Brian Dawkins was never a crossover athlete on a national scale. He never went on Letterman or Leno. Never appeared on the cover of a video game or a reality show. We had only a vague idea what was in his crib.
What Dawkins cared about most, more than himself, was bringing Philadelphia the NFL championship they desperately sought. He talked about it constantly and genuinely. By that cruel metric, his brilliant career was a tragedy. Yet no one in Philly wept Monday when he announced his retirement -- not nearly as much as when the Eagles coldly let him walk after 13 years in 2009 to play his last three seasons in Denver -- because Dawkins forged a connection with the local fans like few athletes the city has ever known.
Best remembered as the defensive talisman for the championship-caliber but fatally flawed Eagles teams of the early aughts, Dawkins was 210 pounds of fast-twitch muscles and industrial-grade menace, the hyperkinetic talent who tackled like a flying squirrel strapped with C4 and made Jim Johnson's exotic blitz packages manifest, more than theory. He was a hell of a safety.
Between 2000 and '04, Dawkins was the keystone of a defense that surrendered an NFL-low 16 points per game and paced the league in sacks, red-zone touchdown percentage and third-down efficiency, a predatory unit that kept the score low enough for Donovan McNabb to mostly prevail in the end despite gaping holes at critical positions. The nightmarish merry-go-round at middle linebacker was particularly ghastly -- a shopworn Levon Kirkland one year, an undernourished Mark Simoneau the next -- but Dawkins never whispered a negative word despite having the best (or worst) view in the house.
A ball-hawking free safety who could blanket opponents like a cornerback and deliver crippling hits like a linebacker, Dawkins started a franchise-record 182 of 183 games in 13 seasons with the Eagles. He gave the team a lunch-bucket identity they'd lacked since the Buddy Ryan years (and are still struggling badly to rediscover), playing with the hardness of Chuck Bednarik and the manic charisma of Tim Tebow. When he came to Philadelphia in 1996, the Eagles had won two playoff games in 15 years. They won 10 during his 13-year tenure, a span that saw the team's valuation balloon from $195 million to $1.1 billion. Since he left, zero.
Everybody remembers the 2004 team that finally broke through and made the Super Bowl; Dawkins called it the best moment of his career during a conference call Monday afternoon. But 2002 was the only year -- maybe in league history, certainly in the Super Bowl era -- when the Eagles had the best team in the NFL. It was Dawkins' peak season. Against the Texans, he became the first player in history to record a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a touchdown catch in the same game. Prowling the defensive backfield from behind his signature visor, Dawkins didn't just tackle opposing rushers, wideouts and quarterbacks so much as explode upon impact. (Ask Alge Crumpler.) Conversationally, at least, he was the league's most valuable player.
Even when the Eagles came up short in the end -- as they have every year since the Eisenhower administration -- Dawkins remained bulletproof among Philadelphia's famously cannibalistic fans because he always stood up and took responsibility for his share (unlike some) and he cared so much. "You got the impression that he was just as devastated as the fans were, and when they won, he was just as joyous," said Reuben Frank, the longtime NFL writer who covered nearly every game of Dawkins' career in Philadelphia. "He wasn't one of those guys who kind of just of brought a briefcase to work and left it all in the locker room. He lived it. And they felt that and they sensed it, so it really became a special relationship."
Philadelphia is a place where people care a little too much about sports, which made Dawkins a perfect fit. He was an avatar for the passion, the berserk that coarsed through the upper reaches of the 700 level at Veterans Stadium and, later, Lincoln Financial Field. He was the galvanizing power of sport -- the way a player can bring together strangers, regardless of race or gender or socio-economic background, united by love and, yes, hate. It's a special thing anywhere, but the strain always runs deeper in provincial, blue-collar burgs like Philly.
Despite the dearth of safeties in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- just seven in all -- the agate type makes a compelling case for Dawkins. He's one of only five players in NFL history with at least 25 sacks and 25 interceptions, one of only two safeties with 25 or more sacks. Only two players at his position made more Pro Bowls than Dawkins' nine and both Ken Houston and Ronnie Lott were first-ballot Hall of Famers.
But Dawkins' play on the field was just part of his appeal. He empathized, then sympathized, with Philadelphia's wounded sports fans and could articulate their distinctive pathology better than they could themselves. Often unpretty, but always what they wanted to hear.
"Every football fan loves a big hit. But it goes way beyond that here. Way beyond that," Dawkins once told Frank. "There's a different mentality here. There's a desire among those in the fan base to watch us just demolish somebody, and it's passed down from generation to generation. Yes, they loved it when T.O. [Terrell Owens] was here and Donovan [McNabb] and T.O. were hooking up on big plays and big touchdowns every week.
"But when you get right down to it, the fans in this city would rather see a big hit than a long run or a big touchdown pass. When you can deliver a bone-jarring, snot-bubbling lick on somebody, it's almost there's something inside the fans that feasts on that. That's what they want. That's the kind of football they want."
Philadelphia is a city where a journeyman like Aaron Rowand is remembered more fondly than Eric Lindros, Chris Webber or Ricky Watters, false prophets whose temperature was mistaken (or not) for apathy. It's OK if you don't win a championship here as long as you give the impression you'd run through a brick wall (or an unprotected outfield fence) to get one. That was Dawkins. He wanted a culture-altering title for the city more than he wanted it for himself.
Like Joe Frazier, another working-class Philadelphia icon, Dawkins emigrated from South Carolina but ingratiated himself to the populace so completely that native status was conferred -- in an insane but undeniable way the city's highest honor. Today most casual sports fans think Frazier was in fact a Philly native; generations from now, so they will B-Dawk.
"Playing here, as long as I did in Philadelphia, I heard the fans, I heard what they said," Dawkins said Monday. "I didn't just hear it, I listened and I heard it, and I took in the pain that they had for past failures and not being able to win the championship and the way that they're treated sometimes in the media, but I heard those fans. I took them to heart and I understood."