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Long hike since Eagles great Brian Dawkins played center

HOUSTON - Every story has a beginning. Every journey has a first step. Brian Dawkins' started in Jacksonville's Yancey Park.

HOUSTON - Every story has a beginning. Every journey has a first step. Brian Dawkins' started in Jacksonville's Yancey Park.

"It was right around the corner from my house,'' he said. "That's where I spent most of my time, either playing basketball or football or some sport to stay active.

"The passion that I have, I've always had it. But if you don't channel it in the right direction, it's going to find stupid stuff to do. So I was blessed to have football to channel my energy, channel my passion, channel that aggression I had as a youth into football. The discipline of the game was something I always enjoyed.''

Dawkins is one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which will announce its 2017 class Saturday evening. If he gets in, he will be just the eighth true safety to make it.

Back in Yancey Park, though, Dawkins wasn't a safety.

He played center.

"I played running back for my first team,'' Dawkins recalled. "Led the team in touchdowns and all that stuff.

"Then the next year, I played for a different coach and he put me at center. I went from running back to center. I wasn't a big kid, but for two years, I played center.''

Dawkins hated playing center. He said he wanted to quit several times, but his father, Ralph, told him that wasn't an option.

"The second year, I said, 'OK, I'm going to show (the coach) why I need to be playing another position. I was one of the five fastest guys on the team. But he put me right back at center.

"So that was two years I had to do something I didn't want to do. But I did it to the best of my abilities. It made me a better person. I respected everybody's position on the team. And it gave me a thirst and hunger for contact as well.

"It also helped me to channel my anger. Because you best believe I was hot every game. Everybody else is celebrating and here I am, one of the fastest dudes on the team, and I've got to play center every dadgum snap. So I was going to take that out on somebody.

"That's one of the reasons I can't stand offense now. I went straight to defense as quick as possible after that. Cornerback. Cornerback and middle linebacker when I played.''

Fast-forward to January of 1996. Dawkins ended up at Clemson where he was a three-year starter at safety. Made first-team All-ACC and finished third in the voting for the conference's defensive player of the year. Earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl.

But a lot of NFL scouts didn't have a very high opinion of him. He had six interceptions his senior year and was a punishing tackler. But at just 187 pounds, he was viewed as a "tweener." Not quite fast enough to play corner, not really big enough to play safety. In fact, many teams had Clemson's other safety at the time, Leomont Evans, rated higher than Dawkins.

One guy who definitely wasn't lukewarm about Dawkins was John Wooten, who was the Eagles' director of college scouting at the time.

He really liked the kid and thought he could be an early-round steal.

"Back then, there wasn't any social media,'' Wooten said. "You could hide a guy if you didn't tip your hand to it. That's what we were banking on.''

Wooten asked Eagles defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas to look at tape of Dawkins and also keep a close eye on him at the February scouting combine.

"I wanted Emmitt to take a look at him because I saw a fine leader,'' Wooten said. "A guy that took charge. He had extreme ball skills, but also had great awareness as it relates to his teammates and so forth.

"I said, 'Emmitt, take a look at him and see if you see what I see.' I said, 'If you don't see what I see, then we'll move away from him.' "

Thomas saw what Wooten saw.

"Emmitt came back (from the combine) and loved him,'' Wooten said. "He just took over the combine. You would've thought he was the captain of the DBs at the workout. He was ahead of everybody. He was doing everything. Which is the same thing I saw at Clemson.''

In the weeks leading up to the '96 draft, the Eagles did their best to mute their enthusiasm for Dawkins. Both Thomas and head coach Ray Rhodes purposely stayed away from Clemson's Pro Day.

"Ray sent another guy down to work him out and talk to him to keep other people from knowing that was the guy we wanted in the first or second round,'' said Thomas.

Added Wooten: "When you're in this business, you get paranoid. You know that other people are watching what you're doing and trying to figure out what you're going to do at a certain point in the draft.''

The Eagles were so high on Dawkins, they even touted him to cornerback Troy Vincent when they were recruiting Vincent in free agency. And that was nearly two months before they selected him in the draft.

"Emmitt called me and said, 'We think we've identified somebody who can be real special if he learns the game and we can get him under control,'' Vincent said. "They hadn't even drafted him yet.

"Emmitt said, 'We believe that with the three of you all' - me, Dawk and Bobby (Taylor) - exact words - 'we can compete with the Cowboys. We can knock the Cowboys off.' If I recall correctly, he called Brian a juggernaut. A little juggernaut.''

During the three years Thomas coached Dawkins in Philadelphia, he was intentionally frugal with his praise for the little juggernaut. Compliments, at least early on, were few and far between. Thomas saw greatness in him, but used tough love to draw it out.

"Emmitt rode him all the time, pushed him hard,'' said Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who was hired by Rhodes as the Eagles' special teams coach in '98. "He called him Baby Boy. It seemed kind of derogatory, but Emmitt actually meant it as a term of endearment.

"Brian was young and clearly didn't have a vision yet of how good he could be. Emmitt did. He knew he was special.''

