NONE OF IT was all that bad.

And he never expected to have it this good.

Antonio Dixon has been in some strange places. An orphanage. Homeless shelters. Bunking with his big brother, Darrell.

Dixon never thought he would be here, on the goal line, stringing out a Redskins running play, the first defensive tackle off the Eagles' bench as an overweight, undrafted rookie.

Not here, hands in his blocker's chest, feet churning, technique perfect, suddenly, reading the Bears' running play and stopping it. Twice.

Read the play?

Shoot, not long ago, Dixon couldn't read, period.

In college, he couldn't digest defensive plays on paper. Still can't. His speech impediment has mostly disappeared. It only surfaces when he's nervous, when he's talking about his mother's rehab, or his drug-dealing father's 17-year jail stint, or his . . . well, that very speech impediment.

Dixon pauses, and kind of stutters, and his hand pats his chest, and his foot taps the floor. But he gets it out.

Without self-pity, and without self-consciousness, he gets it all out.

"I think about all of that a lot. A lot of people go through different things. I ain't the worst case," Dixon said. "Somebody in this league has been through worse than me."

He has no self pity. He is not self-conscious - his gift, said one former coach.

One current coach agreed.

"I'm speechless," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "It's . . . I probably can't even fathom where he's come from, and where he is now in his life, and the type of person he is . . . that's what great stories are all about."

It is a great story. It's only getting better.

Dixon was always fat. He was never cool. He seldom had a real home.

He didn't play pee-wee football. He was never on a track to play in high school, which he fell into, or in college, where he was only lightly recruited, despite his prodigious size. For that matter, size always was an issue. By the time he finished high school he weighed more than 350 pounds, way too much for a 6-3 frame.

He lost some weight while at the University of Miami, where defensive line coach Clint Hurtt supervised his every move, but he gained weight, too. Even after college, Dixon, who sometimes tipped the scales at 370, still weighed too much to interest the Eagles. But when they saw him with the Redskins in the preseason, playing effectively at a lumpy but acceptable 320 pounds, they were impressed. When the Redskins waived him in August, the Eagles snatched him up.

"He was able to lose some weight and he was very effective with the Redskins in the preseason," said Eagles coach Andy Reid, a weight-control expert. "He's really just carried that over to what he's doing now. You never know when you bring them in how they're going to fit into your system."

Dixon, 24, has done more than fit in.

His blocked field goal set up the winning touchdown in a 24-20 win in Chicago three games ago. Last week, just after starter Brodrick Bunkley was injured, Dixon was inserted as part of the goal-line stand against the Redskins that saved the Birds from a terrible loss.

And to think: For Dixon, simply learning the playbook is a serious challenge.

"I've got problems with reading long words," Dixon said. "For me, to learn plays, I've got to see them. I can't just talk about them. I have to see them."

After Dixon's dyslexia was diagnosed at Miami, Hurtt realized that he needed to make things easier for Dixon. Hurtt cut game film so Dixon could see how players at his position correctly executed plays. Hurtt repeatedly called out the play during the film sessions. Then, still in the film room, he would quiz Dixon. Then, he took Dixon and a couple of other defensive linemen out on the field to practice the play against garbage cans.

They did this every week - remedial coaching, remedial learning. Dixon never resented it, was never embarrassed. He accepted this to be his lot - like the stuttering, and the fractured family, and the shelters, and the weight.

"I believe he has a gift," Hurtt said. "A lot of people can't be humble enough to accept what he has to accept. Antonio is very aware of what his limitations are. That's a gift that goes unrecognized."

It is a gift that has evolved.

Like any kid, Dixon had his pride, and his shame. Unlike most 12-year-olds, he could pulverize other kids who made him feel worthless and ashamed.

"I stopped fighting like, around, seventh grade. I was bigger than everybody, but they'd always laugh at me anyway. I used to hate people laughing at me," Dixon said. "So, I used to fight a lot. I used to get suspended. Expelled. Had anger problems."

Eventually, he matured.

"I just got used to it. And I figured, 'I can beat this guy up. I don't have to prove myself,' " Dixon said.

Street-corner teasing didn't approach the other issues in his life.

When he was 6, his father, Frazier Hawkins, went to prison for selling crack.

When he was 11, his mother, Corenthia, then a cocaine addict, went to rehab.

It split the family. The state of Georgia sent Antonio, Darrell, 13, and Jarvis, 5, to the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home in Atlanta. Mikesha, 2, went to a foster family.

Corenthia saw a crash coming. She sought rehab in order to keep her kids, she said; "The state was fixing to take them."

For years, this sort of end seemed inevitable.

Corenthia's mother died of AIDS-related issues in 1989, leaving Corenthia, at 21, without an anchor . . . and without a second income.

An Atlanta native, she routinely shuttled herself and her family between the cities, sometimes living with her sister, Patricia, in Atlanta, but always returning to the allure of Florida's most lurid town, Miami, never with much more than a fast-food job to support them.

