DONOVAN McNABB, the quarterback, is the leader by definition. Brian Westbrook, the running back, is the most irreplaceable single piece. As the Eagles take the field on Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings, these are just two of the roles that will be played.

Trent Cole is the relentless one. DeSean Jackson is the precocious one. Jon Runyan is the time-worn warrior. Tra Thomas is the matter-of-fact pro. These are the ways we identify people, these and many others. For fans of this team, preparing for an unexpected playoff run, when they look down from the stands or into their television screens, that is what they see.

And when they look at Brian Dawkins, what they see is themselves.

Thirteen years. It is a long time to be carrying a municipal legacy onto the field every week. It is forever, in many ways - and Dawkins will be a forever kind of player for this franchise, cherished, remembered, all of that, long after the No. 20 is put away.

Part of it is because he has been so good, a seven-time Pro Bowler, the best safety in the history of the franchise. Part of it is because of how hard he hits people, how he just pulverizes them, even now. Long after the details are forgotten, the visceral remains. You wince when Dawkins really launches himself at somebody. That is what people will always remember - the wince, and then the wow.

But it is more than that - and, no, not that ridiculous, indescribable routine he goes through when he emerges from the tunnel and goes onto the field. It is simpler than that. It is visible passion, visible to all.

No Eagles fan can possibly doubt that Dawkins cares more than they do. That's it. That is the connection between a man and a city. That is the bond.

"It makes me feel good, it really does," Dawkins said the other day, when the subject came up. "Because . . . I kind of know what they feel for the most part. Now, obviously, I haven't been here all my life, but I've been around here long enough to understand how bad they want another championship here, especially football, and how passionate they are about it and the attitude they have as far as not being ashamed to speak their mind, not being ashamed to have a good time, and really, having a you-give-everything-you've-got mentality. Whatever it is, you give what you've got."

It is the attitude that Philadelphia applauds above all else. The rest of it is just stats. Caring, and showing that you care, makes up for a lot of errors in this city. And when caring is joined with Hall of Fame-level talent - and Dawkins has just that, whatever the safety-hating voters for Canton ultimately decide - the combination is impossible to beat around here.

It manifests itself in any number of ways. On Dawkins' side, one of the neatest things he has done recently is give two tickets to home games to a high school player chosen for his work on the field and in the classroom, and for his overall character. After the games, you can see Dawkins seeking out the kids in the hallway outside of the locker room to talk.

But it isn't only that. Every time Dawkins opens his mouth, he makes another connection. Just listen to him talking about the mental preparation for a playoff game:

"I think the thing that [changes], for me anyway, is containing my emotions," he said. "Not playing the game too soon, and trying to bottle all that energy up and unleashing at the right time, that's the toughest thing for me. Other than that, you kind of go about your normal way of doing things in preparation for the game. If you've done what you're supposed to have done during the season, you shouldn't have to change anything as far as preparation and watching more film and all the stuff. You should have been doing that the whole time."

He says they have been playing in playoff games for a month now, and that is about right. That Dawkins has turned it up during this time is a grand personal trait. He has done it before, just like this, coming on late to silence the doubts about his battle with the calendar. In 2006, for instance - exact same scenario as now.

There are things he cannot do as well anymore, which he acknowledges. But there is so much more that he still does. When he was struggling in coverage early in the season, he took the whispers and the doubts as a challenge. Somewhere, you would hope he could appreciate that he might be the only player in recent memory around here whose failings prompt concern among the people, not boos.

Because he is them and they are him. And when he was exhorting on the crowd last Sunday before the Dallas game, well, listen:

"I figured it was going to be a very tough, tough-fought ballgame, and [I was] just very excited about the opportunity and appreciating the fans at the same time, appreciating for everything that they had helped me through, and been criticized at times, absolutely, but at the same time we've had a great time partying and just saluting them for that," Dawkins said.

"It's kind of a cliche for me to say it now, but I give everything that I have. I am a blessed individual, so I sometimes dig down deeper than just myself to have called upon some more strength and I lay it out there."

It is what Philadelphia has always seen. *

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