Even though he last played for the Eagles in 2008, it is still tough at times to look at the Eagles tunnel on gameday at Lincoln Financial Field and know that Brian Dawkins will not emerge from the smoke and pyrotechnics.
With a simple tweet on Monday morning, Dawkins announced that after 16 NFL seasons - 13 with the Philadelphia Eagles - he was retiring. Dawkins believes that he could have returned for a 17th season. He said he's 100 percent recovered from a nerve injury in his neck. He knows he is still good enough to play.
But Dawkins took the time this offseason to realize that he's at peace with the decision to step away from the game "a year too early than a year too late." There will be no "stepping out of retiring and coming back" for Dawkins, who made it clear on a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon that this is the end of a career that should eventually be honored in Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Once I say it's over, it's over," Dawkins said. "And it's over."
Dawkins will return to Philadelphia on Saturday to visit with the team. He will be honored at the Giants-Eagles game on September 30. Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie called Dawkins his "favorite player" as owner of the team and said without question that Dawkins will be in the Honor Roll. It is hard to imagine any other Philadelphia athlete who has been more beloved than Dawkins. He had the rare ability to be one of the best-of-the-best at what he did on the field, be the ultimate role model and leader off of it and also have a unique connection with the fans.
"I heard the fans. I heard what they said. I didn't just hear it. I listened and I heard it and I took in the pain that they had from past failures and not being able to win the championship and the way that they are treated sometimes in the media," Dawkins said.
Dawkins retires as one of the most prolific Eagles in team history. He earned seven of his eight Pro Bowls as an Eagle. Dawkins is tied for first in team history with 34 interceptions. He's also among the franchise leaders in sacks. The Eagles went to the NFC Championship Game five times and made one Super Bowl appearance during Dawkins' tenure in Philadelphia which started when he was a second-round pick in 1996. Dawkins wants to be remembered for someone who "gave everything he had to the last drop," which is another reason he will always be so revered.
"I played with my emotions on my sleeves. You can kind of read me pretty easy, the way that I'm feeling on gameday. I like to try my best to not disappoint people. I purposely go out and try to do my best to make sure that my coaches or teammates, the organization, the fans were pleased at my play, that I gave everything I could on the football field," Dawkins said.
Dawkins' favorite moment as an Eagle was when the team finally broke through and won the NFC Championship in the 2004 season over the Atlanta Falcons. The reaction from the late, great defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is one that will always stick with Dawkins.
"To see the joy, the tears in his eyes and the way he grabbed me and said, 'Dawk, we did it. We did it.' I'll never forget that," he said.
Johnson saw something special in Dawkins, who had the rare ability to cover but also hit like a tank. Even Dawkins knows that looking back, there is no way his career would have taken off if it wasn't for the trust that Johnson had in him.
"I wouldn't say this or take this lightly. I don't know if there would be a Weapon X, Idiot Man, Wolverine, whatever you want to call it, that personality on gameday if it wasn't for Jim's belief in me to be able to use me the way he used me," Dawkins said. "I was relentless and that's what Jim always preached. He wanted you to be relentless. He didn't want you to hold back. He saw that's the way I played period."
Dawkins' last game as an Eagle was when they lost the NFC title game in the 2008 season to the Arizona Cardinals. It was also Johnson's final game as a coach before he lost his battle with cancer in 2009. That loss was the low point of Dawkins' career, even more so than the Super Bowl loss to New England. After the Super Bowl loss, Dawkins was optimistic that he and the Eagles would have a chance to return.
"I felt that real, real bad," Dawkins said of the loss to Arizona.
Football will still be a part of Dawkins' life as he will help coach his son, Brian's, high school team in Denver this fall. Beyond that, Dawkins does not have any immediate plans. He wants to be involved in the lives of his four children and thus has no desire to be an NFL coach.
Later this week, the Eagles will welcome a number of new players to the organization in the NFL Draft. It is fitting that they will also welcome back a true leader and role model in Dawkins.
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