Donovan McNabb has spent the last couple of weeks telling anyone listening that he belongs in the Hall of Fame, and while he was at it, to take the time to discredit a couple of his contemporaries who have already made the Hall.

A couple of days ago, when presented with the possibility that he might go to the Hall of Fame, Brian Dawkins got choked up.

And therein lies the difference between an Eagles player universally accepted by the fans as one of their all-time favorites, and another who will forever be on the outside looking in.

Brian Dawkins officially retired last week from the National Football League. It was a brilliant 16-year career that should result in a bust in Canton. Dawkins is the only safety in the history of the game who amassed more than 500 tackles (he finished with 1,131), more than 30 interceptions (37), more than 20 forced fumbles (37), and more than 20 sacks (26).

He didn't do that all by accident. The numbers are a reflection of versatility, of a player who was trusted enough by his defensive coordinator to be in pass coverage on a wide receiver, to blitz from the corner and get the quarterback, and to stop dead in its tracks a third-and-2 power run between the tackles.

Maybe the football experts are right that safeties should have a little less clout to get into the Hall of Fame.

Brian Dawkins wasn't just a safety. He was the quintessential Philadelphia athlete, accepted by the fickle fans here for the following simple reasons: He played hard, and he cared.

The "Weapon X" and "Wolverine" personas where Brian Dawkins emerged from the dry ice steam of the stadium tunnel was nothing phony. It was Dawkins transforming himself from the mild-mannered gentleman that he is off the football field into this crazed terror, where, as he puts it, he "act the fool."

"Think about this," he told me last week. "There is no time in your profession where you can have the freedom to just completely and 100 percent just let loose.

"Now, I'm not talking about doing anything dirty to anybody. Football is a physical sport - well, it used to be - and you can run into cats full speed and you won't get arrested for it, nobody's going to bring you up on charges for it. . . . And I can just have a good time, I can laugh on the field, I can sing and I can dance. Nobody out there's going to judge me for it, and if they do I don't pay attention to them anyway."

It was what he called "Krunk Mode."

Some players in this town connect. Some don't. In the contemporary Eagles world, only Reggie White might be more appreciated as a player than Dawkins. No fan has ever had a bad word to say about Dawkins, who was the linchpin of an aggressive band of warriors melded together by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

There was Trott and Hugh and Troy and Bobby, and then came Quintin Mikell. Listening to Dawkins talk last week was kind of a sad reminder of how things used to be with the Eagles, when there was just hard-hitting defensive football instead of gimmicks like the wide nine.

Johnson loved Dawkins more than any of them because he could trust him to do anything he asked. Dawkins could fill a gap when Hugh Douglas would try to rush around the right tackle and put himself out of position on a run. He would cover up for Jeremiah Trotter when he had bitten on a play fake and allowed the tight end to slide past him, open, in the middle of the field.

That was why Johnson, when the Eagles finally broke through and beat the Atlanta Falcons to win the NFC title, sought out Dawkins on the field, embraced his free safety in a vise-grip bear hug, and yelped, "Dawk, we did it!"

Teammates sing Dawkins' praises as if it was their privilege to play on the same field as him, and maybe it's because of this philosophy:

"I want to do right by people," Dawkins said. "I wasn't one who wanted to disappoint people with my performance on the football field, whether it be the fans, whether it be my teammates, or anybody.

"That really hurt me, if I felt I went out there and didn't give my all, gave up something on a couple of plays. So I made sure I knew that I was prepared and knew what I was supposed to be doing against the team we were playing."

In Philadelphia sports history, perhaps nothing stings fans as hard as the day Dawkins was no longer an Eagle. The Birds' front office had chosen to place Dawkins within its self-styled actuarial analysis, dollar sign on the muscle. To them, at the end of the 2008 season, Dawkins was just a 35-year-old safety worth X.

But this was Brian Dawkins. This was a franchise player who you couldn't just evaluate on a ledger. At the very least, he deserved merit pay for his service, for being underpaid so many years when he was smashing into ballcarriers with abandon.

Dawkins signed with the Denver Broncos, and for good money. But a part of his soul was crushed, and so were the souls of his fans. Today, he says he is past that, and is looking forward to the day the Eagles have planned to honor him at Lincoln Financial Field. But you wonder if that wound can ever heal. After all, Dawkins' retirement home, for the time being, anyway, will be in Denver.

All that's left now is the speculation as to whether Dawkins will get into the Hall of Fame.

While McNabb, his longtime teammate, lobbies for the honor by citing his numbers, Dawkins is more resolute and classy.

"Ah, I don't know," he said about his Hall of Fame chances. "All I know is that if that ever happens, I will jump for joy and celebrate with all my fans and all my teammates. To think that this small kid from Jacksonville, Florida, could grow up one day to have a career good enough to be considered for the Hall of Fame? Come on, man, that's special."