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Brian Dawkins, on the verge of Hall of Fame induction, has made peace with his messy departure from Philly

Brian Dawkins wanted to finish his playing career with the Eagles. That didn't happen. But he long ago disposed of his bitterness.

tktktk Eagles Brian Dawkins celebrates a 4th quarter interception against the Panthers. Eagles win 27-24. Philadelphia Eagles vs. Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on December 4, 2006. David Maialetti / Philadelphia Daily News
tktktk Eagles Brian Dawkins celebrates a 4th quarter interception against the Panthers. Eagles win 27-24. Philadelphia Eagles vs. Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on December 4, 2006. David Maialetti / Philadelphia Daily NewsRead moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

The envelope from Brian and Connie Dawkins arrived in Joe Banner's mailbox a couple of months ago, inviting him and his entire family to this weekend's Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, as well as the private reception for friends and family afterward.

The man who has been largely blamed for the fact that Dawkins didn't finish his magnificent career with the Eagles was genuinely moved.

"It speaks to Brian and Connie and what kind of people they are," said the former Eagles president, who will be in Canton with a long list of current and former Eagles executives, coaches, players and other staff members to watch Dawkins enter the Hall of Fame. "I'm incredibly impressed with him that he's maintained our relationship despite the disappointment he had."

>> READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Brian Dawkins and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Banner, of course, is referring to Dawkins' sudden departure from Philadelphia after the 2008 season. The nine-time Pro Bowl safety wanted to finish his career in the same place it had begun when the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 1996 draft. The Eagles wanted the same thing. So did their fans.

"I was around Philly a long time," said Troy Vincent, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, spent eight years as Dawkins' Eagles teammate, and will be his presenter in Canton this weekend. "I never saw anyone who embraced the city's image like Brian. He was the epitome of the franchise and the town.

"He was blue-collar. A hard-hat-wearing, lunch-pail-carrying, go-to-work-every-single-day guy. There have only been a handful of athletes who can say their personality actually represented the body of the community they played in. Dawk was one of them."

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who unabashedly calls Dawkins "probably my favorite player of all time," echoed Vincent's sentiments.

"He had a love for the game of football, and everything around it," Lurie said. "He shared that love with the fans, and they gave their love to him. You could almost feel it shifting back and forth between them during a game.

"It's one of the rare situations I've seen where it's like that. Maybe Brett Favre had it with Packers fans; I don't know. But every fan knew how much Brian loved the sport. As much as they did watching it. That's a match made in heaven."

>> READ MORE: How Brian Dawkins' wife helped save his life

And yet that heavenly match ended prematurely after the 2008 season.

The contract negotiations that were supposed to allow Dawkins to retire as an Eagle unexpectedly unraveled, and a very angry Dawkins ended up signing with Denver, where he spent the final three years of his career playing for a Broncos team that never finished better than 8-8.

"I never considered not playing my whole career as an Eagle,'' Dawkins said recently. "There was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't. My plan was to play another two years with them and then retire.''

Dawkins was 35 going on 36 at the time. He wasn't the prolific, difference-making player he had been earlier in his career. But he still was pretty good, and he had been the heart and soul of Jim Johnson's defenses for so many years, and if the Eagles had to overpay him a little bit at the end of his career, well, so be it.

"We wanted to keep Brian, but we did go into it knowing that if a player, even someone we loved as much as Dawk, got a mega-salary deal from someone else, we couldn't" match it, Lurie said.

>>READ MORE: Brian Dawkins wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame without his coaches: 'Emmitt brought it out of me and Jim unleashed it'

The Eagles made Dawkins an offer, then the Broncos swept in and dwarfed it with a five-year, $17 million offer, including $7.2 million in guarantees and $9 million over the first two years.

"I've always tried to do things a certain way,'' Dawkins said. "People want to put quotation marks around doing somebody wrong and calling it 'business.' I don't believe that. I don't think you have to do things that way. And I will never operate that way.

"I told [the Eagles] everything that they needed to hear. This is what I'm trying to get. This is what I'm trying to do."

>> FROM THE ARCHIVES: Brian Dawkins' long journey from Jacksonville, Florida, to the cusp of the Hall of Fame

Banner’s big regret

Banner, the team's longtime president, always was a tough negotiator. And a very effective one. It didn't make him many friends in the locker room, but his masterful orchestration of the salary cap helped keep the Eagles in the playoff hunt every year.

When you're dealing with one of the greatest players in your franchise's history, however, you need a softer touch.

Banner dealt strictly with Dawkins' agent, Jim Steiner, during the negotiations. In hindsight, while the Eagles never were going to match Denver's offer, he regrets that he didn't reach out personally to Brian.

"The one thing I wish I would've done differently that I think would've changed things was to have reached out to Brian,'' Banner said.

