Legends Retire Hard: The Truth Of Brian Dawkins Must Survive

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, the Philadelphia Eagles closed the 2008 edition of their training camp.

After a final meeting on the field between players and coaches, camp broke. The players joked and laughed as they walked to the locker rooms.

Like kids who go to summer camps, the players were excited their time away from home was over. It was almost time to head back to Philadelphia. Time to head back to their homes and families.

The full-capacity crowd came down to the fence separating the bleachers and field. They yelled for the players to come over and sign an autograph.

Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and other stars headed inside.

After the famous Eagles were gone, yelps for the backups arose. Second-string running back Correll Buckhalter walked by as the fans in green screamed for him to come sign.

At the team's camp, they set up a tent for autographs. Each fan is given a raffle ticket upon entry. When the designated autograph session is starting, the team announces which set of numbers is allowed in the tent. The tent holds players of an assigned position.

It's a good way for the team to get some fans a signature. Philadelphia's camp produces large turnouts each day. There are simply too many fans for everyone to go home happy.

Since it was the last day of camp, the flocks of fans tried one last time to get their autographs.

With each player that passed, the pleas grew louder.

Please sign!?

Come on!


The players weren't fazed. They, like most professional athletes, had been down that road before. Signing one autograph means signing more.

It means turning down people while satisfying a select few. After a big win, some may be less reluctant to sign - they're happy and willing to spread the love.

But on the last day of camp? The weary players wanted to get the hell out of Bethlehem. Really, no one could blame them.

Still, it was disappointing.

The last player on the field came to the beginning of the fence line. There, he signed a shirt. Then, someone else's hat. Next, another shirt.

Making an attempt to reach each fan, the player thanked whoever put something over the fence. He signed, thanked and moved on to the next.

He signed along that fence line for at least 90 minutes. He made sure the fans went home happy. He appreciated their support.

That player wasn't some rookie looking to impress a rabid fan base. He wasn't a no-name soaking in the moment. No.

It was none other than free safety Brian Dawkins. The man who overcame the odds of the Philadelphia athlete and was universally loved. If he isn't the only one in that group, he's damn close.

I was in the crowd that day along the fence line. When he came to me, I couldn't believe it.

My favorite athlete. The defensive leader of unquestionably my favorite team. A man who hit the field with such intensity it made a puny white kid in a crappy college apartment want to jump off the roof and fly.

Number 20 in every Eagles program. Number one in every Eagles fan's heart.

"Thanks for coming out today," Dawkins said.

"Yea man, drove up from Virginia," I replied.

As he held my hat, Dawkins looked me in the eye. Here I was, inches from who I believed to be the closest thing to a sports god.

"You don't know how much that means," the future nine-time Pro Bowler said. "For you to come this far to see us, it means a lot to me. I appreciate that."

He signed the hat. He moved on to the next.

It was the type of grace and humility that is too few and far between. Dawkins' willingness to do what he felt was necessary to appreciate the fans who supported him was incredible.

There are times in sports when we cling to heroes on the big screens. They aren't heroes in the truest sense of the word. However, for folks like us who eat, sleep and breathe sports, they are.

The sports heroes excel on the field. They might do community service work in the offseason. They give us something to cling to in dedication.

If we added up the number of sports heroes we've had and the ones who looked at us with the same respect, the scales would be tilted.

The professional entertainer understands his audience and how to pander to the fans. It's a part of the game. Some are truly grateful; others are adept at making it sound like they are.

I wasn't an expert in determining the difference between the two. But, I know what I saw when a man looked into my eyes and told me he appreciated what I did.

It was a gratitude that caught me off-guard. It was an act that showed me that he knew what it was like to want an autograph, and he never forgot that. I still marvel at it today.

Sunday, Dawkins' number 20 became just the eighth number retired by the Eagles franchise. I took mine out of its own retirement for the game.

He did his wild entrance out of the tunnel. At halftime, he thanked everyone. He led the fans in a chorus of, "Fly, Eagles, Fly."

Before the ceremony, he told reporters that he played the way he did because fans would too if they had a chance to play.

He put himself in the fans' shoes. The fans wished they were wearing his cleats.

Through the trials and tribulations of being and Eagles fan, I was always sure of one thing: Brian Dawkins was going to play as hard as he could on every play.

As a fan, that's all you can ever ask.

After getting my lucky hat signed in 2008, I am always sure of one thing: Brian Dawkins was all class.

As a human being, that's all you can ask.

Each Eagles fan will remember his hit on Alge Crumpler in his only successful NFC Championship game. They'll remember his fake punt TD against Houston in the Vet. We'll all know where we were when he was let go to sign in Denver.

I cried that day. I knew my favorite player was headed somewhere else to end his career. The Eagles had lost their defensive leader.

They had also lost a good man.

That goodness is what I'll remember. No matter how many highlight reels he made, Dawkins made my trip to training camp.

The connection he made with me was the same connection he made with Eagles fans through each play. His passion connected with their passion. His heart was on his sleeve, just like theirs.

Those connections are worth far more than highlights. They are permanent impressions that transcend the average athlete we root for on Sunday.

My number 20 jersey went back in the closet after a thrilling 19-17 win over New York. The autographed hat sits atop the closet. They won't come out unless my favorite athlete makes it to Canton.

When he does, I'll be there to show my appreciation.

The least I can do is return the favor.

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