IN BRIAN DAWKINS' prime, the most rare part of his hybrid game might have been that amazing, shark-on-the-hunt deep-coverage skill, the way Dawk could adjust, arriving just in time to help a teammate, even if he'd been in another quadrant of the field when the ball left the quarterback's hands.
But that isn't what Eagles fans will remember when they tell tales of No. 20 to their grandchildren on some far-off day, when Lincoln Financial Field is awaiting the wrecking ball and all the images from the Andy Reid era look impossibly dated and quaint.
They are going to tell about the hits. They are going to tell about the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 23, 2005, not so much the pass Dawkins intercepted from then-Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, but what happened to Vick's favorite target, huge tight end Alge Crumpler, just after Crumpler caught a 31-yarder over the middle with a little more than 2 minutes left in the first half of a 27-10 Eagles victory. How Dawkins' right shoulder hit Crumpler's chest with a whuummp! sound that everyone in the chilled-to-the bone stadium heard. How the Falcons completed that drive with a touchdown on the next play, but didn't come close to scoring again. (In fact, the next pass to Crumpler was the Dawkins interception.)
After the game, Dawkins said the intent of the hit was "to send a message that it's not going to be flag football."
Actually, in 2012, the NFL really is "flag football," in the sense that Crumpler almost certainly would be ruled a "defenseless receiver" if Dawkins were to make that hit today. Hard to say if he would be fined or suspended.
"It's unfortunate, because those are the kinds of plays that change games, those are the kinds of plays that change the mind-set of a team," Dawk's longtime Eagles running mate, Quintin Mikell, said Monday from St. Louis, where he plays safety for the Rams. Like the rest of the league, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Mikell was extolling Dawkins, 38, on the occasion of Dawk's announced retirement after 16 NFL seasons, the first 13 spent as the greatest safety in Eagles history. "When a guy comes across the middle and gets hit like that, everybody in the stadium, on defense and on our team, would just get amped up. Everybody on the other sideline would kind of deflate a little bit. That's the kind of stuff you can't account for . . . those kinds of game-changing hits? They're gone, and it's sad."
Maybe it's sad, but devastating hits are being flagged for a reason. In recounting his all-time Dawkins hit parade yesterday, Mikell mentioned a play Mikell only witnessed on TV, because it occurred the season before Mikell's rookie year. This was another game against the Falcons, Dawkins hitting Vick at the Veterans Stadium goal line during a January 2003 playoff victory. Mikell said that after joining the Eagles and becoming friendly with Dawkins, he'd asked Dawk what that hit felt like. "He was like, 'Man, I still don't remember that play,' " Mikell said.
Which brings us to the tricky part of celebrating big hitters and hits. If Dawkins doesn't remember hitting Vick, then he surely concussed himself delivering the blow. Dawkins didn't miss any plays that day, but who knows what he might miss in the years that stretch out before him now, as he looks forward to getting more involved in the day-to-day lives of his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Connie, and their four children?
As Dawkins said in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters Monday, "A lot more is known now [about the devastating long-term effects of concussions] than was known by a lot of us players back then."
The NFL is facing class-action lawsuits over concussions that currently name more than 1,000 ex-players. One of those ex-players, former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, committed suicide last week at age 62 after struggling with memory loss, insomnia and depression. Asked his opinion of the litigation, Dawkins, a key NFLPA figure, didn't seem entirely comfortable with the question. He said those players must have felt information had been withheld from them about concussion effects.
"You can exist, but it's going to be tough . . . The zone to hit a guy has moved so much," Dawkins said Monday when asked if there could be such a thing as a young Brian Dawkins in today's game. "You want to hit 'em in the chest, you want to hit 'em in the sternum if you can . . . There's always been an unwritten rule as a defender that I would never hit a guy at the knees; I'm not doing that, it's dirty. That's the way I see it, anyway. It's no longer going to be dirty anymore, it's going to be the way you have to play the game."
Dawkins, the Eagles' all-time leader in games played (183) and interceptions (34), said his retirement wasn't prompted by injury, even though neck problems kept him out of the Broncos' playoff run last season. He played safety in the NFL as long as anyone ever has.
"He is the best player I've played with, the most impressive preparer I've seen," said former Eagles teammate N.D. Kalu, now a talk radio host in Houston. "He approached practice like a game . . . Just the intensity and the detail he brought to practice every single day, that's what's going to stand out in my mind. You know, it showed on gameday. That's why he's the best safety I've ever played with or seen play."
Kalu, a defensive end, said Dawkins "was our spiritual leader" on the Super Bowl XXXIX-era Eagles, but "wasn't that vocal, when it came to a bunch of hoo-rah. He was the epitome of leading by example. The way I described how he prepared for practice, it motivated me on the days when I just didn't feel like being there . . . To this day, he's the only player outside of me who my son has the jersey of, and I watch my son wear his jersey with pride."
Kalu said the way Dawkins hit opponents was what made him fun to watch. Yet, Kalu agreed with Mikell that "safeties can't play like that anymore . . . Some of his best hits would be fineable offenses."
Kalu called Dawkins "Jim Johnson's go-to guy," and Dawkins, in recounting why that NFC title game victory over the Falcons was his greatest memory, referenced the tears he saw in Johnson's eyes when the Eagles finally broke through after losing on the doorstep of the Super Bowl 3 years in a row.
Johnson, who passd away from cancer the same year Dawkins left the Eagles as a free agent, no doubt appreciated the same qualities that created a bond between Dawkins and Eagles fans like few that have ever been forged between an athlete and a city.
"I absolutely enjoyed my time," Dawkins said Monday. "I wanted it to be one where teammates and fans I had the pleasure to play with or in front of said, 'He gave everything he had to the last drop.' "