The story of Kevin Dillman's football career isn't about Dillman himself, at least not entirely. Rather, it's about the people—the family, friends, coaches and teammates—who helped make it happen.
Sure, there are facts about Dillman that are important and have been plastered on sites like Sports Illustrated for years. He's 17 years old and recently committed to Nebraska for the class of 2015. The 6'4", 220-pound dual-threat quarterback is a 3-star prospect and considered one of the top 50 players in the state of Texas. As of April 2014, he holds more than a dozen scholarship offers. The first, from UCLA under former head coach Rick Neuheisel, came when he was a freshman in high school.
Born in Östersund and raised in Ystad, Sweden, Dillman moved to La Mirada, Calif., in 2011 as a 14-year-old—without his parents. In January, he relocated to Denton, Texas. Perhaps one day he could be the first known Swedish-born quarterback to start in a major college football game.
Still, his journey is about more than him.
It's about his parents, Steven and Carina Dillman, who are determined to raise their 17-year-old son from some 5,000 miles away. To a lesser degree, it's about the money they've spent—the family asked that the number not be released—to finance their son's dream of playing football.
It's about the host families who agreed to open their doors to Kevin. First, it was Kenny and Nancy Meyer in La Mirada. In January, it was Peter and Yuki Dames in Denton, whose ties to Kevin go back to the moment he was born.
It's about John Walsh, Mike Moschetti, Hampus Persson and the dozens of other coaches who have dedicated their time to developing Kevin as a quarterback.
And in 2003, it wasn't about a person at all. It was about an advertisement in an ICA, a Scandanavian grocery chain, that would eventually lead Kevin to Lincoln, Neb., where football isn't just a hobby.
It's a religion.
There was nothing overly specific that Dillman remembered about the moment at the ICA. There was nothing even particularly memorable about the poster itself beyond pictures of helmets and shoulder pads. All he knew is that one word piqued his interest:
Not football as the rest of the world knows it. American football. Even living in a country like Sweden, with Burger Kings and American movies without subtitles, this was new.
“There’s no high school football in Sweden, just club sports," Dillman explained.
"It goes from PeeWee, which is 13 years old and under, then under 15 years old, under 17 years old, under 19 years and seniors."
Sports in general were not new for Kevin, however. An athlete his entire life, he played hockey and soccer long before picking up football. But at nine years old, he tried out to be a member of the Ytown Rockets, a club team in Ystad.
The initial results were mixed.
"It definitely did not come naturally," he said. "It was a lot of new terminology. I had never even heard of it before."
That didn't prevent Dillman from trying different positions over the years, from defensive back to running back. Punting and kicking, however, was a different story.
"It’s my weakest link," Dillman muttered.
Peter Dames, Dillman's host and so-called step-uncle, chimed in. “If you want to see something funny, watch Kevin kick."
If there was any familiarity with football, it was with the equipment. As a former goalie for his little league hockey team, Dillman was used to being weighed down with gear. Even the first brutal clack of the football pads didn't bother him.
That was a small miracle in a way. For most of Dillman's early football career, he was smaller than the older kids with whom he played.
"He was the only kid on the team born in 1996 and he was practicing with kids born in 1992," Dillman's father said. "Being in that age group—he was nine and everyone else was around 12 or 13—there’s a pretty big difference in size. He always hung in there, but he got beat up pretty bad."
Dillman's age difference required a special agreement by the Swedish American Football Federation, part of the International Federation of American Football.
"That’s how it has been," Dillman's father continued. "He’s always been two, three, four years younger. He learned how to play with the kids who were older, faster, stronger. Fortunately, he became pretty tall and strong himself."
By 2009, Dillman was competing in the Swedish National Championship with the Rockets' under-17 team. He was maturing physically and growing as a quarterback. Four years after he started playing football, he joined the Limhamn Griffins in Malmö, a city on the country's western coast.
Getting there was a hike. Three days a week after school, Dillman took an hour's train ride from Ystad plus a 15-minute walk to the stadium. After returning home at around 10.30 p.m., he would finish his homework and repeat the process at 6:00 a.m.
Since club football in Sweden is a small community relative to the United States, Dillman was familiar with several coaches. Among them were Hampus Persson, the Griffins offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and head coach Carl-Johan Haraldsson. Those coaches, according to Dillman and his father, were among those largely responsible for his son's development as a quarterback.
Eventually, Kevin began representing Sweden's national under-17 team in various tournaments. In 2012, at the age of 15, Dillman competed with the under-19 age group of the IFAF World Championship in Austin, Texas. The results were less than ideal: a pair of losses to Canada and France before rebounding with a win over Panama.
The tournaments were fun, but Dillman knew that if he wanted to get serious about football, he was going to have to come to the United States full-time.
