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June 01, 2015

Brian Dawkins recounts his Eagles career, its abrupt ending, and what the fans mean to him

Legendary safety 'blessed' after being selected by readers as greatest living Eagle

Eagles NFL

Imagine it's 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning in October, one of those glorious fall days where the air is just crisp enough to cause the back of your throat to burn while running. You’re standing at the entrance to Lincoln Financial Field and in a few short hours, your team will take the field. You have your midnight green jersey on. And you're fired up.

It’s game day.

Now imagine that your first steps into the stadium are not through the concourse, but rather through the tunnel and directly onto the field, with 65,000 people cheering you on. 

MORE: FULL TRANSCRIPT OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN DAWKINS

Because on this Sunday, you're not a fan. You're an Eagle.

How would you play? With everything — emotionally, physically, everything — you have, right? Of course you would.

This is at the core of what made Brian Dawkins so popular in Philadelphia. Not only did he understand the psyche of the Eagles fan unlike few who have ever worn the uniform, but he was also the physical and emotional embodiment of those fans and the city they represent.

"I played the game the way [the fans] would play it if they had a chance to strap on a uniform for one game,” Dawkins told PhillyVoice.com. “If for whatever reason, the Lord blessed them with the ability to go out and run, hit, jump, play fast, know the game plan, and they get to go out, one shot. You would not go out and be calm. You would not go out and hand the ball back to the ref. 

"And that’s how I played every game. Because I loved it so much. And I didn’t care what anybody thought about it because I was blessed to play the game of football. And so I went out and played with emotion. I laughed, I cried, I danced, I partied after a sack, after a big hit, with my teammates. ... All that stuff."

As a player, Dawkins was Philly: smaller than some of his peers, but never doubting his place among them; emotional, but only because he cared so much; determined, tenacious and unafraid. And because of this, the retired 41-year-old has had a special relationship with the city that he never wanted to leave and still considers home.

That's why it's no surprise that Eagles fans overwhelmingly selected Dawkins as the greatest living Eagle. 

A little over a month ago — shortly after the death of the legendary Chuck Bednarik — PhillyVoice.com put together the resumes of 10 candidates and left it up to our readers to decide the winner. Here's a look at the results:

*Top choice for "Other" was Randall Cunningham (1.3%). Second was Reggie White, meaning some people were either unsure of the purpose of this poll or are going to be very upset to learn that he passed away in 2004.

There are blowouts, and then there's this. Not only did Dawkins win, but he got 60 percent more votes than Donovan McNabb, who finished second, and more than double all the other candidates combined.

“That’s an absolute blessing," Dawkins said of being voted the greatest living Eagle. "It’s not something you set out to do when you first started playing the game. And I’m no different. It’s not something I set out to do. I just wanted to be my best and hopefully along the way I’ll be a good player and a good player for my teammates.

"I always think about things as much as I can from the shoes of myself when I was younger and, you know, to think that, out of all the players that have played the game of football for the Philadelphia Eagles, for the fans to see me as one of the best — if not the best — to do it is very humbling."

The Eagles' all-time leader in interceptions, Dawkins spent the first 13 years of his NFL career in Philadelphia after the team selected him in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of Clemson. During that time — the majority of which coincided with the careers of two other players on the above list, McNabb and Brian Westbrook — the team enjoyed one of its greatest periods: going to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl. 

 W-L-TWIN %
All-time541-573-26
.486
Without Dawkins
425-483-24 .468
 WITH DAWKINS116-90-2
.563

“If he’s not the greatest safety to ever play the game, he’s certainly one of the top,” said Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who coached Dawkins for 10 seasons in Philadelphia. “I think he could do more than anybody, along with playing physical football. He could cover a wide receiver. He could cover a tight end. He could come up and lay a pretty good lick on you too. He did all of those, and he did them for a number of years. He was intelligent. I’d be shocked if he isn’t in the Hall of Fame.”

But it wasn't just Dawkins' play on the field that made him such a fan favorite. It was his ability to lead, a skill he fine-tuned with the Eagles during the early part of his career under the guidance of then-defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas, a Hall-of-Fame cornerback who is currently the Kansas City Chiefs secondary coach.

“You’re never ready to be a leader in the National Football League," Dawkins said, adding that there's just too much to learn when making the jump from the college game. "And I knew that. I knew that I didn’t know everything. I’ve never been a guy to think I know everything. I’m always searching for more, searching to do more. I’ve always been that way and will continue to be that way as my life continues to go on."

  • DAWKINS BY THE NUMBERS
  • 183 games (1996-2008) with Eagles
  • 9 Pro Bowls, 6 All-Pro selections
  • 34 INT, 32 forced fumbles, 21 sacks
  • Member of Eagles Hall of Fame (No. 20 retired in 2012)
  • Played in 5 NFC Championships and a Super Bowl

The "more" that Dawkins was searching for upon arriving in Philadelphia came in large part from Thomas' faith in his undersized defensive back.

