J.R Dillard, who became one of the top tight ends in Oklahoma State football history in his time with the Cowboys from 1983-87, died Sunday after battling COVID-19, according to a source close to the OSU program and a source close to Dillard.
Dillard spent five seasons at OSU, redshirting as a freshman in 1983 before going on to catch 53 passes for 513 yards and four touchdowns.
His finest season came as a sophomore in 1985, when he recorded 197 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 22 receptions. In the 1987 Sun Bowl, his final game with the Cowboys, he made three receptions for 18 yards and caught a touchdown from Mike Gundy.
Where Dillard shined on the field was as a blocker, and over the course of his OSU career, he paved the way for the likes of Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders.
“It’s no secret that J.R. has more ability than any tight end we’ve had since I’ve been here,” OSU assistant Kevin Steele said of Dillard in a 1985 profile of Dillard in the Oklahoman. “He gives us a tackle when he’s blocking and yet he has good pass-catching ability. That combination is hard to find.”
Dillard was an all-state pass catcher at Cleveland (Oklahoma) High School, where Dave Wannstedt, Jimmy Johnson and Larry Lacewell were among those who came to watch him play, both on the football field and the basketball court. When Dillard chose OSU, he followed in the footsteps of his father Jim, who rushed for 1,840 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Cowboys from 1959-61.
After his college career, Dillard had a brief stint in the Canadian Football League. Later in life, Dillard went into social work and maintained close ties to his hometown of Cleveland.
“A lot of people here would consider him a dear friend,” Steve Upshaw, a longtime friend and former high school basketball coach, said. “He had a great family. He was a great guy. He was very proud of Cleveland and Oklahoma State. He was extremely loyal.”