premier prospects in the country, the 2017 running back won the “golden run,” a position-by-position foot race on the Notre Dame Stadium turf.

Under a pink South Bend sunset, he broke into the open field.

Like grandfather, like grandson.

It was not such a bad night at Notre Dame.

A photo posted by Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) on Jun 19, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

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“I was the biggest by 20 pounds and the tallest by probably two inches, and I was also the fastest back at camp,” Dillon said. “He (Denson) said at the end that he was very impressed with how I did. They said they would be in contact with my coach.”

This weekend, Dillon’s recruiting tour rolls on, as the Massachusetts native plans to camp at Penn State. But regardless of the bevy of available suitors, what would it mean to potentially land an offer from Notre Dame?

“There’s not even really words,” Dillon said. “A Notre Dame offer, I can’t even explain it. It would be really near and dear to my heart.”

For Gatewood, a longstanding ambassador of the Blue and Gold, the words are easier to come by.

“Notre Dame lived up to everything,” Gatewood said. “It wasn’t hype. A lot of these schools, when they’re recruiting you, it’s a lot of hype. Everybody’s going to make him an All American. Everybody’s going to do this and that. It’s winning traditions.

"Well, you can point in a zillion directions, and people are going to have winning traditions — whether it’s Alabama, or Southern Cal, or Penn State, or Michigan. So what makes them different?

“We would be sharing something that’s really difficult to share unless he’s a part of it. It would be like going through that whole experience all over again, which was a very positive thing in my life.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame All-American Thom Gatewood. Photo Courtesy of Notre Dame Sports Information.