The Story of Dillon Berkabile
The "RUDY" Foundation has announced Dillon Berkabile as the recipient of this year's "RUDY" Award. Dillon Berkabile was nominated and selected as the only American tennis player to receive the "RUDY" Award in 2010. This Award is given to the rare child who has defeated all the odds to make amazing things happen for their own life, much like the real "RUDY" in the blockbuster movie. Berkabile has excelled as a student, athlete and leader through hard work, persistence and character.
The "RUDY" attitude was made famous when the real life story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger was made into a blockbuster film that touched the hearts of America. The movie was made to tell a story that would inspire others, to let people know that no matter what the odds are, they can overcome them - they can win. No matter what your grades, your size - you can find a way. It won't come easy. The message is clear that you need to struggle and prepare to earn your dream.
Struggle is nothing new to Dillon Berkabile. It all began years ago when a scrawny boy walked onto the Palo Verde High School tennis courts thinking he was going to become a professional tennis player. In his mind he was the greatest, or at least that was his cover. Underneath was your typical scared youth hoping to make the freshman tennis team. He had met a friend who talked a big game and Dillion figured if he talked a big game too, then he could play as well as his friend. Josh believed in Dillon, and Dillon believed in Josh.
Fast forward and young Dillon Berkabile had a meeting with his coach, who explained there were 12 spots on the team and Dillon was #13. Translation = Dillon was cut from his high school tennis team, freshman year.
How was he going to go home and explain to his family that not only was he not inches away from playing professional tennis as he had bragged just days earlier, but cut from the high school team? Instead he went back to the coach and started begging, even breaking into tears out of desperation, as if his plea would make his dream closer to a reality. "PLEASE let me on the team, I will do anything!"
The coach threw him a bone, one that might have been harder to chew on, "Okay, you can be the water boy."
When Dillon had to finally admit to his family, especially his older brother, that he was the water boy, it became an ongoing joke between the two. Empty water bottles were being thrown at him in the middle of dinner or people would resort to the trump card one liner, "Go get me some water."
While this made for many good times and jokes between friends, Dillon still had his dream. He had no where to go but up. Palo Verde won the State Championships that year. Dillon was part of the team. He got a jacket and the whole deal, but never played a match.
On the team were the best in the State. His best friend Josh Levinson was a star and Dillon was just a beginner. He vowed to out-work, out-hustle and out-desire everyone else. He still believed he could be a professional tennis player.
Dillon's efforts began to demand respect.
"When we saw how hard Dillon was working and the better choices he was making because of tennis, we decided to get behind him," said his father Steve Berkabile.
But this was the opinion of his parents; they have to love him. In the tennis world Dillon was a player who said he wanted to go pro and junior players would snicker when he barely won a few games in local tournaments.
"Dillon's father came to me and said his son will work harder then anyone in my academy," said Ryan Wolfington, who ran the Hilton Tennis Academy four years ago. "I don't care if a player is good, nor do I care about 'going pro,' as long as they give 100% and have a good attitude. According to his father, that description matched his son."
According to his coaches and friends, Dillon's cockiness was in his way.
"I told him if you think you are already great, how can you find areas for improvement," said Wolfington. "Plus, he wasn't great. He needed to get rid of the false bravado and find some real confidence."
The Hilton Academy at the time was associated with VegasTennis.com's Marty Hennessy Jr Tennis Foundation. They had a philosophy on inspiring confidence that is simple: If you do right, you feel right.
Berkabile was not concerned with this philosophy, his grades or his propensity to argue. He was concerned with going pro, only working hard in tennis, looking for what most teenagers do, girls and fun times. He thought he could have the best of both worlds. However, soon his desire to have results drove him to seek a deeper solution.
"Our academy was about going pro at life, and in my opinion until you have your whole life together off the court you are not at your full potential on the court," said Wolfington.
It was Trent Alenik, one of the Academy's past graduates, who helped Dillon get 100% focused on school and tennis. Trent and all the graduates come by and play with the next generation when they come back from college on break.
"Trent told me he went through it, he stopped partying, he stopped arguing and started listening to his parents and Ryan," explained Berkabile. "He told me if did, that I would get a college scholarship, and that is all I needed to hear."
According to Wolfington, the Academy was always a leadership program, a boot camp for life. The focus was on attitude and the right choices and how to lead yourself and others to be the best you can be. Trent and others like him who went on to get college scholarships (26 total) were the proof in the pudding that it worked.
"Instead of my old scene from high school friends who give you negative peer pressure, I was around tennis friends who provided positive peer pressure to get better," explained Dillon. "Plus it was a great opportunity to spend time and travel with my dad, who took me to most of my tournaments."
Trent started tennis late like Dillon and had the peer pressure just like Dillon. Trent was cool, something Dillon could relate to. This was the kind of mentorship Wolfington had in mind when he started the Foundation.
