It was 1987, and D.J. Dozier was watching a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on television with a couple of friends.
“I can do that,” Dozier, then a star football player at Penn State, muttered.
“All of a sudden the two guys turned their head toward me and said, ‘You can do what, that, play baseball?’ ” Dozier recalled recently. ” ‘Man, get out of here. You can’t do that.’ ”
The roommates didn’t let up and continued to badger Dozier.
“They said these are major league players,” he said. “We know you’re a great athlete, but come on, there’s only so far that goes.”
Dozier didn’t back down from his comments, and he went on to prove his friends wrong.
Five years later, Dozier had played five seasons in the NFL, and on May 6, 1992, he made his Major League Baseball debut with the New York Mets.
Later in the season on Sept. 26, Dozier went 1 for 2 with a double against the host Pirates.
Sitting in the stands watching the game were the same Penn State friends who questioned Dozier’s ability five years earlier.
“That was a great moment,” Dozier, 53, said, laughing. “After the game, these guys were like, ‘This is crazy. You told us you could do it, but there was no way that this could happen. To see you out there is absolutely insane.'”
Dozier is one of just seven athletes since 1970 to play in both the major leagues and the NFL. The others are Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan, Drew Henson, Chad Hutchinson and Matt Kinzer.
And according to a Sporting News story published early this year, Dozier was just the second player to go from a football-only career to a baseball-only career and reach the major leagues. The other was Andy Tomasic, a former NFL punter, halfback and defensive back who pitched two innings for the New York Giants.
In all, fewer than 70 athletes are known to have played in both sports at the highest level, including Portsmouth native Ace Parker.
It’s an accomplishment that still humbles Dozier.
“Leaving high school and not playing baseball, you’re pretty much done,” Dozier said about his chances of playing in the majors. “Then two years after college, to then pick it back up and experience what I experienced, it was a gift.
“Personally I wanted to play at least five years in the majors, but that didn’t happen. I wanted to play at least eight years in the NFL, but that didn’t happen. What did happen is I had a chance to experience some things that not many people do.”
William Henry “D.J.” Dozier Jr. was a three-sport star at Kempsville High in Virginia Beach who played football, baseball and basketball. In football, he was a two-time first-team All-Tidewater selection at running back and was a Parade All-American. He also won the Hertz No. 1 Award as the best athlete in Virginia.
Kempsville teammate T.J. Morgan was Dozier’s backup for two seasons.
“He was definitely the most dynamic athlete that I have ever seen,” said Morgan, who was named the 1983 Abe Goldblatt All-Tidewater Player of the Year a season after Dozier graduated. “He was great catching the ball out of the backfield and he was an amazing open-field runner. He would break ankles on almost every play. And he was super-fast.”
Dozier and former Booker T. Washington standout receiver James Church were teammates in a Virginia high school all-star game. Church had heard about Dozier’s exploits but saw them first-hand on the first day of practice.
“D.J. took a draw and two guys went to hit him, and he made a move where he spinned out and the two guys collided,” Church said, laughing. “D.J. just took off and no one even touched him. I had never seen an athlete who was more amazing.”
Knowing the opposing all-star defense would key on Dozier, coach Billy Morrow drew up a play in which Dozier would throw a halfback pass to Church.
“He threw me a pass in the game and it was like the longest play of the game,” Church said. “We laughed about it. Again, it was a thing where Coach knew D.J. was a good athlete and could trust him with the halfback pass, because people weren’t doing that play back then, and this guy hits me in perfect stride like it was nothing. I told everybody, that’s one of the best athletes that I had ever played with, and I’ve played with a ton of great athletes, like Hall of Famer Bruce Smith.”
Morrow laughed when reminded about the play. He agreed with Morgan and Church about Dozier’s phenomenal ability.
“All the years that I’ve coached, he’s been one of the greatest athletes that I’ve ever had an opportunity to coach,” Morrow said. “He had the size. He had the speed. He had the quickness. And he had the mentality. He was awesome.”