"I made mistakes, I know. I was confused. I had all these kids, work . . . it was too much for a single mother," she said.

She fell into the cycle of homelessness and drug addiction, and, in 1996, she knew she needed help.

She stayed in rehab 3 months longer than the prescribed 9 months, she said, to make sure her cocaine cravings were fully gone.

Corenthia - called "Peaches," she said, because her father couldn't pronounce her real name - was excused from rehab every weekend to visit her children.

Antonio enjoyed the orphanage. There was stability. There was familiarity.

"Being there was fun," Antonio said. "Except when momma had to go away again."

Corenthia completed the program and got her kids back, but the hard times continued. She took on two jobs, but that wasn't always enough. Darrell quit high school to help out, she said. Now, with a family of his own, he's a cook in Miami, 5 minutes from where Antonio played at the university.

Jarvis went to live with his father from the age of 9 until he was 15. The money problems always bothered Jarvis, Antonio said, so Jarvis stayed away from school. Now Jarvis, 19, is pursuing his graduate equivalency diploma, and Antonio reflects:

"He got so consumed with trying to look good, but he didn't have certain things, and didn't want to go to school because he didn't have things. He's got no excuse now."

None has gone to jail. All are alive. That, Corenthia said, was her chief goal: Keep them clean, keep them living, and, foremost, keep them out of the prison system.

"I scared them," she said. "I told them, 'Look at your friends in jail, or dead. Look at me. I'm broke. You go to jail, I can't get you out.' And if they did something wrong, I'd tear their butts up."

Antonio laughs. "She would beat us for doing something bad . . . but not for me fighting. And I didn't get in trouble, not in high school. I didn't go to jail or nothing. I didn't ever sell no drugs. I wasn't going to use all that as an excuse."

He never uses excuses.

He couldn't read when he got to high school, he said, but, like any kid, he had dreams. Like few kids, he had uncanny resolve - and unusual detractors.

"Early in high school, I told one of my teachers, 'I'm going to go to the University of Miami.' She was, like, 'Your [butt] ain't going to no University of Miami. You can't even read,' " Dixon said.

It took a year of prep school, but Dixon became a 'Cane.

"When I did get a scholarship, and was admitted, she came up to me and was, like, 'I was just playing,' " Dixon said. "I was like, 'You weren't playing.' "

Dixon is playing now, every game, in the NFL.

Peaches, now 43, is in her 16th month as a cafeteria worker at the homeless shelter in Miami where the family often stayed. She and her three youngest children - Jarvis, Mikesha, 15, and the youngest, Michael, 11 - keep an apartment, with Dixon's help. She has been with the same man for 7 years, she said. She does informal, over-the-lunch-counter counseling of young mothers: "They remind me of myself."

Hawkins is out of prison, back in Miami, working as a personal trainer in a health club. Dixon speaks daily with his father - hourly, sometimes - making up for years of lost time. Peaches admitted that Hawkins, before he was locked up, provided not only for Antonio but also for Darrell, who is not Hawkins' son.

There is no animosity . . . but there is little familiarity.

"When he got locked up, we lost contact," Dixon said. "We kept moving back and forth, and he kept getting shipped from one prison to the next."

The moving wasn't all that bad, Dixon insisted.

"I never didn't have a roof over my head. I always had enough to eat," Dixon said. "We all did."

His dream, of course, is to make sure his mother and his siblings always have a roof over their heads. That is his first goal.

He will put off marriage and children for a few years. He hopes to establish himself in the league, to significantly increase his salary - he's making the rookie-minimum $310,000 this season - and to find a regimen, and the discipline, to control his weight for good.

Considering Dixon didn't really learn the game until college, and that he's a painfully raw rookie, everyone who watches him is eager to chart his progress.

Said Hurtt, "Antonio has not remotely come close to reaching his potential."

He is on his way, unimpeded by his past.

Dixon returned to Atlanta this past weekend for the first time since Miami played in the Peach Bowl in 2005. It is not a happy place for him.

He seems to be happy in his independence.

He spent Thanksgiving alone, in his Philadelphia apartment, suffering from a stomach virus. He hasn't seen Peaches since July 29, when he left Miami for the Redskins' training camp, just after he graduated, on time, with a degree in liberal arts.

Yes, he misses Peaches, and her sinful macaroni and cheese. He might fly her to Philadelphia for Christmas. He might not.

He can't wait until the offseason, when he can see coach Hurtt and his family and their new house.

For now, though, there is business - the continued business of being where he has no business being.

He has 10 total tackles, seven solo, a blocked field goal and a sack, of Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He'll be gunning for Manning again Sunday night.

Incredibly.

"I ain't going to sit here and say 'I always knew.' I ain't no psychic," Dixon said. "I never thought I'd reach this point, this fast."

If ever. *