(File photo) Caro High School 2020 graduate Hunter Dickson (top), pictured during a February wrestling match against Mayville’s Jacob Miller, has accepted an offer to play football at Ferris State University.

Hunter Dickson always dreamed of playing college football. 

But his senior high school season ended seven months ago, and, with the 2020 college football season less than three months away, those dreams were fading fast.

Then, one morning in May, Dickson received a message on the social media website Twitter.

“I woke up and looked at it real quick, and it was the offensive line coach at Ferris (State University) saying, ‘Hey, we want you to play football for us, let us know if you’re interested,’” Dickson said. “I immediately got up and called my dad.”

Dickson had already planned on attending Ferris St., so the decision to play football for the Bulldogs was a no-brainer. Dickson, a 2020 graduate, played offensive and defensive line for Caro High School. At 6-foot-1 and 300-pounds, Dickson was a two-time Greater Thumb Conference all-league performer. 

But college coaches were not calling. Then, in April, it was announced that Dickson was selected to play in the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association All-Star Game. Although the game was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the announcement of would-be rosters put Dickson on the recruiting radar.

“I think that’s how Ferris saw his (recruiting) tape,” said Caro football coach Jason Pierce. “They liked him and they got a hold of him. He wanted to go there anyways so this works out great for him.”

The commitment to Ferris St. is a dream come true for Dickson, who won’t turn 18 until Nov. 12 and was the youngest male in his graduating class.

“I’ve been wanting to play college football since I was a young kid,” he said. “And I knew this year I’d really have to perform, so I did everything I could. I was constantly lifting, and then COVID hit and I was working out at home. I wasn’t hearing anything from any (Division) 1 or D-2 coaches. 

“I thank God for the opportunity because I didn’t know if I was good enough.”

The class of 2020, especially the athletes, have been through a lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has dismantled most rites of passage for this year’s high school seniors. The spring sports season was canceled, in-person school classes stopped in March, there was no senior prom and schools had to be creative to maintain social distancing at graduation ceremonies.

But Dickson has dealt with much more as a senior.

On Dec. 15, his mother Brandy Dickson was brutally murdered and his 11-month-old half-sister critically injured in their Ellington Township home. The suspect of the crimes, Larry Lyons, was in a relationship with Brandy Dickson and is the father of the girl. He is awaiting trial on an open murder charge.

“I think about my mom every single day,” Dickson said. “And it’s one of my biggest motivations because she always wanted me to go to Ferris and play football there. Thinking of her keeps me focused.”

His mother’s death occurred at the beginning of wrestling season. Dickson, a star grappler for the powerhouse Tigers, had to cope with the pain while continuing to be a team leader.

“I think he handled it better than most would, better than maybe I would,” Pierce said. “I remember being at parents’ night, and he had the match-winning pin. He’s used it as motivation to get better and to keep moving on.”

“It’s tough,” Dickson said. “Some nights it really hits me hard, but then I just put my earphones in and meditate and scroll through some pictures of us – the happy times – and it helps me.”

 Dickson has taken an active part in raising his now-18-month-old sister, Aurora.

“I have my sister here,” he said. “Every day I wake up and see her big ole smile, I imagine my mom holding her and it makes me happy. I know she’s with me. She wouldn’t want me to be sad all the time, she’d want me to be positive.”

Aurora is being raised by Dickson and his father – Luezern Dickson. Hunter Dickson said she is still recovering from the stab wounds she received the night her mother died, but is progressing every day.

“She doesn’t need a feeding tube anymore, and she’s moving all over the place,” Hunter Dickson said. “She’s not 100 percent but she’s really getting better.”

Ferris St. is the perfect fit for Dickson, he said, because he can remain close to his father and sister (the university is in Big Rapids, about 150 miles from Caro).

Ferris St. is also one of the best Division 2 football programs in the nation.

A national runner-up in 2018 and semifinalist last fall, the Bulldogs are 72-9 over the past six years, and have lost only three regular-season games over that time.

Pierce, who was a collegiate offensive lineman for Eastern Michigan University, has offered Dickson some advice on what to expect on campus.

“He’s going from the big kid on the field, to playing against a bunch of grown men,” Pierce said. “I was the biggest kid in my high school (Marysville) and I walk into the first day of practice and the guy in front of me was a first-round draft pick and the guy I’m blocking, our nose guard, was a Super Bowl champion for the (Baltimore Ravens).

“It’s a real eye-opener when you’re an 18-year-old freshman.”

When it comes to the gridiron, Pierce said he didn’t have a lot to teach Dickson.

“If he has questions, I answer them,” Pierce said. “But he had a good knowledge of football before I started coaching him, so I tried to polish what he already was. He has a strong passion for the game, he studies the game and has strong knowledge of the game. So I really didn’t have to teach him much.”

That Dickson is now a college football player is certain. But virtually nothing else concerning the 2020 school year and college football season is. Dickson plans to attend classes in-person and report for training camp in August. But COVID-19 may force changes.

“Obviously, since I’m playing football, I’ll be staying in the dorms,” Dickson said. “But if we have to do online classes and the season is canceled, I will be living at home.”

Dickson, a member of the National Honor Society, plans on studying computer engineering. 

He offered some advice for high school athletes who play for small high schools in low-populated areas.

“A lot of people think that because you’re from a rural area, you won’t get noticed,” Dickson said. “Don’t give up. As long as you work hard, coaches will find you.”

John Schneider is editor of The Advertiser. He can be reached at john@tcadvertiser.com.