"When somebody's engaged in a negotiation or becoming a free agent, it's normal to talk through the agent. And I'm not blaming the agent here. I just think that given the relationship I had with Brian, if we had talked to him directly and understood what he was looking for and he understood what we were trying to do, I think it would've ended differently.''

Lurie doesn't disagree, saying "I wish Joe had" talked to Dawkins personally.

Dawkins felt betrayed at the time. He thought he deserved better treatment from the Eagles given all he had done for the franchise the previous 13 years.

"I remember the conversation I had with him right before he signed with Denver,'' Vincent said. "He was upset. He said, 'I can't believe the way they're treating me after all that I've done for them.'

"I said, 'It's not about all that you've done, buddy. Don't take it personally.' He felt he was being devalued in Philly and valued in other places.

"I told him you don't ever want to get to a point with an organization where you're tolerated. I said it's better to go someplace else where you're going to be celebrated rather than tolerated.''

Vincent recited to him the names of other great players who had finished their careers with other teams, including Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Brett Favre and Joe Montana.

"I wanted to give him perspective that any athlete today who thinks he's going to end in the same place he began, well, you're talking a list you can do on one hand,'' Vincent said. "I wanted him to understand that it wasn't personal.''

Lurie said he had mixed emotions when Dawkins signed with Denver. While he was upset that one of the most popular players in franchise history wouldn't be finishing his career with the Eagles, he was happy to see Dawkins get one last big contract, even if it wasn't with his team.

"I had such a close relationship with Brian, I wanted him to get one more big payday,'' he said.

Eagles fans viewed it much differently. They were furious that they were going to be robbed of the opportunity to watch Dawkins finish his career in Philadelphia.

Banner, never the most popular sports executive in town, became even more disliked.

>>READ MORE: From Clemson to Canton | Brian Dawkins' career in photos

That 2009 season, Dawkins returned to Lincoln Financial Field with the Broncos for a late game against his old team. It was one of the most awkward scenes in the stadium's 16-year history.

"I know it was hard for him to even come out of the locker room," former Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "He didn't come out for warm-ups.

"His heart was still there [in Philadelphia] even when he was playing for Denver. He was still an Eagle."

Looking back on it now, Dawkins said leaving the Eagles and going to Denver actually ended up being good for him, and not just financially.

"It's something that, if I had it to do all over again, I would do it all over again,'' he said. "Knowing all the pain and the mourning and everything, I would still do it. The individuals I met in Denver blessed my walk.

"There are certain things I learned, especially in those first couple of months after I left, that I needed to learn in order to be the whole individual that I am now.''

>> FROM THE ARCHIVES: Why Brian Dawkins and Terrell Owens were snubbed the first time around

Mickey, Minnie and Joe

Dawkins and the Eagles eventually kissed and made up. Three years after he left for Denver, he returned to Philly and signed a one-day contract with the team so that he could retire officially as an Eagle. That fall, 2012, the team retired his number and put him in their Hall of Fame. He is one of just nine players whose jersey number has been retired by the Eagles.

"Even the day he left for Denver, it was on my mind that when he's done playing, we were going to retire his number and bring him into our organization,'' Lurie said. "That was always the plan. But you have to try to keep the lines of communication open so that happens.''

Dawkins is a man of faith who doesn't hold grudges. He eventually got over his bitterness toward the Eagles.

"I knew I had to move on from what happened,'' he said. "I had forgiven those individuals and moved on. So many fans that had seen me play, we bonded. Had I stayed angry with those couple of individuals, then I'm going to treat the fans wrong because of them.

"I'm going to treat other employees and the teammates I played with in Philadelphia — I'm going to treat them wrong. I couldn't do that. I had to get rid of that [bitterness].''

About three months after Dawkins signed with Denver, he and Connie took their four children to Disney World. Whom should they run into there but Banner and his family.

"We were walking down Animal Kingdom, getting ready to watch the parade, and we bumped into them,'' Connie said. "How crazy was that? I went up and gave him a hug. Brian always says there are no coincidences. I believe that, too. I felt like it was God testing us.''

Dawkins and Banner, who left the Eagles in 2012, both ended up working at ESPN as part-time studio analysts, and occasionally ran into each other there and talked.

When they started putting together their invitation list for this weekend's induction events, Brian and Connie never considered not inviting the Banners.

"We don't hold any ill will against him,'' Connie said. "You live and learn. Everybody's not perfect. I told him, 'You and your family are welcome.' He was so touched to be invited. He said it really meant a lot to him.''

Said Banner: "They are great, great people. Sometimes people are viewed one way publicly, but that isn't necessarily an accurate reflection of who they are. In this case, all of the accolades and the view of Brian as a person, not just as a football player, he's a phenomenal person and they're a phenomenal family.''

