Wannie Neal Dillon visited North Dallas recently. The top female athlete of the year award is named after Wannie, a 2004 graduate.
At the annual North Dallas High School Athletic Banquet in May, the top female athlete of the year receives the Wannie Neal award.
Wannie, a 2004 graduate, is recognized as one of the top female athletes of all time at North Dallas High School. She played volleyball, basketball, soccer, tennis, and track and field during her time at North Dallas.
Today, Wannie works for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department as a detention officer. She’s 6-foot and says she weighs 175, which is about 10 pounds less than what she weighed her senior year at North Dallas. Wannie is married with a son, Eric D. Dillon Jr. and husband, Eric D.Dillon Sr. At 32, she also has health issues, and received a kidney transplant in February.
“I just want to tell North Dallas that I am very grateful for them naming an award after me, and every time I come back I always see my picture over there,” she said, referring to the volleyball display on the first floor. “And I’m very grateful.”
During a recent visit, Wannie talked about “this little girl from Africa” who didn’t know how to play volleyball or basketball but was able to excel in sports and able to get a college degree paid for through scholarships.
“I got here in 2000. I’m from Liberia in West Africa. I went to Rusk Middle School, and I didn’t play no sports at all,” Wannie said. “And then when I came here, there was Coach [Sheila] Henry and Coach [Alana] Cummings, and they saw me and said, ‘Do you want to play basketball?’ and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I didn’t know. And then I said, ‘OK cool.’ And then she said, ‘We have volleyball, we got track and field and we got this…’ And I was like, ‘OK, if you teach me, I’ll do it.’
“And then she tried to teach me, and I was horrible at the game. But I was determined,” Wannie continued. “I started basketball first because that is what I wanted to play, and then my sophomore year, they convinced me to play volleyball, and I decided to play volleyball. But I ended up playing all sports, except for softball and swimming.”
Wannie said she went from basketball to volleyball to track and field to tennis and then soccer. She was the goalie for two seasons. In Liberia, the only sport she knew how to play was soccer.
“I did just about everything,” she said. “When I was at North Dallas, I got MVP for every sport I played.”
Wannie Neal Dillon (middle) was the only senior on the 2003-04 team that beat Woodrow Wilson to win the district volleyball title. (Photo by Ernest Cerda)
But she made her mark in volleyball, and led the Lady Bulldogs to the district title and playoffs her senior year in 2003. That season, North Dallas dethroned Woodrow Wilson.
“I think North Dallas hadn’t beaten Woodrow Wilson in, I think, 50 years,” Wannie said, “and hadn’t been to a playoff in a long time, so every sport I played we ended up going to the playoffs. It was good.”
But the volleyball game against Woodrow was special. ND won 25-17, 17-25, 25-22, 25-23. The school has a special display on the first floor with the game ball signed by the players, photos and the district trophy.
“I remember that game. I hit somebody in the face and her nose was bleeding. It was a good game,” Wannie said, recalling the game as if it was just played yesterday. “We beat them and we ended up making it into the playoffs. But we didn’t advance very far. I remember that day and it was real good.”
Wannie remembers her team coming from behind to win the fourth set and the title.
“This brings back so much memories,” she said. “The thing about the team in general when you win the first one, ‘Oh, we got this,’ and then you settle. But I was the one who said, ‘We got to do this. We can’t just settle.’ Coach Cummings always told me to keep on playing until you hear the whistle. So I had that in my mind. When they beat us 25-17, everybody was down, and I said, ‘uh uh. We’re gonna win and we did.”
Looking back, Wannie said the North Dallas coaches were very supportive, and she believed in them.
“I remember my coaches. They were like second parents, especially Coach Cummings. My father, even being here as an immigrant, they work, work work,” Wannie said. “They didn’t have time when I wanted to play sports. He was like, ‘I don’t have time to be picking you up and dropping you off.’ Oh, I have a coach and she’s going to be like my second mom. She’ll do all that for me. So Coach Cummings used to do that every day. She’s a good lady.”
North Dallas standout Wannie Neal (12) lines up on defense against Skyline. (Photo by Ernest Cerda)
Wannie said that when she was at North Dallas, “the girls were determined they wanted to play sports.”
“The thing about Coach Cummings and the coaches, they always make sure that we keep our grades good,” Wannie said. “And my grades were good too. I kept that. She always told me that if you want to continue to play sports, you got to remember that you got to keep your grades up. You have to be focused. The reason why I decided to play all those sports when I was at North Dallas High School was to keep you occupied and keep you out of trouble. So I kept on playing all the time.
“I was telling my brothers and sisters: Go ahead, go to school and play any sport you want to play. Play it. Cause you never know. Look at me: I went to school for free and everything, without my parents not paying our of pocket and I am very grateful. And whatever she told me, that’s exactly what I took to college.”
Wannie said her family of seven left Liberia in 1989, went to the Ivory Coast for 10 years before coming to the U.S. in 2000. Her older sister, Juriciah Neal, graduated from North Dallas but did not play sports. Her younger brothers, Lorenzo Neal and Benny Neal, played sports while at North Dallas.
“Even when I was in college, whenever they asked were are you from, I always tell my coach, I’m from Liberia. Whenever they called everybody’s name out, it was Wannie Neal from Liberia. I never said Dallas. I got to make my people proud.”
