Veteran safety Dawkins leads Eagles by word and deed

PHILADELPHIA -- The first locker in the right corner of the Eagles' locker room belongs to Brian Dawkins. His teammates know where to find it. Dawkins has become a part of their conscience and inspiration. And since no current athlete in the Philadelphia sports landscape has been around as long and been as true as Dawkins, many Eagles fans view him as family, too.

Several Eagles say Dawkins is a huge part of why the team rose from a 5-5-1 record and the second-half benching of quarterback Donovan McNabb on Nov. 23 in Baltimore to win four of their final five games and reach the playoffs. When Philadelphia visits the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in an NFC Wild-Card Game, many Eagles will look to this man of character and deed as a force to drive them to victory.

Dawkins is 35. He's in his 13th NFL season -- all with the Eagles, all at safety. He recently was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl.

Eagles running back Lorenzo Booker reflected several of his teammates' sentiments when he said: "You still have that burning desire as a player to win. But here is a guy in Brian Dawkins who makes you feel that even more. His credibility is flawless. You want to win for all of your teammates. But we want to win for him in an individual way, to get him that ring that he richly deserves."

Some Eagles described Dawkins as being like a mentor, a friend, an uncle, a cousin -- even a father.

And this from wide receiver Jason Avant: "He is a big brother to me, the person I am closest to on the team. The best thing that's happened to us is having him here during the roughest times."

All the Eagles feed off Brian Dawkins -- his spirit, his soul, his faith and his talent.

"And the thing I respect most about him, that I can identify with him in, is he told me that in his first couple of years, he struggled, that he was not walking in his faith like he should have been and showed me how he grew as he encouraged me to grow," Eagles rookie safety Quintin Demps said. "He said he was on the other side of the fence in his first couple of years here. That really touched me. That helped me realize this man is real."

Real. Humble. Not so righteous that he can't remember his rookie season, 1996, when he contemplated suicide.

"I had suicidal thoughts for most of my rookie year," Dawkins said. "I fought an entire year of depression. I was on medication for the year.

"I had a lot, so much going on. I was a young man, newly married, a new father with an infant son, family issues, money issues. I had temper problems. My mouth was not what it should have been. I was drinking. A lot of rookie expectations to fit in and perform. I was a person who didn't know how to handle it.

"And then a couple of years into my career, I made the decision to get serious about my relationships with God and start to think about everything I do and everything I say being a reflection of Him. I'm not perfect. But I've grown so much there, and I hope that is what people see. And as far as the football, well, there is a passion that burns within me for the competition, a hunger and thirst I think we all have here for this game and this playoff opportunity. It came so hard that we appreciate it. We know exactly what it is -- an opportunity and a chance to do something special with it."

Dawkins spoke in measured tones, in measured speed. He walked slowly and purposefully at the Eagles' practice facility. He said he was conserving his energy.

This is a player, a man, who understands that something within him always has been on fire.

"I know me," Dawkins said. "I am really working hard to stay centered this week. It is very easy for me to get over-excited and play the playoff game before it's even been played, know what I mean? I am taking everything in a slow, one-step-at-a-time pace for right now. If I don't, I'll be spent before kickoff."

Dawkins has a knack for blowing up offenses and making game-swinging and/or game-winning plays. He has done it throughout his career. But in April 2007, his twin daughters were born two months premature, causing Dawkins to miss much of his offseason regimen and, along with injuries, translated into a subpar season. While others pondered his retirement, Dawkins insisted he would return. No way he would go out like that, he said.

And he returned to find himself in the midst of a 5-5-1 season in which McNabb was benched.

"The Baltimore game was the low," Dawkins said. "It was a real low point for the organization and the team. We had to do something to quickly propel ourselves from that. And I knew I had to do something to help move the team forward."

Dawkins said he didn't meet with coach Andy Reid or have extensive chats with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

"I had some conversations with Donovan," Dawkins said. "I had some with my teammates.

"Donovan is a guy who cares a lot. He may not present it, but he cares a lot. He wants to please. That isn't always possible. I think he wonders sometimes why some of the same questions are being asked about him that were asked when he was a rookie, as if he hasn't answered at least some of those things. I made sure he and our teammates understood that this is something he cannot do by himself, that getting this team straightened out and winning again wasn't something we would let him try to do by himself. It may be Donovan's team, but he isn't the team."

Makes you wonder if the Broncos, Cowboys, Buccaneers or Bears would have flopped in their Week 17 playoff pushes had Dawkins been in their midst. Makes you wonder if the Eagles would have reached the postseason without him. Dawkins' two forced fumbles led to two returns for touchdowns in Philadelphia's playoff-clinching 44-6 victory over Dallas last Sunday. He's the NFL's Defensive Player of the Month for December.

With his territory enlarged, his season prolonged, Dawkins heads to Minnesota knowing that each playoff game could be his last with the Eagles. His contract expires after this season. He wants to stay. He'll play elsewhere if he must. At least one more year. Maybe two. Maybe more.

He's proud that during the worst of times, the Eagles didn't slam each other, point fingers and make things nasty. He said players now know their roles and the team has jelled, just in time.

"I have seen a lot, been through a lot in this league, and it would be selfish for me to keep that wisdom to myself," Dawkins said. "Every year, guys get younger, and every year, I get older, but that means nothing to me. We're teammates and family who have come together to play our best football now. We'll see where that takes us."

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