Think about the last quarter-century of Philadelphia sports. Is there a more beloved athlete than Brian Dawkins? His induction this Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a national and historical validation of what everyone around here has accepted as gospel for years: that Dawkins' intelligence and passion and physical talent made it damn near impossible for anyone — teammates, coaches, even the fickle and demanding and often-unreasonable sports fans in this town — to criticize him.
"If you ask guys about Dawk, the only reply you would get would be complete reverence," former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook said in a phone interview. "How he carries himself, how he helps you, how he's willing to share his perspective but is not going to force it upon you — to me, those are all signs of who he is as a man."
During the 13 seasons Dawkins played for the Eagles, though, one particular anecdote illustrated who he really was, and it had nothing to do with his teammates. To call it an anecdote doesn't do it justice, actually. It was an entire calendar year, and it was probably the most difficult period of Dawkins' career in Philadelphia.
In January 2007, Dawkins' wife, Connie, began to bleed during her pregnancy with the couple's twin girls. There was a 50 percent chance she would miscarry, and during a hospital visit, a scan of the twins' hearts revealed that it was possible one of them would have Down syndrome. Connie's doctor told her and Brian that an amniocentesis could confirm or rule out a Down diagnosis.
"But if you do that," Brian said then, "there's a risk that one of the babies could be lost. We weren't going to do it, but those are the things you have to think about. Tears were starting to flow."
Throughout his Eagles career, Dawkins had followed a strict offseason routine. He and his family would fly to their second home in Orlando, where he could train at least 12 hours a week while Connie took care of the kids. This time, following that routine was impossible. Connie was confined to bed rest, stabilized by medication in case the twins arrived early. Brian and Connie's elder children — Brian Jr. and Brionni — were 11 and 8 then, respectively. Dad could not leave them alone long.
"I'd drop the kids off at school," Dawkins said, "go see her, then take an hour to try to work out, then come right back to the hospital to be with her, then go pick the kids up from school, then get dinner ready. I had a chance to walk in her shoes."
The twin girls, Chionni and Cionni, were born two months prematurely on April 26, 2007. Though neither of them had Down syndrome, each weighed just three pounds, and the younger one, Cionni, was suffering from relative bradycardia and apnea. Her heart was pumping too slowly, and she was struggling to take a normal breath. The conditions jeopardize a premature baby's life; one exacerbates the other.
After 17 days in the hospital, the twins came home. As Connie recovered from the delivery, Dawkins became the children's primary caregiver. This was his daily itinerary: Stay up all night to feed, change, and keep an eye on the twins. Sleep from 6 a.m. to noon. Work out at 1:30. Pick up Brian Jr. and Brionni from school in the midafternoon. Help Connie prepare dinner. Nap until 10 p.m. Repeat.
An electronic monitor tracked Cionni's breathing, and, in the dead of night, Dawkins would keep his eyes on her in her crib. Sometimes, he noticed that she seemed to forget to breathe, and he would wiggle her foot or gently shake her, just to stimulate her enough that she would let out a little gasp and her lungs would restart.
"It was very, very terrifying," he said.
He knew, he said, that he wasn't girding his body properly for the punishment of an NFL regular season. "Not even close," he said, and he was right. He sat out most of training camp and the preseason with Achilles tendinitis but returned in time for the season opener. In Week 2, against the Redskins, he pinched the same nerve in the neck twice. He missed the next five games. For good measure, he sprained his ankle in the season finale. The Eagles went 8-8, and Dawkins appeared in just 10 games, a shadow of the ferocious free safety he'd always been.
In February 2008, Dawkins agreed to talk about the twins' premature births and their effect on his family, his health, and his on-field performance, hoping, he said, to encourage other parents. For two hours in an office at the NovaCare Complex, with a combination of empathy and defiance, he detailed the entire ordeal. He was 34, and he believed — he knew — that he had more to give as a player, and over the next four seasons — one with the Eagles and three with the Broncos — he proved how much of an outlier 2007 was. He started 54 games and was selected to three Pro Bowls.
The twins are 11 now, and they'll be in Canton this Saturday night for their father's induction. But back then, few people in the Eagles' locker room, if anyone, knew what Brian Dawkins and his wife and their little girls had been through.
"He never said anything," Westbrook said. "That shows the kind of person he is."
Yes. Yes, it does.