The spring of 2004 marked the first fully healthy spring practice for the senior defensive lineman, whose college football career has been derailed several times by injuries. As a team, the Commodores were dinged in the spring by a series of injuries to key players-- but Dinwiddie, to the surprise of almost everyone (including Dinwiddie himself), stayed healthy.
For perhaps the first time since his redshirt freshman season, team members witnessed the power of a fully healthy Dinwiddie. To hear his coaches talk, it was something they could very quickly get used to.
"Robert is one of the best players we've got out here right now," raved head coach Bobby Johnson a few days before Vandy's spring game.
Entering the 2003 season, astute Vandy fans may recall, the health of Dinwiddie's knee was a huge question mark. It had been 18 full months since the Hendersonville High grad had been fully in the pink. Defensive line coach David Turner was crossing all of his fingers and toes, just hoping to be able to squeeze a few series out of Dinwiddie each game.
Playing through a constant knee pain, Dinwiddie's junior season turned out to be the most productive of his career. The 6-5, 290-pounder played in all 12 games, and was in the starting lineup for six. Not only did he contribute in the defensive end rotation, but he saw considerable time at tackle after a midseason ankle sprain sidelined Ralph McKenzie.
His comeback was one of the nicest and most inspiring stories to come out of the 2003 season, and his fearless and courageous play on the defensive line earned him the lasting respect of both his players and coaches.
Don't be surprised to see Dinwiddie back at tackle this fall, according to Johnson. His versatility will allow him to be one of the few D-linemen to play either position. On the spring depth chart, he had worked himself into a starting position at tackle.
"We were hoping, when we had Chris and several others, to play Robert inside," said Johnson, referring to starting defensive end Chris Booker, who suffered a serious knee injury in the spring. "He still may be able to play inside, but right now he's capable of playing either tackle or end."
"The Poster Child"
Having already pocketed his Vanderbilt degree in Human and Organizational Development, the ultra-personable Dinwiddie is already taking summer graduate courses in Organizational Leadership. "I'm trying to get a few of those classes out of the way, so that I'll be able to finish in a year," he says.
Meanwhile, in his fifth year at Vanderbilt, he has accepted the role of President of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC)-- a role that puts him on the forefront of the ever-evolving restructuring of the Vandy Athletics Department. As President of SAAC, he is also obligated to serve on the Athletic Oversight Committee alongside Vice Chancellor David Williams, Chancellor Gordon Gee, Faculty Advisor Virginia Shepherd, and other members of Vanderbilt's inner circle.
Dinwiddie said he has come to relish having a voice in shaping policies for coaches and athletes-- not to mention the exposure to some of the inner political workings of the school's administration.
"I try to represent the athlete viewpoint, and I think I bring a unique perspective to that," he says. "I don't think that committee always knows what our viewpoint is, and I do my best to make the student-athletes' views known."
Dinwiddie's deep involvement in SAAC and other extracurriculars has led at least one Vanderbilt official to refer to him as "the poster child for academic-athletic integration"-- which Dinwiddie agrees, with a robust laugh, is a lot better than being the poster child for some other things.
"Yeah, it's a great compliment," Dinwiddie said. "I'm just trying to be involved as much as I can. I've given talks, for instance, to several of the summer Academic Orientation leaders, trying to get them familiar with the plight of the student-athlete when they first come in, and hoping to deal with some of the different issues that come up."
While some student-athletes say the sweeping restructuring at the administrative level has made little difference in their actual day-to-day lives, Dinwiddie says the changes have been huge for him personally.
"As a result of it now, I tend to deal with David Williams and Chancellor Gee on a week-to-week basis. So I have to deal with that, and plus, I have to give announcements to the team and coaches and things of that nature. So yes, it's affected me a lot.
"But for the team, and most of the other student-athletes, no, it doesn't affect them on a day-to-day basis. There might be a few things they're encouraged to do or attend that weren't really on the agenda before."
Finding the inner resolve
Whether it's his coursework in Organizational Leadership or his naturally gregarious personality, Dinwiddie will be looked to by his teammates and coaches as one of the key senior leaders on this year's Vanderbilt team. If nothing else, his trials have taught him that the respect of others is something that's earned, and that comes only as the result of long periods of hard work and sacrifice.
"Robert is one of those guys who have developed an attitude that you like to see in your players," says Coach Johnson. "In other words, try to get your job done, and inspire others to do theirs better too."
If dealing with life's setbacks is something that has come naturally to Dinwiddie, it's because he's never had to look far to find inspiration, he says. His father, Fred Dinwiddie, became a quadriplegic at age 19 after receiving injuries to his spine in an auto accident.
Though bound for life to a wheelchair, the elder Dinwiddie is a fixture at games, practices and open team events. Much like Robert, Fred is always quick with a smile or joke. From his father, Robert learned a positive outlook on life, as well as a determination not to be outdone by life's obstacles.
"I don't know if I look at things the same way he does, but I don't think anybody necessarily could," says Robert.
"But the thing is, when you're faced with something difficult to do, you think about it for a minute... then you look over at your father, or your mother, or people that have overcome things in their lives that are much tougher than the things you've been dealing with. And that just tells you that you have to have the resolve to finish what you started, no matter how hard the obstacle becomes.
"Just looking at my Mom and Dad, they definitely inspire you to keep on keeping on."
Next: In an exclusive VandyMania interview, Dinwiddie reviews the spring and talks about the preparations the team is making for the upcoming 2004 season.
Photos by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.
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