Wannie Neal and her teammates celebrate on the team bus. (Photo by Ernest Cerda)
Asked what she would tell today’s student-athletes at North Dallas, Wannie said, “I would tell them if sports is what you love doing, listen to your coach, keep your grades up, and just be determined. Whatever you want, you just have to put your mind to it. Keep saying ‘This is what I want, to be bigger and better,’ and it’s going to happen. That’s what I did. I didn’t know anything about volleyball. I was from Africa. The only sport I knew of was soccer. So when they told me, do you want to play basketball, volleyball, I was like, ‘What? What is that?’ I didn’t know what it was.
“But the coaches were determined because they see something in me that I didn’t see. So, they made me play. They teach me step by step. I was horrible. I remember Coach Cummings trying to teach me the steps in volleyball and I was like, ‘Ma’am, I’m never going to learn this,’ and she was like so determined. Even til now, everytime she sees me, she laughs. She’s like, ‘This girl was horrible. If she can do it, then you guys can do it. Yeah, she’ll tell her team.”
Wannie remembers coming back to visit Coach Cummings in 2008.
“She was telling her team, ‘You see this girl right here. She didn’t even know how to do the steps in volleyball, but now she’s in college, playing sports. If she can do it, you can do it,” Wannie said.
Wannie remembers how difficult it was to learn to play basketball and volleyball.
“I didn’t know how to dribble. I was a post guard,” she said. “So all you had to do was when I go up, just give me the ball and it was going to go in. But for volleyball, there was a step in that sport. In order for you to hit, you have to do the approach — to go up and hit. That was the part that was giving me a hard time to learn. You have to work with your setter. You have to be there on time to hit the ball. That’s what she kept teaching me. I used to stay over to keep learning and learning. I did that in college too, to work with my setter. I was a middle blocker. And middle blocker literally does about everything, because you have to go up to block to your left and come back block the middle and go to your right. You have to be fast on your feet. It was good.”
Wannie said today’s kids are all about “technology,” or devices, like the cellphone.
After North Dallas, Wannie said she went to Navarro Junior College on scholarship and then transferred to Texas A&M-Commerce, also on full scholarship.
In college, Wannie began to have “knees issues.” She chose volleyball over basketball, and went to Navarro Junior College in Corsicana.
“I wasn’t a starter my first year but I used to practice every day with the coach and the setter, and I guess the coach saw me because they had a bunch of tall girls, taller than me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I am never going to start this game.’ And one day, one of the star players was acting up and he put me in and ever since, I was a starter. Navarro had a good team, too.
“Then I went to Commerce. And at Commerce, we had a good team too.”
Wannie said she chose Texas A&M-Commerce over Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, La., Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Henderson State in Arkansas, and Prairie View A&M in Bryan.
“All these schools wanted me, but I didn’t want to go away far away from home because I didn’t have transportation,” she said. “So I chose Commerce because Commerce was an hour away from Dallas.”
Wannie remembers how different college was from high school.
“High schools sports is hard but not compared to college,” Wannie said. “And when I got there, oh my God.”
Wannie Neal Dillon stands next to the volleyball display in which the Lady Bulldogs beat Woodrow Wilson to win the district championship in 2003.
What was the biggest difference from high school to college?
“Discipline. You have to be discipline. Discipline in maintaining your studies and discipline within yourself,” Wannie said. “The difference between high school and colleges, the college is paying for you to go to school. Basically, you have to work for them. What I’m saying is that you have to get up in the morning, they call it three-a-days of practice. It’s all about discipline. So you have to go to sleep early because you get up at 5:30 and you have to be on the track at 6.”
When asked what sport, she said, “Volleyball. We ran a lot so I didn’t expect that playing volleyball in college. I thought since it was volleyball, why do we have to run? We did a lot of running and we were on a particular diet. I kept all that within me. So that’s why I’m looking the way I am because I maintained all that.
“I live a life of sports, and I would advise anybody to play sports because sports will discipline you. If you’re not afraid to play sports, you have to be respectful. You have to be well disciplined because you cannot play sports and act up because no coach will put up with that. That’s exactly what happened in college. A lot of people went there on a scholarship and a lot of people lose their scholarship because they weren’t discipline enough. They quit because they couldn’t do all the workouts. It was too much.”
Wannie graduated from Texas A&M-Commerce with a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice. She wanted to be a law enforcement officer. She applied for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, and was on probation for two years. When it came time to take the deputy test, she found out she had kidney failure and was also pregnant.
“I really wanted to work as an officer, get that experience and then go back home and be like a foreign affairs officer in Africa,” she said. “That was my goal. But sometimes, you plan things and things go the other way.”
Wannie said she received a call in 2013 about the North Dallas sports award. At the time, the top athlete of the year award was named after Paul Delfeld, a North Dallas running back in the early 1950s. But school officials wanted to name a female athlete of the year award after a female ND alum, and Wannie was selected.
“I think they called me in 2013. Somebody called and it was like, ‘We came across a vote and we decided to name an award after your name.’ And I was like, ‘What? Me? Why?’ And he was explaining, and I was like, ‘Cool. That means a lot.’ At the time, I was going through a lot. I was pregnant with my son at that time. When I was pregnant, I also found out I had kidney failure. Both of my kidneys. So I was doing dialysis. So when I heard it, it was a joy. I was like ‘Oh wow.'”
Wannie said she received a kidney transplant in February, and “everything is going good.” She hopes to come to the athletic banquet next year and present the award.
“I was like, ‘This little girl from Africa, really?'” she said about the award in her honor. “But I was very grateful. I was very grateful.”
Wannie Neal played volleyball, basketball, soccer, track and field and tennis while at North Dallas. (Photo by Ernest Cerda)