Emmitt Thomas is making sure to pack extra Kleenex for his trip to Canton this weekend for Brian Dawkins' Hall of Fame induction.
"It's going to be a tear-jerking experience for all of us,'' said Thomas. "It's a great honor that he wants us there. I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Thomas, 75, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and was inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 2008, was the Eagles' defensive coordinator under Ray Rhodes during Dawkins' first three years in Philly.
Rhodes will be in Canton this weekend, as will former Eagles coach Andy Reid. So too will Vicky Johnson, whose late husband Jim was the Eagles defensive coordinator under Reid during Dawkins' final 10 years in Philadelphia.
Thomas and Johnson were instrumental in Dawkins' journey to Canton. He'll be the first to tell you he wouldn't be going into the Hall of Fame without them, and both will be mentioned prominently in his acceptance speech Saturday night.
Thomas quickly saw the once-in-a-generation greatness in Dawkins and made him see it as well; made him see what was possible if he worked hard and stayed focused.
"Emmitt meant so much to me,'' Dawkins said recently. "How much he brought out of me. How much he saw in me. He wouldn't let me settle for mediocrity. He wouldn't let me settle for doing things good.
"He wanted me to do things great on a consistent basis, because he saw that in me. I didn't see that but he did."
"Emmitt taught Brian what it meant to be a pro, how to value team, how to influence others," former Eagles president Joe Banner said. "Emmitt's about as stable and solid and unflappable a guy as you're ever going to come across. At that point in Brian's career, that was the perfect mixture from a character perspective for Brian to be with."
The creative Johnson, who died in July of 2009, took the now-confident Dawkins and all that he could do and made him the lynchpin of his great Eagles defenses of the 2000s, moving him all over the field and using him in ways that safeties had never been used before.
"Emmitt shaped me into the man and the player I would become,'' Dawkins said. So that when Jim got me, he got a guy who was full of confidence and ready to do everything with these gifts that God had given me. Emmitt brought it out of me and Jim unleashed it on the NFL."
Straw that stirred the drink
Man, did he ever unleash it. Dawkins earned nine Pro Bowl invitations and was a first-team all pro selection four times in the decade he and Johnson were together.
Dawkins is the only defensive player in NFL history at any position with more than 25 interceptions (37), sacks (26) and forced fumbles (36).
Reid has called Dawkins the best blitzing safety he's ever seen. He was a vicious hitter who made the middle of the field a very dangerous place for a receiver to roam, yet had coverage skills that allowed Johnson to drop him down into the slot or even slide him outside on an opponent's top wideout.
He was the straw that stirred the drink for Johnson. In the 10 seasons Dawkins played for him, the Eagles finished in the top seven in points allowed six times, and in the top 10 in yards allowed six times.
"It was a beautiful marriage," Dawkins said. "He saw what I could do and just began to open up the playbook. 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 that I would do anything to make his blitzes work. And I knew that he trusted me to get home."
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Dawkins' relationships with Thomas and Johnson were very different. He was young and immature and battling a lot of demons when Thomas got him in 1996 after the Eagles took him in the second round of that year's draft.
The help Thomas gave Dawkins off the field with issues such as depression and his marriage became every bit as important as the help he gave him on the field in developing into one of the league's top defensive players.
"Emmitt was really close to Brian,'' said Connie Dawkins, who has been married to Dawkins for 24 years. "He was like his surrogate dad at the time.
"That was our first time going that far north away from our family [in Jacksonville]. We didn't have any family up there. We didn't have any support there. I don't know what Brian would've done without Emmitt."
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Thomas was tough on Dawkins, but in a loving way. He knew how good Brian could be and never wanted him settling for anything less. He affectionately called Dawkins "Baby Boy.''
"I called him that to try and get close to him and let him know how much we cared about him,'' said Thomas, who has been the Chiefs' defensive backs coach for the last 10 years.
