Brian Dawkins had it backward.

The beloved safety, who returns to play against the Eagles today in the garish colors of the Denver Broncos, transforms himself into a superhero of sorts when he takes the field. For years, he emerged from the tunnel contorting and twisting and posing - psyching himself and the fans up for the havoc he was about to wreak.

That alter ego, which he called Idiot Man or Weapon X, but which was based on Wolverine from the X-Men comics, inspired fans to send Dawkins drawings and paintings and action figures. The gifts took up a whole locker next to Dawkins' proper locker in the NovaCare Complex.

But it was never the superhero persona that truly connected Dawkins so deeply to Philadelphia fans. It was the real man - the collection of sinew and bones and skin and especially heart and soul - that fans responded to. Dawkins was, in the words of an old movie poster, "the most human being you'll ever meet."

It will be Idiot Man who rushes out of the wrong tunnel today. It will be the bulked-up, hyped-up creature behind the dark visor who basks in the adoration of fans who never wanted to say goodbye. But the real target of all this affection and respect will be Brian, who started his NFL career as "Baby Boy" in the catacombs of Veterans Stadium.

Take it from someone who was there, before the Weapon X origin story took shape. Everyone around the Eagles knew Brian Dawkins was special from the day he showed up, and that collective belief in him played a huge role in Dawkins' development. He grew to fit the high expectations he inspired.

To understand him, you have to know that he was too small. He was considered too light to be a strong safety at Clemson, and he arrived in the NFL determined to prove he wasn't too small to survive in the league. If the Eagles hadn't already had Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor back in 1996, they just might have moved the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Dawkins to cornerback.

Instead, with veteran Mike Zordich helping him learn the safety position, and with Vincent and Irving Fryar showing him how to be a husband and father without slighting his football responsibilities, and with coaches Ray Rhodes and Emmitt Thomas relying on him and prodding him and goading him - with all those men in his life, Dawkins established himself right away as a starter, then an impact player, and then a Pro Bowler.

He did all that for a team that got progressively more horrible.

The Eagles went to the playoffs his rookie year and lost. They missed the playoffs in 1997. By 1998, Rhodes' final year, the Eagles were taking the field every week with virtually no hope of winning. They went 3-13. Rhodes and Thomas were fired. Zordich's career ended. Fryar announced his retirement. Everything changed.

In the origin story, Fryar's retirement party is Peter Parker's spider bite. The veteran wide receiver - a minister who had seen his share of trouble before straightening himself out and becoming a team leader - saw great leadership potential in the quiet young safety. At the party, Fryar took Dawkins aside and asked him to take over the task of leading team prayers.

"You're going to have to be the guy," Fryar told Dawkins.

"I took it with all honor," Dawkins said.

He was 26, playing in his first season under Andy Reid and Jim Johnson. Dawkins was named to his first Pro Bowl that year. He spent the rest of his career in Philadelphia leading teams to the playoffs. He seemed to get bigger every year, too. The kid who was cornerback-sized as a rookie bulked up in the weight room until he really resembled a comic-book hero.

But there was always a real man with a complicated nature and constantly developing soul underneath the armor.

The dark visor is the epitome of this. It gives Dawkins a menacing appearance and has the added benefit of preventing quarterbacks from seeing his eyes. But the reason Dawkins started wearing it was to cope with the debilitating migraine headaches that plagued him for years. The bright stadium lights were simply too painful to bear.

It was his very human frailty that inspired Dawkins' robot-warrior appearance. And isn't that how it is with so many superheroes?

So cheer for Idiot Man as he slinks and flexes and crawls onto the field today. Celebrate the gladiator who struck real fear in opponents and delivered some of the most memorable hits and big plays during the last decade of wildly entertaining, thrilling, and heartbreaking Eagles football.

Just remember that underneath the armor and the layers of muscle, behind the dark visor, there is a human being named Brian Dawkins who's pretty special, too.