ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Most of Brian Dawkins' Denver Broncos teammates encountered his corner locker before meeting him. What they saw there must have been confusing.
A wooden cross, a Bible, several religious books, and an etched plaque proclaiming, "I Know He's Watching Over Me," shared space with miniatures of Wolverine, the fearsome comic-book superhero whose fingers are gleaming daggers and whose milieu is mayhem.
If that contradictory display initially puzzled them, Denver's players quickly came to understand that it symbolized Dawkins himself, a jumbled mix of faith and ferocity, restraint and rowdiness, the spiritual and the intensely spirited.
"I tell the guys he thinks he's Wolverine," said running back Correll Buckhalter, Dawkins'
teammate now and, for eight years, in Philadelphia. "But what's really inside him is the Holy Spirit."
This Sunday, 10 months after his painful departure from Philadelphia, Dawkins will return for a conflicted reunion at Lincoln Financial Field when his Broncos meet the Eagles. His day, as always, will be filled with prayer and passion, though perhaps, given the circumstances, a little heavier dose of each.
"This is going to be fun," Buckhalter said when asked how Dawkins might react to his homecoming. "I don't think he's thinking about anything like revenge. He knows it's just the nature of the business. Every guy that's ever played for a team thinks he's going to finish up there. But it doesn't work like that."
Not surprisingly, in less than a season in Denver, Dawkins has become a leader, perhaps the leader.
When the Broncos followed a 6-0 start with four straight defeats, it was Dawkins who called a meeting before the Thanksgiving night win over the New York Giants and did most of the talking. And, according to Buckhalter, it wasn't the first - or second - time he'd done that this season.
"Anybody can call a team meeting," linebacker Andra Davis said. "But when certain people are talking, you respect them more. You have a different way of listening. You know that everything Dawk said he meant in a good way, that it was going to benefit us all. He has no kind of selfish ambition or anything like that. Whatever he says or whatever he does, it benefits us all. Dawk is an emotional leader, but he also leads by example."
It didn't take the '09 Broncos long to witness his example - and soon to emulate it. To a large extent, the team has assumed both sides of Dawkins' personality.
"He's a hard guy not to admire and emulate," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said.
Dawkins professes his religious beliefs frequently and fervently, and some say the team's many evangelical Christians are now more openly expressive of their faith than in the past.
"Most definitely," running back Peyton Hillis said. "We have lot of Christian guys on the team who aren't near as outgoing or vocal as Dawk is. But as soon as Dawk walked into the room, he brought a different kind of motivation and spirit. In life, in general, he's just a leader. People take to him. People love to follow him."
On the other side of his nature, several Broncos also join Dawkins in his familiar pregame histrionics, in which he whips himself into such an emotional froth that it seems he might shatter into a million little shards of fury.
"I've never seen a guy go through such a metamorphosis," backup quarterback Chris Simms said. "He goes from leader of the choir to psycho safety."
That penchant for emotional displays helps explain why Dawkins privately has been uneasy about this weekend's return to Philadelphia.
Dawkins, 36, assumed he would finish his likely Hall of Fame career with the Eagles. And while he said he was over the disappointment, he realized that going back to the place where he starred for 13 seasons could disrupt the routine and the emotional equilibrium he strives for between games.
So last week, as Denver prepared to host Oakland, Dawkins would not talk specifically about the Eagles or this Sunday's game. The reason, he said, was that it was "too easy to get mesmerized" by such a potential distraction and lose focus on the Raiders.
"The time to talk about the Eagles," Dawkins said, "is next week. The best way to get beat in the NFL is to look beyond this week."
(It turns out his focus couldn't keep the Broncos from losing to the Raiders, the 20-19 defeat badly damaging their playoff hopes.)
Still, for a man who left Philadelphia in tears and who - in the eyes of the city's most ardent fans, anyway - was callously cast aside, this clearly will not be any given Sunday.
Dawkins knows he will be cheered long and loudly in Philadelphia. He knows he will see old friends and be asked many difficult questions. But mostly, he will want to prove wrong those critics who, after an admittedly dreadful Monday night performance against Dallas last season, wrote him off as too old.
"Every time I gave up a play, people would say it was because of my age," Dawkins said. "No matter what the reason was, if I didn't make a play, it was because of my age."
That criticism and his subsequent exit from Philadelphia stung a player who wears his pride as overtly as his emotion - though the five-year, guarantee-rich $17 million contract he signed in Denver helped in the transition. The Eagles' offer was not as lucrative.
"Definitely, he was hurt," Buckhalter said. "But bitter? No. What is there to be bitter about? When you understand the game and understand that it's a business, there's nothing that you should be bitter about. The people there are still our family - Mr. [Jeffrey] Lurie, Mr. [Joe] Banner, Coach [Andy] Reid, the coaching staff, and some of the players. There's nothing bitter. It was just time to go to work for someone else."
Work has always been a release for Dawkins. Whatever doubts or insecurities he might have felt during his long career he obliterated in the weight room, in the film room, or perhaps on the practice field.
"He's an impeccable man," said Davis, the linebacker. "It's just amazing to see a guy of his status, his caliber, come to work every day and give the same effort, have the same intensity, every day, every game. You can't say enough great things about his work ethic."
Despite what Dawkins says, the transition from Eagles icon to Broncos newcomer wasn't easy for him. He was too emotional to finish his final Philadelphia interviews. And his low-key arrival in Denver had to be a little disconcerting.
At the March 1 news conference to introduce him, there were just a few reporters and cameras. His wife, Connie, used to seeing her husband in the middle of the media maelstrom that surrounds the Eagles, looked out on the scene and asked a team official, "Where is everybody?"
But Dawkins wasn't flying under the radar for long. The team's new coach, Josh McDaniels, who is just 33 and looks even younger, brought him to Denver because he needed locker-room gravitas. He wanted him to exert his leadership clout, particularly on the young secondary.
"When I'm calling plays on offense, there's not one time that I don't hear him behind me, talking to the defense, talking to the punt team," McDaniels said. "It doesn't matter who it is, I can hear him. And it's all positive. It's all the right things. It's not phony."
Rookie cornerback Alphonso Smith, whose locker is just two down from Dawkins' at the Broncos' training complex here, said he was counseled to watch and to imitate the veteran.
"He's taught me how to be a professional," Smith said. "If you want to have a model for being a professional, Brian Dawkins is probably the first person you'd think of."
For Dawkins, leadership is just one more manifestation of his faith - to whom much is given, much is required.
"I feel like I've been blessed to play this game for a long time," he said. "And there's a lot of wisdom I've received. So I feel like it's my duty to pass that wisdom on to others."
Now, 14 games into his first Broncos season, he moves about the locker room with the same ease and confidence he exhibited in South Philadelphia. And on Sunday, when he morphs again into Wolverine and runs out to what figures to be an enormous ovation, the Eagles and their fans probably won't notice any difference.
"I'm sure he'll do the same things he did in Philadelphia," Buckhalter said. "He'll bring emotion and energy to the field. And when he needs to speak up, he will.
"Nothing's different about the guy except for the uniform."