"He was like an uncle to me," Dawkins recalled of his relationship with Thomas, his first professional defensive coordinator. "You know, helping me with things on the field, off the field and really seeing something in me that I didn’t know was there."

But it wasn't until a few years later that Dawkins would really make his mark on the game, thanks in large part to legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

Johnson joined the Eagles in 1999 as part of new head coach Andy Reid's coaching staff and would go on to coach Dawkins for 10 seasons. It was under his guidance that the safety would become one of the most dangerous weapons in the game.

"I always had to do more than everybody around me. And there was a chip on my shoulder. There was an anger inside of me, struggling."

“Jim, man, he just allowed me to take my game to the next level," Dawkins said. "His scheme was completely different. He just began to use me all over the place. I mean, I had not ever seen a safety used the way Jim used me. You know, a lot of people probably won’t give Jim the credit he deserves, but the way that the safety position is being played has a lot to do with the way Jim used me." 

And it wasn't just about how Johnson used Dawkins — he basically did a little of everything: blitzing, coverage, inside, outside. It was also about when he decided to call on No. 20. 

"When he called my number in the fourth quarter — there was a reason why I always made a lot of plays in the later parts of the game. And a lot of it is because Jim called my number," Dawkins recalled. "Sometimes he would hold on to a blitz and then call that specific blitz at that time because he trusted me to get the job done. So a lot of it had to do with Jim’s trust in me, his belief in me, and him seeing something in me. My ability to be all those things that I just said to become, as people know me to be, Weapon X. You know, I was able to do everything.”

There's probably no nickname that could have better suited Dawkins. 

Given to him because of his love of comic books, specifically X-Men's Wolverine, Dawkins said that side of his personality —  the "tenacity" and "craziness" — had been there since he was young, and remains to this day, even in retirement.


"That split personality has always been there," he said. "I’ve always been an emotional guy, even growing up playing little league sports. I’m the guy that if I strike out, I’m probably going to cry. Lose, definitely going to cry. And so, those are the things that I was already doing growing up, because once again there was something in me where I always felt like I had to prove something. 

"I always had to do more than everybody around me. And there was a chip on my shoulder. There was an anger inside of me, struggling. That has always been there."

In high school and college, Dawkins said he struggled with his emotions because coaches and referees would tell him he couldn't act a certain way, even on game day. But upon his arriving in the NFL, he suddenly found himself in an arena where that kind of behavior — like slamming his head into the goalpost during pre-game warmups — was not only allowed, but encouraged by the fans rooting him on.

And in return for their support, Dawkins helped give the fans some of the most memorable moments in franchise history. 

From the historic game against the Texans in 2002 — he became the first player in NFL history to score a touchdown*, force a fumble, intercept a pass, and record a sack in the same game —  to the 2005 NFC Championship when he delivered a hit on Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler that could be felt through the television, there's no shortage of clips on the Weapon X highlight reel.

*The touchdown came on a fake punt.

“The one where he hit Alge Crumpler," Reid said. "I think that said it all. There were a lot of them, but that one kind of put a stamp on the game, like this one’s over; we’re going to the Super Bowl.”

When asked to recall some of his top Eagles moments, the likely future hall-of-famer talked more about his teammates than himself, which won't be a surprise to those that have played with him. He brought up Brian Westbrook's punt return in the Meadowlands and McNabb's performance against the Cardinals on a broken ankle. He praised the additions Jon Runyan, Tra Thomas and Hugh Douglas, using words like "cornerstones" and "nastiness."

But what Dawkins remembers most are not the plays he made, but the relationships he formed with his teammates, coaches and fans. 

"You know, some of the things you guys don’t see, the bonds," Dawkins said of how he recalls his time in Philly. "The bond that we had and love we had for one another. How we went out and played for one another and the respect we had for one another."

When he finally gets around to talking about himself, there's one game that sticks out above the rest, a game that fans remember as simply "44-6."

“I guess the biggest memory I’ll ever have — besides the NFC Championship Game — would probably be the last game against Dallas that I played," Dawkins said, referring to the 2008 regular-season finale against the Cowboys.

Here's how he recalled the game, which helped start the Eagles on an improbable run to the 2009 NFC title game against the Cardinals:

"That game is how I define myself as a player. People always ask me, 'What is your perfect scenario? Is it the interception for a touchdown?' Nah, I like that, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not my perfect play. 

My perfect play has always and will always be me making a play on a ball carrier, whether it be a running back or a quarterback, caused fumble, and one of my teammates picking it up and scoring. And I just so happened to be blessed to do that twice in one game. I got one on [Tony] Romo that, uh, Clemons, my man, picked it up and scored. And then I tackled [Marion] Barber and Joselio Hanson picked it up and scored. Both more than like 60-70 yards for touchdowns.