"Adam Carey, who helped me run the Academy years earlier, had painted a vision of the older children leading the younger ones," said Wolfington. "Those who have been bought into their leadership roles have been expected to do more and be more but as a result, they get much more out of life."
The Foundation has a tradition of "seniors" that goes back to its beginnings 8 years ago. Normally the oldest player, the captain of the team, is also the one who has to do all the hard work, expected to be the best behaved. As word has it, the team knows who it is before they are chosen, because leaders act like leaders, according to Wolfington.
"You become a leader by being one, having others acknowledge it is a matter of fact," Tim Blenkiron explained. "Dillon started to take ownership of his life and it was great to see."
Dillon first heard about the "Seniors" and leadership role from Trent that day on the courts. He knew then he wanted to reach the highest level, to be among the leaders of this team. But he had just started, was losing to the lesser players and was not much more then a big mouth.
Soon it became apparent Dillon's father was correct. According to his coaches, Adam Carey and Tim Blenkiron, he was among the hardest working on the court. He was hungry and willing, although rough around the edges. Soon his divided focus passed, the girls went away and his grades went to straight A's for the first time in his life.
"I wanted to go on the East Coast Leadership Tour and I needed A's, so I got them," Dillon explained. "I never cared about school because I wanted to go pro, but now I see excellence encompasses everything."
The East Coast Trip "changed my life," according to Dillon. "It made me see there are so many opportunities for me, I could be so much better, and I realized I needed to appreciate all that my parents do for me."
Berkabile came back more motivated then ever. He approached his senior year with a fury. His tennis was improving, his school, his attitude at home, it was all going great. He even made the mature decision to put aside his desire to have a girlfriend until he was able to secure that much sought after college scholarship. This was a hard decision, because he really liked this girl.
"I finally realized if I truly liked her I would give her the space she needed and the space I needed to be our best, so we both could get that scholarship to college," he explained.
His senior year came, college scholarships were being announced and once again Dillon was the 13th man on the team. He had some offers but none that met his expectations.
He met with Wolfington who was now at the USTA and decided to take a post grad year, work as his intern, train every day and keep fighting for the spot on the college team of his dreams.
Dillon trained 4 hours in the morning, 2 hours at night, and worked at the USTA office all day; the only problem Dillon's coaches had was him working too hard. They were afraid of burnout.
"Tennis taught me how to get along better with my friends and my famil. It saved my life," says Berkabile. He had finally made it to "senior", the leader of the team, their captain and he took this role very seriously.
During his internship he and last year's intern, Edgardo Ureta, had a "Vegas Apprentice" competition, each getting to choose a team of 5 tennis players. Collectively they raised $16,000 worth of items for charity auctions.
"I have never seen Dillon work so hard," said his mom and dad. "We were so impressed."
Berkabile's family could afford tennis, unlike many of the players that are part of VegasTennis.com's Marty Hennessy Jr. Tennis Foundation, but he wanted to work for it, earn it.
"Working hard at tennis and for my scholarship has taught me so much about myself and life," Berkabile said. "To start getting those letters from colleges interested in me was a validation of all the years I worked hard, the faith my family and friends had in me, and was my way of paying back my coaches, parents, Ryan and the Foundation for all they did."
It was late his post grad year and Adam Carey, one of Dillon's coaches, called him to tell him how proud he was.
"This was the best day of my life. I got a scholarship to the Citadel to play Division 1 college tennis for one of the best coaches in the country, and my coach, whom I idolize, told me for the first time how proud he was of me. I will never forget it," Berkabile explained.
Dillon did not want a military school, but when he saw them play as a team and the power of their coach Toby Simpson, he saw it as an extension of the tradition he had already been in.
"If it was not for my parents putting up with me, driving me, paying for me, always being behind me, who knows where I would be," Dillon said. "This Academy and Foundation really saved me. Sometimes I can't believe how great my life has turned out. I just want to pay it back somehow."
Dillon went on to captain the Palo Verde High School Tennis Team to win two more state titles. Needless to say, his older brother no longer calls him "water boy." They all just stare in amazement at what a great young man he has become.
On a recent Foundation trip all the children had to say who the person was who had most impacted their life. Tanner Berkabile broke into tears and spoke about his brother Dillon. Tanner is a junior in high school and hopes to follow in his brother's footsteps.
"If I had to pick one thing that I am most grateful for, it would be what tennis has brought me to: a better diet, a better conscience, a better attitude and better relationships with the people in my life," Dillon said "The meditating I do to become a better tennis player has helped me stay calm on the court, but it also helps me appreciate my parents more. I listen instead of argue now, at least more than I ever have."
Dillon is a scholarship athlete at the Citadel College in South Carolina maintaining a 3.4 GPA.