IRVING, Texas - The game had been over for nearly an hour and a half, and all the players and coaches and front-office personnel were loaded on the five buses that idled in the cold just outside Texas Stadium. All except one.
"Who's still in there?" one security guard asked another in the cinder-block hallway outside the locker room.
"Dawkins," said the other, and the first just nodded.
Inside the room, still moving slowly, but moving toward the goal of finally resting in that last seat on the last bus, Brian Dawkins dressed carefully, as if each new motion might hurt.
"There's not a player on this team who is 100 percent," Dawkins said quietly, having finally emerged from the trainer's room and a long shower. By December, that is always true. The game hurts the same whether you win or lose, whether your season is going somewhere or merely going.
"I got little things here and there," Dawkins said. "The back, a little bit. And I got a finger that won't straighten all the way out because it's swollen up so much."
He held up his right hand and a distended middle finger remained at an angle. "Little things," he said.
It hasn't been an easy year for Dawkins, and it hasn't been little things. He suffered a stinger in the second game of the season, basically compressing the nerves in his neck when taking a blow to the helmet, and missed five games. Dawkins came back from that, then fell hard on his back two weeks ago practicing for the Giants game and suffered spasms. He played through that, and the finger, and the aching knees, and all the accumulated pain that comes from being 34 years old in this league and suffering through a 12th season.
Yesterday, as the Eagles began their desperate final three weeks, perhaps some of the anguish paid off, for Dawkins and for the team. Dawkins got his first interception of the season, the 33d of his career, in the fourth quarter, taking the ball from the Cowboys for the final time in the game. After the offense was able to move downfield, it turned out that the interception sealed the unlikely and wholly surprising 10-6 win over division champion Dallas.
"I was locked on the ball," Dawkins said. "I recognized the route from film study. Saw the ball coming and just had to make sure I caught it and kept my feet in bounds."
The route was run by Terrell Owens, who aided things by slipping and falling on the play, clearing the way for Dawkins to step in and get the interception. Dawkins is now tied with Herman Edwards for second on the club's career interception list, just one behind Eric Allen and Bill Bradley.
"Everybody's been trying to write him off, saying he's done, he's done, he's done," cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "He knows he can play. When he's done, he'll shut it down. We're talking about a guy who's a Hall of Famer. Nobody knows his body better than him."
Dawkins has gone through the injuries this season and kept preaching to his defensive teammates to keep grinding, to keep believing. That is the only way he can play, and, strange as it might seem, he's not wrong yet.
"I'm healthy enough to go out and do my thing. After the game, that's a different question," Dawkins said. "But I can play, and that's all that really matters."
With Dawkins on the field, and with Lito Sheppard working through his sore knee, the Eagles' defense is sounder than it has been most of the season.
"That's the biggest thing. We've got our two playmakers back," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "That's one of our trademarks. They've made a lot of plays, won a lot of games, bailed us out of a lot of stuff."
Both Dawkins and Sheppard had interceptions yesterday, but the bailing is far from done this season. The Eagles are capable of stumbling at any time, and even wins in the final three games might not be enough to overcome their earlier losses.
"We've found ways to lose," Dawkins said. "That other team kept showing up that does things in the third and fourth quarters, mistakes and things, that cost us games. Too many mistakes."
That can't be undone now, but they'll do what they can with what is left. Dawkins will be one of the veterans showing the way.
"When he talks, we listen," Joselio Hanson said. "And having him back, we just have a lot more confidence."
Dawkins and the others can see the end of the season from where they are, but Dawkins is trying to make it wait. He wants it to idle in the cold, like the team buses that lingered for him yesterday.
Finally, after all the others, he was ready to go. But only to the airport. Dawkins isn't quite ready to make any more lasting exits. He'll know when, but it isn't yet.
And after that, they could turn out the lights at Texas Stadium and lock the doors. Everyone was on the bus.