Back then, most safeties were guys with decent ball skills who could hit hard and tackle, but lacked the speed to cover wide receivers one-on-one.

"Dawk was different,'' Thomas said. "He had that corner mentality and the skills to be a one-on-one corner guy. He could be a mini-linebacker as far as blitzing and playing in the box. And he had the range to play back deep. He was the complete package.''

Said Dawkins: "Ray Bob and Emmitt pushed me all the time. I used to wonder why they were so hard on me. I'd be thinking, 'Geez, I'm actually playing pretty good. But they were always on me.

"It wasn't until my second year that Emmitt sat me down and told me what they saw in me. Ray Bob mentioned a guy he was blessed at one point to have coached. Ronnie Lott. He compared me to him. I didn't see that. I modeled my game after him to a certain extent because I loved the way he played the game. But I didn't see my talents on that same level. But they did.

"That's why they pushed me so hard. That's why they prodded me. When Andy (Reid) and Jim (Johnson) got here (in 1999), they got a guy who was a lot more comfortable in who he was and what he could do. That was because of the pushing, the urging, the drawing out by Ray and Emmitt.''

A beautiful marriage.

That's the way Dawkins described the 10 years he spent playing for Johnson.

In his acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in November, Dawkins said he wished they could put Johnson's initials alongside his name.

Rhodes and Thomas made Dawkins realize how good he could be, but it was Johnson who turned him into a game-changer, a difference-maker.

"If he had not used me the way he used me, who knows,'' Dawkins said. "If he didn't step outside his comfort zone of what he asked safeties to do, I might not have accomplished half of what I accomplished.''

In nine seasons from 2000 to 2008, the Eagles finished in the top seven in points allowed six times. Dawkins was the straw that stirred the drink on those defenses. They had a lot of very good players, but Dawkins made it all work.

"He morphed into whatever Jim wanted him to be on a weekly basis,'' said ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden, who was the Tampa Bay Bucs' head coach from 2002 through '08, and also was the Eagles' offensive coordinator early in Dawkins' career.

"He could cover. He could blitz. He could play man or zone. And he was an excellent one-on-one tackler. It was just hard to create yards after the catch with him in there. He was a vicious football player and a great competitor. He was the key to that defense.''

"Jim was very tough, very demanding,'' Dawkins said. "But you could see right away what his (defensive) temperament was going to be. We were going to dictate. We were going to dictate to teams. I loved that.''

Dawkins went to seven Pro Bowls in the 10 years he played for Johnson. Was a five-time All Pro. He would later be named to the league's all-decade team of the 2000s.

Under Johnson, Dawkins redefined the safety position. He is the only player in NFL history with more than 25 interceptions (37), more than 25 sacks (26) and more than 25 forced fumbles (36).

"I think he saw what I could do and he just began to open up the playbook,'' Dawkins said. "He began to design plays specifically for me. We would talk in the offseason and he would be smiling and telling me about all the stuff he had down the road for me.

"He knew I would do anything to make his blitzes work. And I knew that he trusted me to get home. So when he called my number (on a blitz), I was going to do whatever it took (to get there). Whether it was diving over somebody, running through somebody, whatever it took. I was going to make his blitzes work because he trusted me so much.''

Dawkins was an uncanny blitzer. His ability to time the snap count, his ability to disguise what he was going to do, was unmatched.

"You can tell a guy where the quarterback is going to set up and the angle it's going to take to get there, but there's got to be a feel,'' Reid said. "Certain guys have it and certain guys don't. And he just had an unbelievable feel for that.''

Said Vincent: "Brian could line up at a deep half, 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, and perfectly time up the snap (on a blitz) through the 'A' gap or the 'B' gap.

"Jim would say to him, 'Show it. Show the blitz. Then run to the middle of the field and then come back down and make the play.' I'm not making this up. I saw this week in and week out.

"I used to see Jim in the meeting room watching the tape. It was dark. His back was to us. But you'd see him just shake his head when he watched one of those plays.''

Johnson trusted Dawkins implicitly. He trusted him on blitzes and he trusted him to cover anybody on the field. After they were together for a couple of seasons, Johnson pretty much deep-sixed his nickel package and used Dawkins in the slot when teams went to three wide receivers rather than bring in a fifth defensive back.

Eventually, Johnson started moving the 6-3 Taylor inside and putting Dawkins on one of the outside wide receivers.

"That was unheard of for a safety,'' Vincent said. "Most of the things Jim let him do were unheard of for a safety. No other safety walked out (covered) on Marshall Faulk. No other safety walked out on Torry Holt. But Dawk did.

"Ed Reed? Never played in the box. He was a centerfielder. John Lynch? He was your traditional strong safety. He was a really good tackler. But you're talking about two separate conversations when you're comparing him to 20 (Dawkins). John never covered tight ends, let alone a back motioning out or the other team's best wideout.

"If you had Dawk just doing what some of these other safeties were asked to do, he would've gotten bored because they weren't using his talents.''

Said Reid: "That flexibility that you had with him to cover different people was what made him special. That and his toughness. He was the heartbeat of the defense. He was the guy.''

