LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon has every reason to wonder what could have been. He could spend the entire winter cursing fate or second-guessing himself.
He refuses to take the bait.
Three weeks after suffering the injury that changed the course of the 2007 season, Dixon maintains the same optimism that helped make him arguably the nation's best player this season.
"This team doesn't regret anything," Dixon said Wednesday on the eve of the College Football Awards Show at Walt Disney World, "and me personally, I don't regret anything."
Dixon had emerged as the Heisman Trophy front-runner before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Nov. 3 during a 35-23 victory over Arizona State that made the Ducks the second-ranked team in the nation.
Instead of missing any games, Dixon chose to continue playing while keeping the severity of the injury a secret. But the knee buckled on him two weeks later against Arizona, forcing him to sit out the rest of the season. Oregon hasn't won a game since, going from 8-1 to 8-4.
Dixon said Wednesday he'd do it all over again. He hasn't had any second thoughts about his decision to continue playing, even though the choice may have jeopardized his future.
He pointed out that his knee reacted fine during a 39-yard touchdown run he made in the Ducks' first series of the Arizona game.
"(The decision) wasn't difficult at all," Dixon said. "I wanted to go out there and play. I'm so much of a competitor. I saw it as my knee was stable. There was no swelling. I felt confident in running through the whole practice. We had two weeks to prepare for the game. I was totally confident going into it. It was just a freak accident."
Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason said he also didn't notice much of a difference with Dixon until he aggravated the injury late in the first quarter.
"A couple of people were watching him before the game, and they said he's a little tender," Cason said, "but when he got out there and started playing, you didn't think he was tender."
Dixon had managed to hide the magnitude of his injury before the Arizona game by relying on the same gift of guile that has made him such an effective quarterback. His teammates didn't realize the risk Dixon was taking, even as he wore a brace on the injured knee.
"I kept it a secret between me, the doctors, my head coach and my position coach," Dixon said. "Nobody else knew. I wanted to keep it that way because I didn't want my team to think anything negative. I wanted the team to keep positive."
Dixon managed to keep his teammates in the dark because he didn't perform much different in practice.
"I had full range of motion," Dixon said. "Nothing seemed like it was different. The only thing that was different was I was wearing a brace. I'd tell my teammates I was trying to protect it, but really I was trying to keep it stable at the same time."
Dixon's hopes of playing the remainder of the season with the injured knee vanished late in the first quarter of the 34-24 loss to Arizona. Oregon led 8-7 and had driven into field-goal range when Dixon hurt his knee again as he attempted to plant on an option play.
SEASON CUT SHORT
A look at Dennis Dixon's season before it was cut short early in the Arizona game by a knee injury:
"When he went down," Cason said, "you could tell it was bad."
Oregon hasn't been the same since Dixon went down. Dixon was directing an offense that averaged 42.8 points per game before his injury. The Ducks scored just one touchdown in their first seven quarters without him. A team that once was just three wins away from an appearance in the national title game had to settle for a Sun Bowl bid after ending the regular season with three consecutive losses.
"I'd love to be out there playing," Dixon said. "But my role now is to be a mentor, a coach for my young quarterbacks out there, to give them confidence."
The injury also had personal consequences for Dixon.
Once considered the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, Dixon isn't even one of the four finalists. He is a finalist for the Maxwell Award, which also goes to the nation's most outstanding player, and the Davey O'Brien Award, which is given to the nation's top quarterback.
Would Dixon have won the Heisman if he hadn't gotten injured?
"I think I'd have had a chance at it," Dixon said. "I wouldn't say I'd win it."
He still doesn't know how the injury might affect his long-term prospects. Before getting hurt, Dixon had boosted his NFL stock considerably this season by throwing for 20 touchdowns and running for nine more scores while being intercepted just four times. He ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency.
Dixon will have surgery next week and hopes to recover in time to participate in front of NFL scouts at Oregon's Pro Day in March.
He also must decide which sport he wants to play for a living. Dixon was drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Braves last summer and spent the summer playing minor-league baseball in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League.
Dixon understandably is thinking more about football right now because it's that time of year, but he hasn't made a final decision between the sports.
"I'm so much of a competitor I can't really choose one," Dixon said. "But when that time comes, it's going to be real difficult for me to choose. I'm just trying to look at what's in my best interest at that time."