With Hurricane Frances smashing Florida’s east coast in September of 2004 Bill Bates uprooted his family from Ponte Vedra Beach and temporarily moved in with some East Tennessee relatives. As fate would have it, the Big Orange played its 2004 opener in Knoxville on Sept. 5, so the Bates family showed up at Neyland Stadium to watch the Vols, for whom Bill started at safety from 1979-82.
Dillon, 9 years old at the time, remembers it well.
“We had a hurricane one year and we evacuated, had to come to Tennessee to visit family,” he recalled during a Friday afternoon meeting with local media. “We went to a game against UNLV. That was the first time I’d ever been in Neyland Stadium.”Although Tennessee rolled to a 42-17 victory, the most vivid memory he took away from the experience was the enormity of the 100,000-seat venue.
“Wow! This is the biggest stadium I’ve ever been in,” he said, reliving the experience. “Walking around the campus, seeing my dad’s name everywhere, it stuck in my mind that this is something that I want to do and this is somewhere I kind of fell in love with.”
That dream culminated last February, when he signed scholarship papers with the Vols. His dad and mom, former UT cheerleader Denise Conrad, were pleased, although they tried diligently to avoid steering him toward their alma mater.
“They really never pressured me into Tennessee football,” Dillon said, adding that his dad “took me everywhere – Alabama, Florida, Ohio State (on recruiting visits). He did a great job of letting me look around and explore my options and make my own decision.”
Still, there was no confusion as to what his dad’s college preference was.
“He was pretty much neutral,” Dillon said, “but I could always tell where he wanted me to go. I knew he’d be happy if I came here. I know he is, and I’m happy to be here, too. This was always where I wanted to play.”
Although he was nine years old when he was introduced to Tennessee, Dillon’s introduction to organized football came much earlier.
“I started playing when I was six or seven in the mighty-mite leagues – you know, the big old helmet, big old shoulder pads, running around and not knowing what you’re supposed to do,” he recalled with a smile. “That was the greatest time … when football isn’t anything more than just a game to you. It’s just something you do with your friends: Try and get the ball across this line, and you score. That's really my earliest football memories.”
Some of his fondest football memories occurred, not on the field, but in front of the TV with his father.
“About middle school I started watching football with my dad in the family room,” Dillon recalled. “He’d point out these things to look for. He’d always say, ‘When you get older you’ll start watching film,’ and I was wanting to do that now. I wanted to look at film, learn the game, learn different coverages. I didn’t have that big a grasp of it. I was just being told what to do all the time, and I wanted to know by myself.”
With a dad who played four seasons for Tennessee and 15 for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, Dillon enjoyed easy access to insights and tips about football. That has helped him learn the game more quickly and more in-depth than most young men do.
“It is a great help; he’s the best resource that I could ask for,” Dillon said. “Him playing here and 15 years in The League, there’s nothing better that you could ask for. And he’s my dad, too, so I can go to him with any question that I want. That has helped me tremendously, and I could not be more thankful to have him for my dad.”
Rated a four-star prospect by Scout, the 6-foot-3, 232-pound Bates has a good chance to start at one of the Vols’ outside linebacker spots now that junior Curt Maggitt has moved to defensive end. Dillon shrugs at such talk.
“It’s not really something I can control,” he said. “It’s all about what I can do to make myself better. Then whatever happens happens.”
As part of a heralded signing class rated No. 4 nationally by Scout, Bates understands that expectations are high for this group of Vol rookies. That’s fine with him. He doesn’t want fans to put a cap on their hopes.
“There’s no cap to anything,” he said. “We’re all shooting to be as good as we can be. We’re trying to do everything we can to help the team, to play early and get everything we can out of this season.”
Dillon Bates video interview