MISSOULA — Like so many others, Tom Hauck walked the banks of the Clark Fork River searching and searching to no avail. It seemed surreal that a hero could be gone so soon. Terry Dillon had vanished.
Hauck and many other former Montana Grizzlies scoured the banks of the river for days where Dillon, just back from his first standout season in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, plummeted into the murky waters. Dillon was working on a construction crew about 25 miles West of Missoula. He was driving a piece of heavy machinery across a temporary bridge when a portion of the bridge flooring gave way.
Dillon and the machine fell more than 50 feet into a river swollen by spring runoff. Several stories circulated around Missoula County in the summer of 1964 as folks, teammates and community members included, searched for his body.
“They didn’t discover the body for months so a lot of people, myself included, went out looking for it because we had a hard time believing he had died,” Hauck, a former Montana defensive lineman and longtime revered football coach in the Treasure State, said some 54 years later. “Everyone was totally in shock.”
In August, almost three months after the accident, fishermen found Dillon’s body 17 miles downstream from the bridge.
“It was sickening,” former Montana quarterback, CFL legend and fellow Montana Football Hall of Fame inductee Bob O’Billovich said in February. “He had just had a heck of a year with the Vikings and his future was looking really bright. What a way for him to end. It was just a shocker to hear that. Everyone was stunned when they heard it happened.”
Dillon was only 22 years old. He wore No. 22. It’s one of just two numbers retired at Montana.
“That’s so ironic and brutal,” O’Billovich said . “Playing with him was a good memory but that one was one of the worst ones.
“Nobody could believe it. It was such a tragedy because he had his whole life ahead of him.”
As time has marched on, Dillon has drifted into a memory in Montana football lore. Along with fellow legendary quarterback and Montana Football Hall of Fame inductee Dave Dickenson, only two Griz have been honored with their numbers retired. Dillon is at the forefront of the rich lineage of former Grizzlies to hear his name called in the NFL Draft.
It’s hard to forget Dillon if you follow Montana. On the West side of Washington-Grizzly Stadium where the press box sits, Dillon’s No. 22 is memorialized. Each year since his death in 1964, Montana gives out the Terry Dillon Award to the outstanding back or receiver on the Griz.
For those who remember him best, Dillon was so much more than a number or an accolade. The two-way star was a transcendent talent, a tough runner with exceptional vision and the fortitude to transition to playing defense in the NFL. His final season at Montana marked the first year UM competed in the Big Sky Conference, so it’s hard to compare him to contemporary stars. Those who witnessed it will not let Dillon’s legend die.
“He had the desire and the ability to be a great ball player,” Missoula native Jerry Luchau, a first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection at guard his senior year in 1963, said in February from his home in the Garden City. “Speed, he was shifty and he had power so he had everything going for him. He was as good a back as I’ve seen at Montana.”
“Terry was a great guy, a great player and one of the best running backs I was ever around,” added O’Billovich, a Butte native who played three varsity sports at UM from 1959 until 1961 and earned UM’s “Athlete of the Decade” for the 1960s before a successful Canadian Football League career as a quarterback and coach. “He ended up getting drafted in the NFL and he deserved it. They converted him to a safety because he was such a tough guy.”
In 1962, Montana’s last season in the Skyline Conference before serving as a charter member for the Big Sky, Dillon rushed for 892 yards in head coach Ray Jenkins’ single-wing offense. Only 16 individual seasons have surpassed Dillon’s total, half of them by names like Yohance Humphrey, Chase Reynolds and Lex Hilliard, the other greatest ball carriers in Griz history. Dillon also stood out as a defensive back for the Grizzlies.
He earned All-American honors in 1962, an honor partially sparked by his legendary performance against the rival Bobcats. Trailing by two touchdowns and in danger of losing the ball on downs, Dillon stepped back to punt. Instead, Dillon took off running, sprinting to a 22-yard first down. The spurt was part of a 115-yard day that led the Griz to a 36-19 win.
“He wasn’t overly fast, wasn’t in track or anything — a lot of really fast guys were in those days,” Hauck said. “But he was a powerful runner. He wasn’t a big fullback type body but he would take that direct snap and he’d find holes. Just a phenomenal eye to find the hole, hit it and keep going.”
The Hopkins, Minnesota native served as UM’s starting tailback and an all-conference defensive back from 1960-1962. He rushed for 1,569 yards in his career but wins were tough to come by. O’Billovich’s senior year, the team went 5-5. The next season, 2-6 and in Dillon’s senior year in 1962, 5-5 again. After a 1-9 campaign the first year in the Big Sky, Hugh Davidson took over for Jenkins before giving way to Jack Swarthout in 1969, UM’s first-ever bowl season.
“My senior year, we were really close in at least three other games and could’ve been a bowl team, so that was tough,” O’Billovich said. “The Skyline was a really tough conference with Utah, Utah State, BYU, Colorado, Wyoming and more.
“But Terry did it all. He was more of a power guy even though he wasn’t that big, he could make a guy miss. He had good eyes, good vision. He was a good all-around player with all the skills. He caught the ball well and he blocked well too because he was so tough.”
In the single-wing, Dillon was a triple threat and certainly did it all. He had the option to take the direct snap, make a read and plow for yards. Or he could pass the ball. Or he could punt it. He did all three proficiently.
“He was really outstanding,” Hauck said. “… And of course, he played on defense too. It’s hard to believe this day in age but he was really special and versatile.”
While Dillon carried the mail proficiently for most of his career as a Griz — the school was known as Montana State University back then, while Montana State was still Montana State College — he earned a living professionally as a defensive player. After a standout performance in the East-West Shrine Game that included an interception, he was drafted by the Vikings in the 1963 NFL Draft and by the Oakland Raiders in the American Football League draft.
After suffering an ankle injury in training camp and being demoted to the “Taxi” squad in Minnesota, Dillon persevered to not only move back on to the active roster but start the final seven games with the Vikings as a rookie, earning solid reviews and an expected roster spot the following season.
“He had a knack for being explosive and he had that on defense too,” Hauck said. “He could cover the pass as well as anyone back then. He was just a great all-around defender and football player. He would come up and make tackles, cover receiver, hold the edge.”
Following his death, the Minnesota Vikings created a Terry Dillon Award, given to the player who best symbolizes Dillon’s qualities of dedication, self-sacrifice and ability.
No Griz will ever wear No. 22 again. From Karl Stein to Rocky Klever to Kraig Paulson, Matt Wells to Raul Pacheco to Jimmy Farris to Marc Mariani with legends like Humphrey, Hilliard, Reynolds in between and UM senior-to-be Samuel Akem as the most recent winner, the Terry Dillon Award will always be synonymous with Montana’s most prolific offensive stars. Even though his playing days are generations in the rearview, it will be impossible to forget Terry Dillon.
“He represented the University very well,” O’Billovich said. “He was a pleasant, good guy who I always had fun with. He had his whole future ahead of him. It’s too bad it ended so soon.”