Jeff Dickerson was a friend to everyone, admired by all
Jeff Dickerson was regarded as a great teammate during his two decades of broadcast media work in Chicago.
The team-first characteristics "JD" exhibited professionally, where he was best known for his coverage of the Chicago Bears, were rooted in his high school days of wearing Buffalo Grove football, basketball and baseball uniforms.
Dickerson found his way into the high school sports pages of The Daily Herald on occasion but not as often as some of his teammates. Yet the selfless person the 1996 BG graduate was as a teenager, and continued to be as an adult until his tragic passing Tuesday from colon cancer at age 43, was fondly recalled by those who were close to him during his formative years.
"Even then he was the kind of guy who everybody seemed to love," said retired BG basketball coach Doug Millstone. "If you were his best friend or just another guy, he talked to you like you were his best friend. He treated everybody with respect."
Mark Benson was one of BG's most accomplished multisport athletes as the leader and quarterback of the school's 1986 undefeated Class 6A state football championship team. Benson played football at Northwestern and came back to BG and coached Dickerson on the junior varsity team he primarily played on his senior year.
"I was telling my family, I coached for several years and by far he was the best student-athlete I ever coached," Benson said. "He was a unique, special person. He had the same attributes covering the Bears I saw in him at 17 years old as a student-athlete. He was special then.
"He wasn't the best athlete but he was a leader on the team. He led by example and worked hard."
Andy Erickson met Dickerson at BG and they became teammates and friends. Erickson, who played football at Dartmouth, said Dickerson was always the hardest worker on the team.
"He took things more seriously than the better players a lot of times," Erickson said. "We were at the Illinois State (holiday basketball) tournament our senior year and everyone was messing around and he said, 'Guys, we have to get to bed.'
"He was one of those guys who was a straight shooter and would tell you what he thought. But it never came off as, 'Who is this guy or forget him.' You figured if he was saying it then maybe we should listen."
Dickerson gained a devoted following of listeners and viewers even though he was not a flashy reporter looking to make a name for himself on the high-profile Bears beat for ESPN 1000 radio or ABC-7 television. He was admired for his determination to ask the tough questions in a dignified and respectful way so Bears fans got the answers they wanted.
And that led to admiration for the courageous personal battles he fought. The devoted son of parents George and Sandy, husband and father lost his wife, Caitlin, after an eight-year battle with cancer in 2019.
Being there for their 11-year-old Parker, an accomplished athlete who was coached by his dad, fueled Dickerson's determination after he received his colon cancer diagnosis less than a year ago. A GoFundMe page for Parker was well over a $1 million in donations as of late Friday.
"He said, 'I'm not dying of this, my son is not going to lose two parents to this,' " Millstone said of his last conversation with Dickerson two weeks ago. "He was optimistic all the way. He was looking forward to his next chemotherapy treatment (scheduled for the day he died)."
Millstone is part of a retirement group known as the HOGs (Happy Old Guys) and Dickerson came to speak to them about the Bears a half-dozen times.
"He was very honest about questions we asked about the Bears," said Millstone, who retired from teaching and coaching at BG in 2000. "Our guys loved him and he was one of our favorite speakers."
Dickerson last spoke to the HOGs in late September after undergoing chemotherapy in the morning.
"I said, 'Are you sure you want to speak to us,' " Millstone recalled. "Jeff said, 'I'm coming,' and he came in to speak. The guys all stuck around to talk to him and he stayed to talk to them."
But Dickerson showed how much respect he had for those he covered during his speaking engagements or at dinners he had with Millstone and current BG basketball assistant coach Dave Szcepanski.
"We would try to jab him to give us the scoop on guys, but he'd never tell us if anybody was a bad guy," Szcepanski said with a laugh. "Jeff would smile and say, 'He's different' or 'he's interesting.' "
Dickerson also played defensive back and on special teams in football. Rich Roberts, who retired as head coach after the 2007 season, said Dickerson got the maximum out of his ability and called him one of the most intelligent players he ever coached.
"A few years ago I was at a BG game, and he brought his son over and he was so proud to introduce me to him," Roberts said. "We threw the ball around a little bit behind the north end zone.
"Jeff talked about how good his high school career was and here was a guy on Channel 7 news. You could call him a media celebrity and he was talking about his high school days and how proud he was of his son.
"It's just sad. He was a great kid. You're proud he went through BG and the football program, and you were able to be around him and able to have him around the team."
In a 2014 interview, Dickerson recalled being on those teams and the lessons he learned from coaches such as Millstone, Szcepanski, Benson and Steve Messer in basketball, Roberts and Mike Staudt in football and John Wendell and Ross Giusti in baseball.
Lessons of hard work which paid off for Dickerson. He went to the University of Illinois and initially figured his career path would be writing about sports in some capacity.
"Then the weirdest thing happened," Dickerson said in the 2014 interview. "The older I got ... I was always selected to do the readings at church. Whenever there was a public speaking requirement I was chosen for it.
"I learned at a pretty young age to not have any fear about speaking in front of big crowds, so that helped."
Dickerson began broadcasting high school football and basketball games in Central Illinois while at U of I. He worked his way up as a summer intern and producer at The Score (WSCR-AM) and as a producer for ESPN 1000 (WMVP-AM) before moving to the Bears beat.
That opened doors to host shows with players such as longtime Bears kicker Robbie Gould, now with the San Francisco 49ers, and to do local and national talk shows on ESPN. He did color commentary for Loyola basketball for 10 years with Jordan Bernfield.
"It was cool how he came up through the ranks and his overall personality is the reason he moved up the line," Szcepanski said. "He wasn't abrasive to anybody and was a good person. He touched so many different people."
Erickson and Dickerson reconnected about three years ago with their sons playing in the same travel baseball organization. Erickson's son Owen plays on the same team with Parker's cousin Nate.
Erickson, who lives in Arlington Heights, enjoyed asking questions and getting advice from Dickerson about youth baseball and sports.
"We were a little closer now than we were in high school," Erickson said. "He was one of those guys who was always positive. It sounds corny to say that but it was true."
Benson lived and worked internationally before moving back to Glen Ellyn a few years ago. He would follow Dickerson's Bears coverage through the ESPN app.
"His reporting style goes right with his character," Benson said. "He didn't throw people under the bus and he gave you the news. That's the type of personality he was. There wasn't a lot of drama."
Close to his heart
Dickerson will also be remembered through a foundation that was close to his heart to honor Vaughn McClure, a Conant High School and Northern Illinois University graduate who covered the Bears and Falcons for ESPN and the Chicago Tribune. McClure died Oct. 15, 2020 at 48 from cardiac arrest. Dickerson served on the board and emceed a fundraiser in October for what will now be known as "The Vaughn McClure and Jeff Dickerson Foundation" to help raise money toward scholarships for high school students interested in journalism.
"If everyone could be like Jeff Dickerson we would have a much better world," Millstone said after he referenced the Billy Joel classic, "Only The Good Die Young," about Dickerson's life.
"I still can't wrap my head around the fact he passed away," Szcepanski said. "I can't comprehend how quickly he went."
A public visitation for Dickerson is 3 to 8 p.m. Monday at Kolssak Funeral Home, 189 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling.