WYTHEVILLE, Va. – He gives it away in the greeting.
It’s a quick handshake in the George Wythe High School library followed by an exchange of first names, standard stuff, nothing striking at the time.
But there it is.
Over the next hour, the superlative senior will give thoughtful answers to a series of questions, sharing insights into such topics as community pride, environmental policy, golf swings, family, cats and the utter hilariousness of Will Ferrell flicks.
Woven into each answer is a philosophy, a steadfast way of life.
It’s summed up in three letters, the same trio grouped into a single syllable that the 18-year-old first uttered by way of introduction.
On top of his résumé you’ll find the name “Maxwell Stewart Dillon” but of course that’s not the hello he offers.
Instead, meet Max, a to-the-max kind of guy if there ever was one.
Malik Johnson is a bona fide basketball star in the Southwest corner of the state, a 6-foot-5 force bound for Concord University who carried the Maroons to the VHSL 1A state championship game in March.
Few things bothered Johnson on the court during his high school days more than the 5-foot-11 fellow he’s called his best friend since second grade.
“Max is like a fly just all over the wall,” Johnson said. “You just want to get rid of him, but you can’t.”
Pesky practice presence aside, Johnson is happy to have had Dillon by his side for the past decade.
Even in elementary school, Johnson said he recognized something different in Dillon.
“I used to just follow him because he made the right choices in everything and he pushes people,” he said.
Johnson’s not the only person who’s crossed paths with Dillon and found an exemplar.
“I’ve had great athletes and I’ve had two former Pappy Thompson winners [at Eastside] that were unique in their own approach throughout their high school career, but I’ve never had a kid with the leadership skills that he has,” said George Wythe principal Dante Lee.
“I don’t think there’s a kid in this building that doesn’t look up to him.”
The results speak for themselves.
Dillon was a member of the George Wythe golf team that won back-to-back state championships his junior and senior year and started on the basketball squad that reached the state title game in March before falling by one point to Radford.
“He is just the ultimate competitor, just can’t stand to lose,” said GW boys basketball coach Pat Burns. “He’s just tough as a pine knot.”
Here’s, though, where the usual narrative shifts.
As laser-focused as Dillon is on success, he has no use for easy victories.
While the Maroons haven’t experienced the level of team success in soccer as in his other two sports, Dillon, the school’s career goal-scoring leader, may be most naturally talented with his feet.
Earlier this season, the senior poured in seven goals against overmatched Wythe County rival Rural Retreat – in the first half. The scoring outburst put him well within reach of the VHSL single-game state record of 10 goals, but Dillon had no interest in pursuing the individual glory and voluntarily gave up his striker spot for the remaining 40 minutes of the contest.
“Stuff like that’s really not that important to me,” he said. “If I could score 11 in a 20-19 ballgame, OK, yes, I’ll take that, but in a game that’s not meaningless, but that’s already been decided, I would rather let some of the other kids [have a chance].”
Asked to name his proudest athletic moment, Dillon doesn’t point to any of his starring moments on the soccer field or his exploits as a four-year varsity hoops player, but instead names grinding on the golf course after a disappointing 2014 state tournament to help lead the Maroons to the championship the next season.
“Going from heartbreak and then the next year following it up with just exhilaration, that was probably the highlight of my sports career,” he said.
While they may succeed, cutthroat competitors can often be top-notch jerks.
That simply isn’t the case when it comes to Dillon.
Sure, he led the basketball team in steals this season and was second in assists, but he also paced the Maroons in charges taken each of his four years on the squad.
“Max Dillon is never going to disappoint you,” Lee said.
“This entire student body, and we have 460 of them, if you ask all of them what they thought of Max Dillon, you wouldn’t hear a bad thing. You wouldn’t hear the first negative comment.”
Dillon said it’s important for him to balance kindness with his competitiveness.
“You kind of put it in perspective that sports aren’t everything,” he said. “As bad as I want to beat you, at the end of the day when I step off the court, it’s just a game. There’s a whole ’nother life out there. Developing friendships and relationships are far, far more important than any win ever could be.”
Of course, sports is just the start of the story with Dillon.
His leadership qualities extend deep into the George Wythe community as he served as the vice president of both the Student Council Association and National Honor Society as a junior before moving into the president role in both organizations as a senior.
This is a kid who wears “Maroon Pride” bracelets on each of his wrists as a visible sign of the admiration he has for his school and community.
“I have them on 24/7,” he said. “I have to take them off for games and such, but it’s just part of who I am now. … Wytheville, words can’t describe what a hometown this is. It’s just amazing to be here.”
Dillon praised a litany of teachers, coaches and mentors for guidance in his life and it’s a rare game that doesn’t feature his parents and grandparents as a supportive presence in the stands. Even his longtime girlfriend, Margaret Wagner, is Marion High School’s nominee for the Pappy Award this spring.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child and I think that’s really true in my life,” he said. “Everywhere I go, it’s a positive influence.”
Yet, Dillon is keen on carving out his own path as well.
While he holds his older brother, Graham, in obvious high esteem as both friend and role model, he recently made the choice to attend Virginia Tech instead of the University of Virginia, where his brother attends.
He also elected to break from his brother’s example in declining to attend the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School, concerned that it would pull him away from the fabric of daily life – and his extracurricular activities – George Wythe.
“I like to do things my own way in every aspect,” Dillon said. “I like to be original and different.”
Dillon nevertheless has made the most out of his high school studies.
He sports a 4.3559 grade point average – top-ranked in his class after the fall semester – and scored a 1360 on his SAT. Along with his advanced studies high school diploma, he’ll also head to Virginia Tech this fall with an associate degree in science and a general education certificate from Wytheville Community College as along with dual-enrollment classes he took additional courses in order to complete the requirements for a WCC degree as well.
“He has a drive that we don’t see in kids in today’s society,” Lee said.
Dillon plans to major in environmental policy and planning at Virginia Tech – or possibly take advantage of a new program on smart and sustainable cities starting at the school in 2018 – and it’s his community-oriented outlook that drew him to the field of study.
“I love the feeling of a community and just being able to help a community thrive,” he said.
Plus, there’s nothing that Dillon loves more than conquering a problem.
“One of the things I really like about the environmental field is everything is going to be environmental in the future,” he said. “We’re trying to save the planet, trying to make it more sustainable. … I want to be part of the future. I want to make a difference in the world. That’s what really attracted me to that career field.”
And yet, there’s more.
Dillon is a lifelong member of St. Paul United Methodist Church, where he does everything from serve Communion to read Scripture.
“I’m always at church, put it that way,” he said.
His mom is the church organist, and although he doesn’t play as much these days, he knows his way around a piano as well.
He’s been active in Relay for Life and has done work at the Agape food pantry.
He’s got a soft spot for animals, and he works each week to help take care of the Wythe County Humane Society cats sheltered at Petco in Wytheville, cleaning the cages and playing with the felines himself or taking on the responsibility of ensuring someone else will be there if his sports schedule interferes.
“Max, he’s an all-around person,” Johnson said. “He cares about everybody.”
He’s Max, living life to the max.
“It’s hard to define him because he’s got so many qualities,” Burns said. “You can’t pigeonhole him. He’s not just an athlete, he’s not just a basketball player, soccer player, golfer, he’s not just an intelligent young man – he’s a great young man. Every quality that you’d want in a son, player, whatever, Max has those qualities. Everything good, Max Dillon is.”