And so to end my career in Philadelphia that way — I didn’t know it was going to be the end at the time — and to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is my perfect play, to be physical with somebody because I’m a physical safety, to cause a fumble and for my teammate to score and celebrate; those are the ones I remember most.”

Unfortunately, as Dawkins alluded to, that was the last time he would play in front of the home fans as a member of the Eagles.

"It was definitely a mistake," he said of the team's decision to part ways after 13 seasons. "You can say business is business, and sometimes things in business happen. But that, what happened, that wasn’t business."

At the conclusion of the season, the Eagles didn't even want to engage the veteran safety in contract negotiations, opting instead to let him walk and sign a five-year deal with the Denver Broncos. Fans, fellow teammates and even Eagles employees were shocked and upset by the decision, one that members of the Eagles front office have since admitted was a mistake.

Even Dawkins, the reasonable, mild-mannered half of a Jekyl-and-Hyde personality, was openly upset with how the team so callously cast aside of one of their all-time greats. Not because he felt he was owed anything as a player — and it would have been completely acceptable if he did — but because he felt, at the very least, they owed him that as man.

To this day, Dawkins still sounds hurt discussing the circumstances surrounding his exit.

"It was definitely a mistake," he said of the team's decision to part ways after 13 seasons. "You can say business is business, and sometimes things in business happen. But that, what happened, that wasn’t business. That wasn’t business. That team, my teammates, the city meant too much to me to do something crazy, to ask for crazy money."

It was tough for Dawkins. Tough to feel slighted by an organization for which you literally sacrificed your body week in and week out. Tough to uproot his family and move to a new city. Tough to leave your friends and coworkers behind. 

"But, ugh, the way it went down, it should not have gone down that way," he continued. "And, you know, because of it, I had to leave a place that I called home. I had to leave a place that I loved being. It took me a bit, man, to get over it. And not completely over it, but over it enough to keep my emotions in check so that I could be everything that I could be for my teammates — my new teammates. 

"They didn’t care about my feelings toward Philadelphia and that was I hurt, crying. They didn’t care about any of that. All they were hoping was that I would bring what I brought in Philadelphia to Denver. And I had to do it, because that’s the type of man I am. When I put my name on the dotted line and if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to my fullest. I’m not going to take my work back because my word is my bond. I believe that."

Dawkins spent the last three years of career in Denver, starting 39 games and making a pair of Pro Bowls before retiring in April of 2012. Less than a week later, the team owner Jeffrey Lurie announced that Dawkins would sign a one-day contract so he could officially retire as a member of the Eagles.

Dawkins returned to Philadelphia on Sept. 30, 2012, to have his jersey retired during a ceremony at halftime of a game against the New York Giants. While still not completely over how he was treated by the team, there was no way he was going to let that ruin something that he considered as important for himself as for the fans and the city.

"I was not going to let no individual, no couple of individuals, no whomever, not allow me to celebrate, just with my teammates and with the fans," Dawkins said of his decision to return and retire an Eagle. "You know, you have been through too many good times, and that’s what I chose to remember. ... I couldn’t continue to allow that to be sour and to not come back and celebrate with the fanbase. 

"I played with my emotions on my sleeves. Since I was little. I’ve always been that way," Dawkins said. "And that’s how Philadelphia fans really are."

"And on top of that, you’re talking about getting your jersey retired. That’s not a given. Think about how many people have played in the National Football League ... so for me to have the opportunity to be blessed to have my jersey retired by the Philadelphia Eagles, a town that is as demanding as it can be and to know that we clicked, you know, like no other — I still consider that to be home — I had to do it. There was no other way around it. I was going to do it.”

And it's that relationship with the fans and the city that has made Dawkins one of the most beloved athletes in a town that has had more than its share of great players. 

There's a mutual respect, one that is rare and becoming more so as the economic divide between player and fan continues to grow. The kind of respect that can only be earned. The kind that demands a deeper understanding. The kind that results from seeing a bit of yourself in another man. 

"I played with my emotions on my sleeves. Since I was little. I’ve always been that way," Dawkins said. "And that’s how Philadelphia fans really are. You know, they’re going to tell you exactly how they feel, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. They’re going to love you hard. They’re going to let you know exactly how they feel. 

"I mean, they work hard for what they have. Every bit they have, and the money they can afford to spend, they’re spending on us. So they go out and they cheer. They’re out whether it’s raining, whether it’s snowing, whatever the case may be. They come out. And I appreciate that. "

But he did more than just appreciate their investment. Just as the fans fed off Dawkins' emotions, he fed off those of the fans.

It's why the safety played so physically, so passionately and so fearlessly. It's why Eagles fans never wanted him to leave.

It's why there will never be another Brian Dawkins.


Click here to read a full transcript of our in-depth interview with former Eagle Brian Dawkins.

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