As good as he was in football, Dozier was just as good in baseball. He was chosen by the Detroit Tigers in the 18th round of the 1983 draft. But instead of signing, he opted to play football at Penn State.
“I knew I was a good baseball player, and if I hadn’t gone to college, then there was a good chance that I would have been a first-round draft pick,” he said. “So I ended up not playing baseball, but it was always on my mind. I never stopped thinking about it.”
At Penn State, Dozier and Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno had an agreement that he could play both sports only after he played just football as a freshman. But Dozier never got on the diamond because he had arthroscopic knee surgery after his sophomore season. And after his junior year, he thought it would be best to focus on football heading into his senior year.
Morrow said seeing Dozier play at Penn State was a thrill for him.
“When he went to Penn State, I was excited because I grew up about 40 miles from Penn State in Williamsport,” he said. “I was excited for him and he did well up there. People in the community where I grew up … all they talked about was him.”
Dozier left Penn State as the second-leading rusher in school history with 3,227 yards (he’s now seventh).
Dozier also left a lasting impression after his game-winning touchdown in the January 1987 Fiesta Bowl national championship game against Miami. Penn State trailed 10-7 in the fourth quarter before an interception return to the Miami 6. Two plays later, the 6-foot, 200-pound Dozier barreled his way into the end zone. Dozier raised the ball in the air and then quickly dropped to one knee. A couple of his teammates followed, and after his quick prayer, he tossed the ball to a referee and dropped to one knee again. The scene was captured by many photographers.
“After every touchdown I scored, I would kneel down and just say, ‘Thank you Lord for your glory,’ ” Dozier said about his strong faith. “I started doing that my senior year at Penn State.”
Dozier was a consensus first-team All-American that senior season and a Heisman Trophy finalist. He was selected in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings with the 14th pick. He played five seasons with the Vikings and Detroit Lions from 1987-1991. But it was during those latter years that he had an overwhelming desire to play baseball.
Many thought he was crazy, including his agent. But a call to Dave Rosenfield, general manager of the Tidewater Tides, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, got Dozier a tryout. In 1990, the Mets signed him as an amateur free agent, and he spent 1990 and 1991 in the minor leagues and showed promise.
Dozier got the call up by the Mets in 1992 and played in 25 games that season. He batted .191 (9 for 47) with four runs, four stolen bases and two RBIs.
Dozier said he’s always had confidence in his ability and a tenacity to keep fighting. That, he said, comes from his parents — William and Janifer.
“My parents instilled in me an unwavering confidence that anything was possible,” he said, “no matter what it is.”
William Dozier also always reminded his son to be thankful.
“I always told him to remember where his gifts came from and let everybody know that the talent that you have is God-given talent,” said the elder Dozier. “We always tried to keep him humble. He’s talented and he’s been given a gift, but it’s not a gift that he woke up with one morning.”
Dozier officially retired as an athlete after the 1993 baseball season, never getting back to the major leagues.
Since then, Dozier has been involved in missionary work and has worked as a financial planner, an investment banker and a business consultant. He is currently a partner for a cybersecurity firm and wrote a self-help book entitled “Decide To Dominate.” He also still stays close to Kempsville High, including serving on recent committees to hire new football coach Daryl Cherry and new basketball coach Darren Sanderlin.
He was inducted into the Hampton Roads African American Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
But one of his greatest honors didn’t come from a hall of fame or from other people. It came from his four kids, who now have a different appreciation for their dad’s accomplishments.
Dozier — along with his wife, Mindy, and the kids — went to a Penn State football game for a reunion in recent years.
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“They announced all the players from that season,” Dozier said. “And so, everyone got an applause. But when they announced my name, the stadium just erupted. And so for the first time, my kids saw that. They’re sitting up in the stands. So when I got back there, they were like, ‘Dad, we didn’t know. Like everybody got applause, but when your name was announced, the whole stadium went crazy. We didn’t know that you were like that.’ ”
Yes, Dozier was like that.