Johnson, who passed away in July of 2009 after a battle with cancer, wasn't a chatty guy. Neither was Dawkins. They didn't have a lot of long conversations. But there was a mutual respect and trust. After a while, they became so in sync with each other it seemed like they communicated through telepathy.

"Neither of them was going to stand up and recite the Declaration of Independence,'' Reid said. "Neither of them were real talkers.

"But both of them had a toughness to their personality and they both respected each other for that. And both of them loved the game. From a coaching standpoint, Dawk knew how much trust Jim had in him. In return, Jim brought that right back to Dawk.''

"Once they developed that rhythm, Jim didn't mess with him during the week,'' Vincent said. "Dawk didn't get people lined up. He wasn't out there pointing and directing traffic. Jim asked him no questions during the week aside from, towards the tail end of the week, he would say, 'Hey, Dawk, what do you like in this situation?' You would hear that on Wednesdays and Thursdays. We would tease, but we knew it was legit.

"When you can trust a guy like that, when this guy is giving you this every week for 70 snaps a game, no injuries, what he gave us on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday was showing up on Sunday.''

Harbaugh said preparing for Dawkins was like chasing ghosts.

"You just never knew where the pressure was coming from because the indicators never applied to Dawk,'' he said.

Harbaugh referenced one blitz Johnson had. He'd line up Dawkins down on the weak side of the formation, from where he frequently blitzed. Then he would roll the blitz back the other way and bring the strong safety and SAM and MIKE linebackers from the strong side.

Dawkins would then run all the way across the formation and play the strong-side half. If both of the receivers on the strong side went vertical, the corner on that side would take one and Dawkins would take the other. If one of the receivers ran a flat route, the corner would sit on him and Dawkins would cover the other receiver down the field.

"As a coach, you would never think a player could do that,'' Harbaugh said. "To come from down left and go cover a '9' route on the far sideline to the right? It's crazy. You wouldn't even bother drawing it up because you wouldn't think it was doable. But Jim knew Dawk could do it.''

As anyone who ever watched him emerge from the tunnel before a game in his "Weapon X" persona knows, the Sunday Brian Dawkins was very different from the Monday-through-Saturday one.

Football is a violent game, and one day a week, for 16 years, Dawkins found a way to flourish in the midst of that violence.

He spent most of his career weighing no more than 190 pounds, yet became one of the most feared hitters in the NFL. The vicious licks he put on players like the Giants' Ike Hilliard, the Panthers' Fred Lane and the Falcons' Michael Vick and Alge Crumpler still are talked about, still get tons of views on YouTube.

"It's not politically correct to say this anymore, but he was putting people to sleep. At 185 pounds,'' said Vincent, who is now the NFL's executive vice president of football operations.

"When you start seeing snot bubbles from 250-pound tight ends . . . I was telling my wife the other day, I still remember when he hit Fred Lane. When he hit him, Fred's whole body went into shock. We thought Fred, God bless his soul, was never going to get up.''

Dawkins is one of the most beloved players in Eagles history. It's why there was such a furor in 2009 when the organization - or, more specifically, Joe Banner - botched the contract negotiations with the then-35-year-old Dawkins after the '08 season that would have allowed him to finish his career in Philadelphia. He ended up spending his final three NFL seasons with the Broncos.

He and the organization eventually kissed and made up. Dawkins signed a one-day contract with the team in the spring of 2012 so that he could officially retire as an Eagle. They retired his number 20 later that year. He's now working as a football operations executive for the Eagles.

"I was around Philly a long time,'' said Vincent, who was born in Trenton, N.J., and spent eight seasons playing for the Eagles. "I never saw anyone who embraced the city's image (like Dawkins).

"He was a blue-collar, hard-hat, lunch-pail, go-to-work-every-single-day guy. And he didn't say anything. Which I think intrigued people.

"There are a handful of athletes who can say their personality actually represents the body of the community. Dawk was one of them.''

Dawkins' wife Connie has kept Brian grounded during his journey from Yancey Park to Hall of Fame finalist.

They met as teenagers at Raines High School in Jacksonville and got married just before their junior year at Clemson. Her grandfather gave them $100 for wedding rings and they eloped.

"I would not be where I am without her,'' Dawkins said without hesitation. "I can't overstate that.

"She's the one who keeps this thing stable. She is the backbone of our family. She's the one that kept me humble.''

Both Thomas and Reid were effusive in their praise of Connie and the role she has played in Dawkins' success both as a player and a person.

"His wife was a very good support system for him,'' Thomas said. "Especially early on, he needed that. It wasn't that he was getting into trouble or anything. But she made him study, kept him regimented and well-grounded. I just can't say enough about her.''

Said Reid: "He'd probably tell you she saved his life and kept him going in the right direction. She clearly gave him guidance besides that football world stuff.

"As big as he got as a player, she made sure he stayed grounded in faith and family and those things.

"I think there was a point in his life when he was young when he was going in the wrong direction. She kind of straightened him out. He owes quite a lot to her.''

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