Trent Dilfer: Fresno State legend Jim Sweeney 'was a truth-teller'

The Fresno BeeFebruary 12, 2013 

He arrived at Fresno State in 1990 a raw quarterback, aimless yet gifted. An Aptos beachboy loaded with false bravado.

He left Fresno State a college star, then played 13 seasons in a 14-year career while making millions in the NFL and today is a leading analyst on the league for ESPN.

None of that happens if Jim Sweeney hadn't entered the life of Trent Dilfer, who explained why in the simplest form: "Jim was a truth-teller."

(Check out The Bee's coverage of Sweeney's death at fblinks.com/sweeney)

Sweeney, Dilfer recalled Tuesday of the legendary former Bulldogs coach who died Friday at age 83, was the one who told him when he was great, told him when he wasn't and molded him with tough love for life as a professional player.

And Dilfer surely confronted that in the NFL: "My career was very average."

The numbers reflect this: 58-55 as a starter with 113 touchdown passes and 129 interceptions for five teams -- Tampa Bay, Seattle, Baltimore, Cleveland and San Francisco.

He did, however, win 15 consecutive starts at one point, including the 2001 Super Bowl with the Ravens.

Most important to him: "I won a lot of games and the loyalty of my teammates because of my availability. And availability is better than ability. I was always present -- I did whatever it took to play."

Again, he harkened back to Sweeney, referring to early September 1993, a couple of days following a 42-39 loss at Baylor when even his 483 yards passing and three touchdowns weren't enough for a Bulldogs team that entered the season opener ranked No. 25.

Dilfer left Waco, Texas, with a separated right (throwing) shoulder.

Sweeney, with offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford in tow, discussed his quarterback's status back in the weight room at Fresno State.

"They said, 'You have a chance to be the best, but you can't be the best on the bench,' that toughness was the next phase," Dilfer said. "They said they thought I could play, but that I had to endure rehab. I can't lift my hand off my hip, I'm in tears, basically. And I'm looking at these guys like they're crazy. Then Jeff gives me 21/2-pound dumbbells and they have me do 40 reps."

Later that week, before the then-second-largest crowd in Bulldog Stadium history (40,048), Dilfer staggered through a four-interception night, but Ron Rivers ran wild in a 48-30 win over Oregon State.

Dilfer would throw but one interception the rest of the season while leading the nation in passing efficiency for an 8-4 team that tied for its second straight Western Athletic Conference title in its first years in the league.

He then bypassed his senior season for the 1994 NFL draft, where he was taken in the first round as the sixth overall selection by the Buccaneers.

"After that (Oregon State) game," Dilfer said, "(Sweeney and Tedford) both said it was worth it, that an entire group was waiting on me, depending on me. I learned a valuable lesson to invest what I possibly can.

"The biggest thing Jim instilled was physical and mental toughness, that to accomplish anything great in life you have to have a tough soul. It's hard to achieve greatness in life because you're going to fail a lot. Toughness becomes your DNA; it's built into your soul.

"When I got to Fresno State, I was a bravado guy, but I truly wasn't tough. But when I left, I was truly a tough guy. Not in the sense of a bar fight, but I was physically, mentally and emotionally hardened; I could endure a lot of stuff. And that's how Jim developed players -- toughness through mind, body and spirit."

Dilfer, who now lives in Los Gatos with wife Cass and their three daughters, also praised Sweeney for turning around the lives of many players who arrived at the school in hardship: "He took a lot of chances on kids who weren't going to make it and turned them into rock stars. His influence was far reaching because he changed a lot of kids' lives, allowing them to come to college, get their degrees and become successful."

Dilfer will speak Saturday at Sweeney's public memorial at 1 p.m. on Jim Sweeney Field at Bulldog Stadium.

"I think you're going to see a lot of people show up who were headed for gangs and a hard lifestyle before their lives were radically changed by Coach Sweeney.

"I think Fresno's very unique, a community deal because of its loyalty and how it broke into sports. Jim should get a majority of the credit for that. He built that deep-rooted loyalty and passion in the Valley.

"That's his stamp."


Memorial details

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bulldog Stadium

Speakers: Tim DeRuyter, Peg Sweeney, Jan Stenerud, Dennis Erickson, Sam Jankovich, Trent Dilfer, Kevin Sweeney

Of note: The event is open to the public and seating will be on the west side of the stadium. Tailgating and parking will be available in the White Lot starting at 10 a.m.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6366, aboogaard@fresnobee.com or @beepreps on Twitter.

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