Said Dawkins: "I was young, coming out of Jacksonville and Clemson. I felt overlooked in a lot of ways. Emmitt and Ray Bob really poured into me from that perspective and wouldn't let me settle, and talked to me like my uncles would talk to me.
"I was 'Baby Boy' for the three years I played for them. They didn't let me get away with stuff. They probably let other people get away with stuff, but they wouldn't let me."
Losing an uncle, gaining a creative genius
Dawkins was crushed when Thomas and Rhodes were let go after the '98 season.
"That hurt," he said. "They were like my uncles. They were coaches, yes, but they were truly like my uncles. Emmitt helped me in so many way off the field. With my marriage and things of that nature.
"I owe so much to him for helping me become the man that I became and the player I became once Jim grabbed hold of me and started using me the way that he did."
Dawkins had a very different relationship with Johnson. Neither of them were big conversationalists. By the time Jim arrived as part of Reid's staff in '99, Dawkins was 26 with 42 NFL starts on his resume.
He didn't need an uncle. He needed somebody who could take the skills Thomas had nurtured and developed and find ways to maximize them. Johnson didn't disappoint.
"Brian was like wet cement to Jim,'' said former Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent. "He was able to mold him based on what he saw [from opposing offenses] and what he felt Brian could do.
"Most coaches are just stuck in their system. But that wasn't Jim. Jim saw what he had in Brian and imagined how he could maximize those abilities.
"Once they got it going, there was so much synergy. Jim would say, 'I always wanted to do this within the defensive scheme, and you can do it.'
"Or Brian would try something at practice without verbalizing it to Jim. And it would accomplish exactly what Jim was looking for, what he wanted to get done. They were on the same wave length.''
"Brian had such great ability that he allowed Jim to be very creative," Vicky Johnson said. "It was like a perfect-storm situation. Jim knew he could count on Brian. Always."
A nonverbal relationship
Johnson didn't have an affectionate nickname for Dawkins. Didn't have him over for dinner like Thomas did. Their non-football conversations usually were limited to golf and family.
During the season, Johnson seldom spoke to Dawkins until late in the week.
"Once they got into that rhythm, Jim didn't mess with Brian during the week," Vincent said. "He asked him no questions until the tail-end of the week when he would say, 'Hey, Dawk. What do you like in this situation?'
"When you can trust a guy like that, when this guy is giving you what he gave you every week for 70 snaps a game, what he gave us on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday was showing up on Sunday and playing the way he played."
"We didn't talk a whole lot," admitted Dawkins, "He would ask me a few questions about a defense or a blitz or something like that. He knew what I would do or try to do to have success. And he knew that, most of the time, it would work."
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Dawkins and Johnson had just one real blowup in their 10 years together. The year and the opponent are fuzzy.
The call from the sideline came in late, the defense wasn't set and the Eagles gave up a bad touchdown. Johnson was furious and uncharacteristically aimed much of his ire at Dawkins. Dawkins had to be held back.
"He said a couple of very choice words,'' Dawkins recalled. "I'm already heated that we gave up the touchdown. He's mad. We got into it. Basically, the gist was, 'You can talk to me, you can yell at me, just not like that.'
"He apologized and I apologized for coming at him that way and that was the end of it. I never had a problem with any coach getting on me. I never asked any coach not to coach me hard. I just wanted a place of respect. That's all that was for me."
When Dawkins was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame two years ago, he said in his acceptance speech that he wished they could put Johnson's name right alongside his.
"If he had not used me the way he had used me, who knows," Dawkins said. "If he didn't step outside his comfort zone of what he asked safeties to do, maybe I wouldn't have been able to accomplish the things I accomplished.
"But he saw something in me and put me in positions to have success."
"Jim respected Brian as a man and as a player,'' Vicky Johnson said. "As a father and husband. Brian is just a very special person. You just don't come across a lot of those kind of people in your career."
On Saturday, Brian Dawkins will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Want to thank him for the memories? Share with us your message for or about the Eagles legend and we'll feature the best on Philly.com. Email your messages — and photos in your Dawkins gear — to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.