ANDRE DIXON TOOK us into his locker room. Randy Edsall took us into his heart.
It was quite a tour.
UConn saved its most complete performance for last. The Huskies ended their long, trying season Saturday by picking up the yoke a final time at Legion Field. This time they pushed collectively, they pulled all together, and in the end they forged the kind of bowl victory over an SEC opponent in SEC territory that screamed, Wow, this was real and next season could really be something!
It was the kind of triumph that would have seemed surreal seven or eight years ago.
"When we called the team together before the game, I said, 'I challenge you on offense! I challenge you on defense! I challenge you on special teams!' " Dixon said after UConn had smothered South Carolina 20-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl. "To put everything together and do it for Jazz (Jasper Howard), you saw what happened out there today."
This group had been through so much. There were the heartaching losses - five by a total of 15 points.
There was the murder of Howard, a tragedy that taught 105 young men the meaning of heartache and tested their resilience as teammates.
There was the victory at Notre Dame, one that Edsall said bought his program the kind of lift no amount of money could.
And now here he was, saying he never had seen a team like this and marveling at the bounce in his senior running back's step.
"I think it was the South or something," Dixon said. "I don't know if it was my last game or if it was Jazz, but I felt good this week. I always put everything on the line, but when it's the last one, it's a special one. I wanted to do everything to help the team be successful."
His help came in the form of 33 carries, 126 yards and one touchdown - and one MVP trophy.
"The Horse," Edsall said. "What a way to go out. He got hurt early in the game with his elbow. He came over and said, 'Coach, tell them to put me in.' I told him, 'Relax, they've (the medical staff) got to look at you first.' That's the competitor in Andre."
He has come a long way.
Dixon was suspended for off-field behavior early in the 2007 season. He went on to make the All-Big East second team. But he didn't work hard the following offseason. He hurt his ankle and watched Donald Brown become the leading rusher in the nation last season. He was suspended again near the end of the season after a DUI.
He had some choices, and one of them was to quit. Edsall had some choices, and one of them was to tell Dixon to leave. They stayed together. And from the start of this season, Dixon blossomed, as a runner, as a leader, as a man.
"You want me to cry don't you?" Edsall said when asked about the journey. He fought through tears for 30 seconds that only could be described as the essence of the coach-player relationship.
"Now you know why I never gave up on the kid, because of what he is all about and what he has inside of him," Edsall said. "This guy was probably the true leader of this football team. We had captains, and our captains did a great job. But this was the glue right here. This was the rock. I love him to death.
Edsall hugged Dixon.
"To know somebody really loves you as a coach, as a second father, as a friend, it's amazing to hear those words come out of coach's mouth," Dixon said.
"This is a real special year. This is a really special team. It's amazing when 105 guys come together and commit to something great."