PHILADELPHIA -- Brian Dawkins would keep a close vigil on the gentle, swaying blankets. He'd sit in the hospital room, ignoring the monitors and constant beeps of the machinery surrounding him. The only thing that mattered was that his twin daughters were still breathing. They were frail, both less than four pounds. And a man so accustomed to being in command wasn't.
Dawkins would clench his hands together and pray in the dark: We're going to get through this ... We're going to get through this ...
Now look at them, Dawkins' 15-month-old twins, Chonni and Cionni. Chubby-cheeked and bright-eyed, they blink and smile up at their father. Their tiny arms and legs churn, as if trying to fly when Dawkins reaches down to pick them up and cradle them both in his massive arms. They know daddy's face. It's the same face and eyes that have followed them since birth. The danger signs are over now, a trying ordeal Dawkins and his wife, Connie, will never forget.
Fatherhood took an unexpected turn for Dawkins, the Philadelphia Eagles' six-time, All-Pro safety April 26, 2007, when Chonni (pronounced chee-Ah-nee) and Cionni (pronounced see-Ah-nee) were born two months premature. It tested Dawkins' character, patience, faith and belief in himself.
He passed, with a new perspective and outlook on life and football. But there was a cost. The time and commitment the stalwart Dawkins usually gave to football waned.
Consequently, the maniacal "B-Dawk" Eagles fans and the NFL were so accustomed to seeing didn't appear until late 2007. That's why Dawkins is entering this training camp, he says, in the best condition he's been in in two years. He started preparing in February, because he has a goal in mind to be the same battering ram he's always been. That he'll turn 35 this year doesn't mean a thing.
He's still dangerous. He's still Brian Dawkins.
"I set a standard for myself that is very high, I didn't play up to that standard last year," said Dawkins, who was expected to report to the Eagles' training camp at Lehigh University on Thursday. "That was tough to live with. I know the fans were disappointed, but I was more disappointed in myself. I set the bar real high, and that's the way I expect to play all the time, not just some of the time. I wasn't reacting the way I like to react on the field. I was thinking too much, where before I'd just react and make a play.
"I pride myself on being a playmaker and I wasn't doing that, or at least not up to my standards. But I had serious things on my mind entering last year, and my family comes first. Always. Now I have an obligation to my family, and to myself, and that's play the way I expect to play."
Entering last season, Dawkins "the father" took precedence. Football, for a rare moment, wasn't even on his mind; being the foundation in a family crisis was. In June, Dawkins was named a 2008 Father of the Year honoree by the Father's Day Council.
"Being a father, it does make you think differently," said Dawkins, who is about to enter his 13th NFL season. "We all understand, when babies are born, they need everything. They can't do anything for themselves. As a parent, I read a lot of self-help books as to what to expect, but you find yourself learning some things on the job. You have to be open to change; you can't be selfish, because they need you. Babies take precedence over everything. But, you can say I got hit with a double-whammy."
It was more like steamrolled. The father of Brian Jr., 11, and Brionni, 8, Dawkins was going to be a parent again, expecting in June 2007. Connie and Brian were going to have twins, meaning everything had to be done twice.
Feeding. Changing. Bathing.
"Then we started getting signs some things might not be right," Dawkins said. "It was another case of learning new things on the run. But Connie and I didn't expect what was about to happen."
Chonni and Cionni entered the world two months premature. "It's like they were skin and bones," Dawkins recalled.
Cionni had a condition called bradycardia, which slows the heart rate to the point where there could be a 15- to 20-second pause in breathing. There were times when Dawkins would be feeding her and she'd stop breathing. He would shake her to resume breathing again.
But each time it occurred it would weigh heavily on Dawkins and his wife.
"Connie went through enough, that's why I took the full brunt of what my wife and family went through," Dawkins said. "On the field, it's so different. You feel in control, or at least I do when I play. I've seen every play from every offense they can throw at me. But I was never through a situation like that before. I found I'm a little stronger than I thought. I always knew my wife was strong, but she turned out to be much stronger than I thought. We both learned a lot about each other and it really tested our faith. We both found out we could handle stressful situations better than we thought."
There was a drawback on the field last season with Dawkins. He wasn't as prepared as he likes to be entering a season. His goal was to play himself into condition during training camp. It didn't exactly work out that way. Dawkins strained an Achilles' tendon the first day during a conditioning run and missed the first three weeks of camp. In the Eagles' second game of the season, against Washington, he suffered a stinger in his neck.
"Here's a guy who put anything and everything on the backburner for his family and his wife," said Ike Reese, a nine-year NFL veteran, now retired, and Dawkins' close friend. "Football became secondary when it came to what Brian went through. Brian thought he was able to recover late last year, because he has the mental and physical fortitude to do that. But nothing else mattered to him but his wife and his children. His heart and mind was into his family, and he wasn't at that time able to dedicate himself to football like he expects.
"We'll see Brian Dawkins again this season, the Brian Dawkins we all know. He'll be back this year. Brian has something to prove, to show people that the maniac is still out there."
Dawkins missed five games last year and even had a few people wondering if he had lost a step. For only the second time in his career, he failed to record a sack during the season. He's in the final year of his contract with the Eagles, but says he feels he has something more to play for than a new contract, something new that motivates him.
"My family in general motivates me," Dawkins said. "I want my son to be proud and explain to his friends why his daddy still acts so crazy on a football field. I'm very conscious of the fact that my kids know daddy off the field, but my two older ones know him on the field. Now I want my little girls to know daddy on the football field, as a football player. That means I plan on playing a little while longer."