FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Marcus Dixon tries not to think about the 15 darkest months of his life.
All that lost time in prison. All those tears. No football. No freedom.
"Sometimes I'll find myself sitting in the team meeting room just zoned out and thinking, 'Man, I'm really here,'" the New York Jets defensive lineman told The Associated Press. "There was a time I was just sitting between four walls. If I hadn't gotten out when I did, I'd still be sitting between those four walls to this day."
Eight years ago, Dixon was convicted by a Georgia court of statutory rape and aggravated child molestation in a high-profile case that had some angrily protesting his fate and others celebrating.
A high school senior and star football player back then, Dixon was sentenced to 10 years in prison without a chance for parole.
Dixon, who was 18, was accused by a 15-year-old classmate of raping her after school in February 2003. The jury later determined that the sex was consensual, but convicted Dixon on the other charges under Georgia's Child Protection Act. Dixon lost a scholarship to Vanderbilt and claimed he was targeted by prosecutors because he is black and the girl was white.
HBO's "Real Sports" with Bryant Gumbel produced a segment on Dixon's story a few months after the conviction. Shortly after it aired, the Supreme Court of Georgia overturned it on an appeal, and Dixon was released from prison the same day. Gumbel recently caught up with him for the latest episode that aired Tuesday night.
"I know some people will be happy for me, but some people will be like, 'What's he doing in the league?'" Dixon said. "Mixed emotions. So, I'll probably only watch it if my parents tell me, 'OK, it was good.' But, I won't be up watching it.
"I don't even want to see it. It's going to bring back old memories."
The "Real Sports" segment refreshes viewers on the case, showing interviews from the first piece and adding current ones with Dixon and his parents. He was reluctant about sitting down and revisiting that time in his life. But he agreed to do it because he thinks his story could help others, and it might give him some sense of closure — even if he knows that might never truly come.
"I think this is going to be with me all my life," he said. "Even to this day, going to get an apartment and they do a background check, it's the first thing that pops up. So, I'm automatically denied. I have to get my lawyers to get all my paperwork and all that stuff, so it'll always be with me no matter where I go."
Whenever he has to fill out an application, he holds his breath and hopes he doesn't see the question that makes his stomach turn: Have you ever been incarcerated?
"Man, I want to put 'No' so bad, but I have to put 'Yes' and write down the charge and all that stuff," he said. "They give like just 2½ lines to explain it. It's definitely the frustrating part, I'm not going to lie. I'm going to keep it real, though. I can get by that."
After he was released from prison, Dixon went to Hampton University and became a star player there. He went undrafted, but was signed by Dallas as a free agent in 2008. He was claimed off waivers by the Jets in 2010 and has become a major part of the defensive line as a top backup with eight tackles and a fumble recovery.
He's just one of the guys now, walking around the Jets' locker room cracking jokes and happy that others such as Mark Sanchez, Darrelle Revis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress — who is back in football after serving 20 months in prison on a gun charge — get all the attention from the media.
"Nobody comes to me and starts talking about it," Dixon said. "I think that's how it is around here, that a lot of guys might know about the story, but don't even know it's me and I like it like that."
Dixon said he and linebacker Bart Scott have discussed his past, mostly because it inadvertently came up shortly after he joined the Jets last year.
"We were at Ruth's Chris Steak House for our defensive dinner at the beginning of the season and Bart was talking about this situation," Dixon recalled. "He didn't realize he was talking about me. He was like, 'Wow, that was you?' He kind of became my big bro here."
Scott said he didn't change the way he acted toward him when he heard Dixon's story, but respects his past.
"It wasn't like when he told me that I was like, 'Oh, let me be nice to him now,'" Scott said. "I don't pass judgment on anybody. It was a rough journey he's had. I mean, he really showed a lot of character and resiliency by getting through what he went through."
Dixon attributes that to the tireless efforts of his adoptive parents, Ken and Peri Jones, who are white, and assumed legal guardianship from his grandparents when he was 12. Ken Jones, who met Dixon when he was his baseball coach, and his wife accepted him as their own son — even if it caused in some family members to stop talking to them at the time.
The Joneses insisted their son was dealt a severe injustice, and made sure they told anyone they could until he was freed.
"I have the strongest parents on Earth," Dixon said. "They've got my back 110 percent. We were always close, but that situation probably brought us even closer."
After the "Real Sports" segment aired Tuesday night, several fans praised Dixon on Twitter for how he has handled himself and immediately labeled him as their favorite Jets player.
"I'll be talking to my agent all the time, telling him that I feel like a kid, that this is all a dream that I'm here," Dixon said. "I think it's partly because if things hadn't worked out the right way, I'd still be in there for two more years. I'd be watching all this on TV from the inside. Instead, I'm here, and I'm so happy."
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