Sacrifice for Sons
Steven Dillman had just come home from a 12-hour shift at Dormy, a department store for golf products, where he's worked as a store manager for the past five years. Such is the life of a middle-class working man: Sometimes, there are long hours.
The Dillmans don't live a life of extravagance. A large chunk of the disposable income they do have, they spend on helping their two sons. There's Kevin, the athlete living overseas, and 21-year-old Timothy, an aspiring actor in Stockholm.
When the conversation about Kevin's pilgrimage to America began four years ago, his father knew there would be a financial commitment. There would be flights back and forth for holidays and documentation for immigration that needed to be notarized. If Kevin got hurt—he has a couple of times in the past few years—there would be medical bills to pay.
Some of the money would end up being borrowed, but finances were the least of the concerns. Whatever it took for their youngest son to do what made him happy, that's what the family would do.
Rather, the Dillmans were worried about the distance and length of their son's stay in America.
The Swedish high school system is a three-year program, as opposed to four years in America. Instead of staying just one year in the States, however, Dillman wanted to do all four so he could improve as a football player.
“We talked to all our friends and family about Kevin only being 14 years old and leaving," his father said. "They all said he’s great at what he’s doing. And we knew this is what he really wanted to do. So he left.
"And we let him."
It wasn't as though Dillman would be in another country by himself. It was arranged that he would transfer to La Mirada High School in the Southeastern suburbs of Los Angeles where his father went as an exchange student and basketball player 34 years earlier. Kevin would live with Kenny Meyer, the Matadores' freshman football coach, and his wife, Nancy.
Meanwhile, his father's old host family, Pete and Gerrie Dames, would still be nearby.
"He was in good hands," Dillman's father said. "He loved it out there and he was greeted so well by his host family. That made it easier for us even though we missed him."
Then, his voice cracked.
"But it was hard," he said. "It's still hard."
Things haven't been much easier since Dillman moved to Texas. The time difference between Denton and Ystad is seven hours. But to understand why Dillman moved, you have to appreciate the history between his biological family and his host family.
Peter Dames isn't actually Dillman's step-uncle, but he might as well be. Dames was 10 years old when his family began hosting Dillman's father in La Mirada. Now 46, Dames lives in Lantana, just north of Fort Worth, where he works as a general sales manager for Peterbilt Motor Company.
For the next year, Dillman will be his responsibility.
"I've known Kevin since before he was born," Dames says. "We’re family. From the time Kevin’s dad left [La Mirada] to now, his family stays with my parents once every two or three years. When Kevin’s parents came to visit him in La Mirada, they stayed at my parents' house."
Dillman and his parents talk nearly every day via FaceTime and text messages. That way, Steven and Carina can remain an important part of their son's life from halfway across the globe.
"They can still technically raise me," Dillman said. "But it’s tough not to see them get older, for them to see me get older, to celebrate birthdays and holidays together.
"If I get an NFL contract, one of the first things I’m doing is buying them a house close to where I live to make up for all those years.”
His dad chuckled at the idea, but later added "For us, it the biggest cost is that we are away from Kevin all the time. Not being able to continue to be his parents the way we always wanted to be, that is our highest cost of all."
Football and Family
A football team is its own family. And a family that sweats together, bleeds together and suffers together stays together.
For Dillman, football has been a constant in a changing environment. English went from a second language to a primary one, so much so that he now occasionally struggles to find the right words when speaking to his parents in Swedish. He also maintains a slight accent.
The biggest adjustment for Dillman has been mastering the details, whether in math or football. As he came to find out, words and phrases don't always translate.
"English and Swedish are similar that way," Dillman explained. "There really aren't rules."
"The first three weeks or month of his freshman season, he was still learning our terminology, concepts and run game," said Moschetti, Dillman's former varsity coach at La Mirada. "He had to start from scratch. What’s Cover 3? What’s Cover 2? Who are we attacking on certain pass concepts?"
What is the same in every language is toughness and determination. That's what it takes to be successful on the football field and as a teenager in a foreign country. That's what Moschetti and Walsh, Dillman's head coach at Guyer High School, like most about him.
"It’s hard to be a new guy—it’s hard to be a new guy that comes in with scholarship offers—and we have other quarterbacks here who are ready to be the starter," Walsh said. "But those guys are all friends. Those social skills to come in and make that transition, and for the team to accept him, says a lot about his character.”
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Dillman is expected to make an impact for the Guyer Wildcats, a program with a recent line of great quarterbacks like J.W. Walsh, a redshirt junior at Oklahoma State, and Jerrod Heard, a member of Texas' 2014 class.
Dillman is still a work in progress, though. He's also had a string of bad luck.