Dawkins' part-time gig with ESPN gave him the opportunity to spend time with his family and sharpen his speaking skills. He said he learned a lot from the late ESPN broadcaster John Saunders, who mentored him during the time he worked at the network.

"He would tell me some of the things he heard in my voice, in my tone,'' Dawkins said. "The way I talked. He told me how much of a gift that was.

"He would start running down a list of people that I reminded him of. I was like, 'oh, wow. Really?' It gave me an understanding of what I'm blessed to be able to do.

"I already knew I could inspire people. But John made me realize that I also have a voice pattern to enhance that even further.''

Dawkins intended to stay at ESPN for a while. But in 2016, the network informed him that it wouldn't be renewing his contract.

"I had gotten comfortable there, working just a few days out of the month," he said. "I was able to do some coaching with my son [Brian Jr., a sophomore cornerback at his father's alma mater, Clemson] and spend more time with him.

"But deep down, there was a voice inside of me saying, 'You know you're supposed to be doing more.' I kept ignoring it until [ESPN] called me and told me they weren't going to give me another contract.

"That was the first time I had not made a team since AAU basketball in 11th grade. That was the only other time I tried out for a team and didn't make it. And even then, I ended up making that team later on."

>> READ MORE: 50 things to know about Brian Dawkins

Returning to the nest

One door closes, and another one opens. Shortly after ESPN let him go, Lurie was talking to Vincent and asked him if he thought Dawkins would be interested in a job with the organization.

"Troy said he needs that right now,'' Lurie said. "So I knew the timing might be good. And the atmosphere was good. We had a new head coach [Doug Pederson] who was open and a listener and was looking to build something with the players.

"Brian was a natural addition. I wanted him to help with the culture-building as we transitioned from Chip [Kelly] to Doug."

Dawkins initially joined the Eagles as a scouting intern. Just a week and change into the internship, he was given a full-time gig as a football operations executive. The title was vague, because they wanted to give him the leeway to figure out what he wanted to do and how he thought he could best help the organization.

"We weren't exactly sure where best to use him,'' Lurie said. "We knew it was a great culture fit. He kind of found his way at isolating important values.

"He wanted to raise the competitiveness level in practice and in the locker room. He was very homed in on that. He said, 'That's what got us to be very special with Andy [Reid]. We became so competitive with each other.' He talked to Doug about it and talked to all of us. It was easy to embrace because we all believed in that."

>> READ MORE: How Brian Dawkins helped the Eagles en route to their Super Bowl win

Dawkins also worked with a number of the team's defensive players, watching film with them and working after practice on a variety of things, including technique and tackling.

Players such as linebacker Nigel Bradham and safety Malcolm Jenkins raved about Dawkins.

"He's helped elevate our game to another level,'' Bradham said in January during the Eagles' Super Bowl run. "He's also helped us understand the game as well. Whether it's the way we study film or just talking about mentality, anything, including life things.''

The one problem: Dawkins wasn't a coach. And even though he clearly had a positive influence on the players' performance level, some of the team's more territorial coaches seemed to view him as an interloper.

"We spoke about that often,'' Vincent said. "When you're working with an organization or club, there are restrictions or boundaries on how you engage with personnel. How do you do that without getting in the coaches' way?

"Brian was always conscious of [trying not to step on the toes of] the scouting department, the front office, the coaching staff. But he also felt he had something to offer."

>> READ MORE: Brian Dawkins is leaving the Eagles to pursue his calling

Dawk’s next act

Dawkins played a pivotal role in the Eagles' Super Bowl run last season, and enjoyed working for the organization.

But a month or so after the dramatic Super Bowl win over the Patriots, Dawkins started to believe that God had another plan — a bigger, bolder one — in mind for him.

"I just started getting a calling to step out in a bold way,'' he said. "To bless people on a grand scale. Provide hope to people, spiritually, physically, mentally; people who are willing to stop settling for life and live life on purpose.

"When that calling hit, it closed that door with the Eagles. I'll still be able to be a consultant with them when they want me. But my time and my mission now is a grand one.''

The mission still is evolving. Dawkins said it will have different tentacles to it, including motivational speaking, working with young people, philanthropy and entrepreneurial projects.

"It's about helping people and helping communities with my speaking ability,'' Dawkins said. "Being able to have conferences and challenge men to live better lives. Challenge them to live their life differently and pursue their dreams rather than settling for something less than their dream.''

Lurie will miss having Dawkins around, but is proud of his desire to want to make a difference in people's lives.

"This is so Brian,'' he said. "He wanted to integrate different things. Unless he wanted to coach, I think this will maximize him more than being in a constant football structure.

"But he knows the door is always open for him to talk to the team or do some analysis if we're having a little down period in the season or something like that."