BRIAN DAWKINS did not limp into retirement. There were lots of things the Eagles' all-time greatest safety expressed gratitude for Saturday at the NovaCare auditorium, and that accomplishment was near the top of the list.
"I know I'm shedding tears because I'm thinking back and reminiscing, but this is a happy time for me. I chose to walk out the way that I'm walking out," Dawkins told a group that included about 15 former teammates, a bunch of Eagles employees from all levels of the organization, team chairman Jeffrey Lurie, dozens of reporters, fans from the season-ticket advisory board, his wife, Connie, and their four children.
"As I walked down the aisle, you didn't see me limping and you didn't see my shoulders sag to one side or the other. My body is healthy and I feel great," Dawkins said in an emotional speech after Lurie announced Dawk's No. 20 will be retired in a ceremony on "Sunday Night Football,'' when the Eagles host the Giants, Sept. 30 at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles also showed a stirring Dawkins video retrospective.
Dawkins, 38, thanked Connie for being "basically a single mom" while he was "one of the first people here, and I was always the last person to leave because I was getting my body back right after the game, after the damage I had done to it that Sunday."
Nobody has ever played the safety position longer than the 16 NFL seasons Dawkins spent launching himself like a guided missile at receivers, running backs and quarterbacks; Dawk is older than some of the retired ex-teammates who came out to laud him. Among those seated on the NovaCare stage as Dawkins spoke was Mike Mamula, born 2 months before Dawk in 1973. Mamula last played in the NFL in 2000.
"He just always played hard. Even in high school, he just played hard - he would have a full body cramp coming off the school bus from a high school game," recalled Connie Dawkins, who met Brian when they were 15-year-old sophomores at Raines High in Jacksonville, Fla.
After Brian made it to the NFL, ultimately playing the first 13 seasons for the Eagles, the final three for the Broncos, "I just knew what I was going to have to deal with when I got home . . . This past year he got banged up pretty good," she said. Dawkins missed the stretch drive and the playoffs with a neck injury. "He's older and it took a lot longer for him to bounce back from a game. I never told him what I actually thought [about retirement]. I said, 'You do what you need to do for you. Let this be your decision. Take as long as you need to make this decision. I want you to be at peace with it. I don't want you to have to retire and come back and regret anything.' "
Connie said she thought her husband might play one more season, maybe even as an Eagle; as a fan, as well as a wife, she would have enjoyed that. But she did issue a sort of warning as Brian deliberated: "I said, 'When you do make that decision, I want you to have peace about it, but I do want you walking. I don't want you limping. Whatever you come home with, I'm going to have to take care of that . . . You've got to help me raise these kids.' "
That will be Dawkins' focus now - he wants to help coach 16-year-old Brian Jr.'s high school team in Colorado. At some point, when the kids are grown, maybe the family will come back here, to the city that loved and embraced No. 20 as it has only a handful of athletes, ever.
Lurie made that point first Saturday, and Dawkins later waxed eloquent on the subject.
"So many times, I get letters, and people asking me to sign jerseys to put in their coffins with their loved one, because they loved me so much," Dawkins said. "I thank you for welcoming me into your household . . . Just know that I appreciate it, and I heard what you said, and I continue to hear what you're saying about your love for this team, for the people that play here, and your love for me. Believe me, that reverberates and it comes right back to you, because I love you guys, just as well."
Connie was asked why she thought such a strong bond developed. She didn't have to grope for an answer.
"He is just as crazy as these fans," she said. "They love hard, he loves hard."
Her husband said: "I wore my emotions on my sleeve. You can tell in the video that that's who I was. It wasn't an act . . . I'm a passionate cat about the thing that I did for a living for that long . . . [fans] knew that everything I said was coming from my heart."
Among those who gathered at NovaCare were quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, a longtime Eagles teammate, and Michael Vick.
McNabb said playing with Dawkins was like "playing with a guy like Michael Jordan. You see his passion, you see his determination, you see his aggression out on the football field. I was just so happy that I was on his side of things."
Less lucky in that regard was Vick, who acknowledged that some of the most memorable hits he has taken in his career came from Dawkins, when Vick played for the Falcons.
McNabb's first visit to Nova-Care since being traded to Washington 2 years ago was tricky. He wanted to be there, and to talk to reporters about Dawkins. But he didn't want to talk about himself, and steal headlines that he felt should belong to Dawk. Released by the Minnesota Vikings, McNabb seems to be edging toward retirement at 35. Is he done? Does he think his No. 5 might join Dawkins' No. 20?
"I'm happy that the Eagles would really go out on a limb and [retire Dawkins' number]," McNabb said. "This is not about me, it's about Brian."
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