Calling Chris Dixon a supporter or a backer of football doesn’t quite convey his passion for the sport.
He is more of a football evangelist, always looking for ways to introduce young people to the sport that did so much for him, and to nurture them as they get better at the game.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” Dixon said. “You can’t move without everyone doing their job. You build character and you build relationships through football. That’s what I want to offer these kids.”
This year, “these kids” include more than 300 young athletes involved in the Mighty Football League, for 7- to 10-year-olds; a travel flag football team for kids in second through fourth grade; and a U-12 travel team called the Outlaws.
Dixon christened that team the Outlaws to perpetuate the name that, in his words, “put Billings on the football map.” He should know: Dixon quarterbacked the Billings Outlaws when they won three back-to-back championships, the last two in the Indoor Football League, and then he won three more IFL titles with the Sioux Falls Storm.
When Dixon retired as a player in 2014, his record as a quarterback—he threw for more than 25,000 yards and 600 touchdowns—was unmatched in the IFL.
He returned to Billings two years ago to coach the Billings Wolves and he is also running the Billings Sports Plex, the indoor training facility originally built for the Outlaws. He started the Mighty Football program in 2008 and got the other youth football programs going in the past seven months.
“I want to give these kids a chance to develop themselves and become the players they really want to be,” he said.
He also wants to take a team to an American Athletic Union tournament. As far as he knows, Dixon said, Montana is the only state that doesn’t send any teams to the AAU nationals, which are held in different states depending on which region of the country the teams come from.
Going to tournaments like those sponsored by the AAU is the best way to encourage young players and to give them a chance to compare their talents not just with other kids in the state but from all over the country, Dixon said.
For much the same reason, Dixon held his first “football showcase” at Skyview High School last May, allowing Montana high school football players to show their stuff to college coaches.
“It gives us a chance to hopefully start getting these kids ranked statewide,” he said.
In Montana, Dixon said, all the attention goes to the big two teams—the UM Grizzlies and the MSU Bobcats, with little left over for high school teams.
“We don’t celebrate our athletes in high school enough,” he said. “We need to make it a big deal. We need to make it a really big deal.”
Dixon’s passion for youth sports was shared by his high school basketball coach, Ken Carter, whose experiences were the inspiration for the 2005 movie “Coach Carter,” which featured Samuel Jackson in the title role.
Carter became famous in 1999 when, as the basketball coach in Richmond, Calif., he canceled his undefeated team’s games because so many of his players were underperforming academically. Dixon was on the team that year and even had a bit part in the movie.
Carter, reached by phone, remembered Dixon as “an absolutely amazing athlete,” a standout at basketball, baseball and football. What is even more important, Carter said, was that “you can always depend on that young man. He is what you call the ultimate warrior, in every walk of life.”
Nobody worked harder than Dixon, he said, in terms of preparing mentally and physically.
“Other than my son, Chris is my all-time most favorite player,” Carter said. “I just like how mentally tough he was.”
Dixon also has a fan in Mike Parnell, the owner of the Billings Sports Plex and a former owner of the Billings Outlaws. He called Dixon “one of the most entrepreneurial players we had. He really thought out of the box.”
When Dixon decided to start the Mighty Football program, Parnell said, he basically did everything needed to get the program going, including organizing the coaching staff, arranging for transportation and putting together a schedule.
Dixon also presented Parnell with a budget for football equipment, which the league was going to give to every player who signed up. Parnell looked at the list of equipment and told Dixon it was too expensive, that it was all top of the line, good enough for college or even pro players. But Dixon wouldn’t budge.
Parnell said Dixon told him, “Nope. I want them to be safe and I want their parents to feel safe.”
In the end, somewhat grudgingly he admits, Parnell approved the budget.
Dixon is full of ideas and plans for expanding football in Billings. He wants to find a permanent outdoor home field for the Outlaws, with the goal of hosting a regional AAU tournament here, and he wants to find more coaches. He already superintends about 40 adult volunteers, he said, but he’d like to have several coaches for every team.
Dixon normally bristles with energy, but he can be calm in facing the challenges that lie ahead.
“It’ll build,” he said. “I’m not worried about it.”