Though he joined La Mirada's varsity team as a freshman, he started only one game at quarterback that year—a 42-0 shutout against Artesia High School. Because of a complication with his visa, Dillman's season was cut short. He was forced to briefly return to Sweden before coming back to the States as an American citizen the following spring.
Two years ago, he sustained a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. Last October, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Only last month was he cleared to fully participate in practices.
“I had him for three years; it’s just that he’s hardly played any football," Moschetti said. "He has a great work ethic and he’s a great kid. He’ll be the first one in the weight room and the last one to leave the field. He just has a long ways to go as a quarterback.”
Moschetti is a straight shooter, but he's hardly alone in that sentiment. 247Sports recruiting analyst JC Schurburtt expressed a similar opinion of Dillman in an April evaluation for CBSSports.com:
A native of Sweden, Dillman has developing to do as he is still somewhat new to American football (came over prior to his freshman year of high school), both this season as a high school senior and at Nebraska. It will take Dillman and his coaches working to maximize that talent and he is set up to do so considering the systems he's heading into, but you never really know, especially at this spot. Dillman has to master the nuances of playing the position at a high level and blend his superior athletic talent with a second-nature type execution of knowledge of the game during the live action.
He's capable, though. If it all comes together for him, watch out. This is a prospect with the type of ability, given the critical position that he plays, that could lead the Huskers to Big Ten title games, national playoff berths and perhaps enter into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Barring a major upset or injury, redshirt sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. is presumed to be Nebraska's next starting quarterback. In a perfect world, then, the Huskers coaching staff will have time to refine Dillman's game. That's something coaches and recruiting experts believe is much needed.
It's not that Dillman hasn't played a lot of football—the coaching he received in Sweden is often overlooked, according to his father—it's that he hasn't played a lot of regular season football in America.
But from the club teams in Sweden, to Moschetti and now Walsh, all of Dillman's coaches have put in hours upon hours of work to make him a better quarterback. Any other hype, Moschetti believes, only detracts from that effort.
"Hopefully he’ll stay humble—and he will—and understand that the articles written about him, all the comparisons, don’t mean anything."
Feels Like Home
Dillman is promising as a prospect because of what he can be as a quarterback. The scholarship offers and scouting reports are a reflection of that. What is known presently is that he's too good of an athlete to leave on the sidelines.
La Mirada's coaching staff played him accordingly. Because there was a more established quarterback on the roster, Dillman divided his time at wide receiver, safety, defensive end and, occasionally, as a Wildcat quarterback.
It was enough for colleges to take notice. The offers began rolling in from Florida State, Clemson, Tennessee and a handful of other Pac-12 programs.
It was Nebraska that caught Dillman's attention, though. Huskers wide receivers coach Rich Fisher began recruiting Dillman around the start of his sophomore year of high school. When Dillman moved to Texas, the recruiting responsibility shifted to Huskers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck.
On April 3, Dillman and his family visited Lincoln, which he described as a "mix of Texas and California." The program's facilities, though, were something he'd never seen before.
"They have a full science lab where they maximize the performance of their athletes," Dillman said. "They take blood tests to see what type of food we should eat. They have weight lifting facilities with cameras all over the floor and ceiling.
"You can get 3D imaging of everything and move the camera around," he continued. "So if I want to work on my throwing technique, I can get my image on a big screen and watch myself.
"I told the scientists there it’s like ESPN’s 'Sports Science.' And they said 'Yeah, we know.'"
The technology may be something from a sci-fi movie, but it's not indicative of the future. It didn't confirm that Dillman will be a starting quarterback for the team one day. It didn't confirm that he'll win a Heisman Trophy or be the next Tommie Frazier. It only added to the feeling that had building for months: Lincoln felt like home. That's important when you've slept in as many different beds as Dillman has.
“One of the things I really liked was Nebraska’s life skills program, where they teach student-athletes how to become better leaders in their society," Dillman said. "They really reach out to the community, and I feel that can help me develop as a man."
The life skills program, the campus, the town and the facilities—Dillman had seen all he needed to see. Two days later, he announced his verbal commitment.
He doesn't plan on taking any visits elsewhere. He's found his new host family.
A Face in the Crowd
Few who follow college football fully understand the sacrifices athletes and their families make in the pursuit of the ultimate dream. The Dillmans' sacrifices are no better or worse than that of an impoverished family whose son departs to play football. In the end, they all hope it leads to a better life.
Their story is nevertheless unique, however. Dillman's road is such that it took the generosity of many to make one chance a reality. All he needed was an avenue to succeed; he would do the rest.
No matter the distance, no matter the language, that has never been lost in translation to Dillman or his family.
"We knew what we had to do, but we accepted the challenge," Dillman's father said. "We wanted him to live the dream. I thought we did the right thing. Now, with him committing to Nebraska, we know we did the right thing."
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.