After the Arizona Cardinals marched 80 yards down the field on the opening drive of the NFC Championship Game to take an early 7-0 lead, strong safety Quintin Mikell was livid when he came to the sidelines.
Frustrated with his teammates' performance, he let his feelings be known. Free safety Brian Dawkins went over to Mikell and told him to calm down. He made him realize that it was only the opening drive and there was still a lot of football to be played. And just like that, like he has many times in the past, Mikell was able to absorb another nugget of wisdom from Dawkins.
What Mikell couldn't have ever realized at that point is that it would be the final time he would rely on Dawkins as a teammate. Mikell was visiting his alma mater, Boise State, over the weekend when he learned through his agent that Dawkins had signed a five-year deal with Denver. After six seasons together, as Mikell climbed the ladder from rookie free agent to special teams ace to second-team All-Pro safety, the man who served as the role model and mentor to Mikell will no longer be just a few lockers down.
"I feel like I've learned so much from him, but I feel like no one is ever done learning," Mikell said by telephone on Monday. "When you are done learning, you're dead."
Mikell talked to Dawkins on Sunday and admitted that he's "grieving over the shock of losing someone important." But Mikell realizes that it's now time to take everything he learned from Dawkins and teach and share those experiences with his teammates.
"I feel like I'm ready to take on a bigger role as a leader. I have to be," Mikell said. "You will never be able to replace what he did. I feel like with us having a committee of people who can set examples, who can put people in the right place that we can get the job done."
Mikell specifically pointed to cornerback Sheldon Brown who has the locker right next to him as one of the key people who can assume a bigger leadership role in the locker room.
"I believe Sheldon can be a great leader. I've learned a lot from Dawk, but I've also learned a lot from Sheldon," Mikell said. "You don't have to be the oldest one on the team to be a leader. Stewart (Bradley) can step in and say something. That's how you put together a team that wins. You have everyone."
One of the biggest signs that Mikell is ready to assume the bigger leadership role is the praise he heaped upon Quintin Demps. As of now, the second-year safety is the only other safety on the roster and could very well be called upon to play a much bigger role on defense in 2009. Mikell admits that even if the Eagles bolster the depth at the safety position, it is obvious that Demps won't have the comfort of watching and learning from the sidelines.
"He has to have the mindset that he's going to step in and he has to grow up fast," Mikell said. "He's not going to have the luxury that I had of being able to sit back and watch and grow. That will be tough on him, but at the same time he has a tremendous amount of talent. His upside is huge. He has good size, tremendous speed. He can make plays on the ball. He has the swagger. He has the right mindset so to speak ... He can't let the pressure get to him. He can't get caught up in trying to be Dawk or trying to replace Dawk. He just has to be himself. And as long as he understands that and comes to work and puts his boots on and gets to work, he's going to be a great player."
The same goes for Mikell. He has to realize that he's not alone in shouldering an expanded leadership role. No one imagined he would have carved out this nice a career for himself when he was a rookie free agent in 2003. There's no reason to doubt him now.