When Quinton Dial was a junior in high school, he was shy, quiet and, according to his coach back then, a little lazy.
“He had some rough days out there,” said Brent Smith, then the coach at Clay-Chalkville High in Pinson, Ala. “It was a deal where we had to give him some tough love at times.”
By the end of his senior season, however, Dial was dominant. Lining up at nose guard, he threw aside opponents like they were made of cardboard. He was named the state’s defensive lineman of the year in 2008 and was a finalist for Mr. Football in Alabama.
Dial went on to play two seasons at community college and another two at the University of Alabama. The 49ers drafted him in the fifth round a year ago, and he has a shot at being the Week 1 starter at nose tackle in 2014. He’ll be one of the players who lines up there when the 49ers face the Ravens in their preseason opener today.
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So what exactly happened between his junior and senior seasons of high school, which Smith calls the most dramatic one-year transformation he’s ever seen from a player? It’s a story about the power of community and its ability to deliver a young man from a rough situation.
Paul Denham first met Dial in 2008 at a Pinson-area church when Dial walked in with some other football players. Though Dial towered over everyone else, when he shook Denham’s hand, his voice was soft and he avoided eye contact.
“He didn’t have a lot of confidence,” Denham said.
How could he? Dial lost his mother when he was a boy. His father, a truck driver, was rarely home. Dial had trouble reading, which meant he had problems in school.
“He was a big ol’ boy who was raising himself, really,” Smith said. “He was home alone a lot.”
But Dial was sweet-natured, and everyone liked to be around him. He began showing up regularly at the church, Northpark Baptist, and he became especially close to three families, the Denhams, the Murdocks and the Riches.
When Dial’s father lost his home and had to move elsewhere, Dial, 18 at the time, said he wanted to remain in town but didn’t know where to go. The families got together and decided he could stay with the Murdocks, who had a son that also played football.
One night turned into a week. A week grew into a month, and after a while Dial was part of the family. Part of three families, in fact.
Dial calls it “The Blind Side of Clay,” a reference to the book and movie about Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Michael Oher, who was practically raising himself in Memphis, Tenn., before being taken in by a wealthy white family.
Dial’s issues became the Murdocks’, Denhams’ and Riches’ issues. When it was determined he didn’t read well, he got extra help. Soon, his confidence took off. So did his grades.
He left East Mississippi Community College two years later with a 3.07 GPA. Then he graduated a semester early from Alabama.
“A lot of athletes don’t graduate,” Denham said. “He graduated a semester early. That should tell you something about him and about his work ethic.”
The newfound confidence showed up on the football field as well. Whereas Smith and his assistants were constantly in Dial’s ear when he was a junior, they didn’t say a word to him as a senior.
Dial began that season at defensive end. When opponents began running their plays to the other side of the field, Smith put him in the middle of the line.
“We had to move him to nose guard because everybody was running away from him,” Smith said. “He was unblockable. He really was. He was a guy that opponents just tried to avoid.”
Dial also played nose tackle at Eastern Mississippi. It was there, Denham said, that their bond tightened.
It’s a 31/2-hour drive from the Denhams’ home to campus. Games were played on Thursday nights, which meant Dial could spend weekends with the Denhams. Denham’s wife, Denise, would retrieve him on Friday. Paul would take him back on Sunday afternoon.
Denham has three daughters. He calls Dial the son he never had. And he’s quick to point out that he and the other families have gotten more from their relationship than they’ve given Dial.
Denham said he wasn’t raised to discriminate but admitted he had never spent much time with black people until Dial walked into the church that day.
“If you had asked me before if I’d ever care so much about a black young man, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Denham said. “That’s hard to say. But it’s like he’s become a member of our family.”
He also notes that a lot of people were there for Dial.
After his senior season, for example, Dial needed a suit to attend the Mr. Football banquet. Denham arrived at the Murdocks’ house with his share of the money for a suit but was told to put his wallet away. Dial’s high school teachers had already chipped in and bought him the necessary attire.
“It wasn’t just a few families who helped,” Denham said. “It was the community.”
Of course, like any young man wearing a suit for the first time, Dial required a little motherly assistance. He arrived at the banquet with the label still attached.
“My wife had to catch him and take it off,” Denham said with a laugh.