Dermontti Dawson pulls in highest honor with Pro Football Hall of Fame induction



The late morning sun was beating on Dermontti Dawson's head, and already he was sweating as though he were going through another practice at training camp.

He was in his element, to be sure -- on grass as green as an Irish pasture with a ball positioned perfectly in his stance. And, just as he did for 13 seasons in the NFL, all with the Steelers, his next move was an impressive combination of gazelle-like grace and rhinoceros-like power.

"Man, that felt good," Dawson said, watching his tee shot sail through the air and split another fairway at Allegheny Country Club. "There's nothing quite like it, I don't think."

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The golf course is Dawson's competitive field these days -- that, and the gym -- and there really is nothing different about his preparation, his enthusiasm, his determination and, most definitely, his execution. Everything Dawson does seems so simple, so effortless, just as it did on the football field when his style, athleticism and perfection changed the way the center position was played in the NFL.

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He was as humble as he was good, a gentleman in an age of egos and pampered athletes, and nothing since he retired a dozen years ago has changed any of that.

Dawson goes into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday in Canton, Ohio, a fitting honor for a player who embodied what a professional athlete should be, a deserving salute for a center who just might have been better than Mike Webster, another Hall of Famer.

And, in typical Dawson fashion, he will wonder what all the fuss is about.

"I never considered it at all," Dawson said. "When you first come into the league, all you want to do is make the squad, and, after that, become a starter and have a decent career.

"You have individual goals for yourself -- the Pro Bowl, to be All-Pro -- but I never, ever thought of the Hall of Fame."

He does now.

A special player

Funny thing about Dermontti Farra Dawson: He never fancied himself a football player, let alone a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A player who eventually would change the way the center position was played in the NFL thought his best chance to get a scholarship to college was as a discus thrower and shot putter. And he ended up competing in those field events only because his 4.4-seconds speed in the 40-yard dash wasn't even among the fastest on his Bryan Station High School track team in Lexington, Ky.

"I won the state title in shot and discus and went undefeated," Dawson said. "I had more scholarship offers for track and field than I did football. A lot of coaches thought I could be a heck of a javelin thrower because of the speed and power I could generate. But I never threw the javelin because in the state of Kentucky it wasn't allowed."

Dawson was so good that college coaches told him he could compete in discus and shot in the Olympics. But there was another coach who thought Dawson could be a special player, and that's how he ended up on the path that, 30 years later, has led him to Canton.

Steve Parker, head football coach at Bryan Station, saw Dawson, a sophomore, walking down the hall one day and mistakenly thought he was a visitor.

"I said to him, 'Sir, may I help you?' " Parker recalled. "He said, 'I go to school here.' I thought he was a man. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, 'Where have you been all my life?' "

Parker was not disappointed once he got Dawson on the football field. He played two seasons at guard and tackle, accepted a scholarship to the University of Kentucky because he was told he could compete in football and track there and soon became the quickest and most athletic center the NFL had seen.

"To tell you how good he was, he could pull out on sweeps with Marc Logan, who could run a 4.4, and he was running out in front of him," said Parker, a professor of kinesiology and health promotion for 22 years at the University of Kentucky. "I saw that early. This guy had the quickest step I've ever seen. He was just an awesome player. He was just an extraordinary athlete."

Saturday, Parker will introduce his pupil for induction into pro football's ultimate shrine -- just the second Steelers player who didn't play on any of their Super Bowl-winning teams to be enshrined (cornerback Rod Woodson is the other).

"No offense to Mike Webster and Jim Otto," Parker said. "I think he's the greatest center to ever play the game."

One-upping Webster

On a team that once employed Webster, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, Dawson might have been the best center of all.

He played 13 seasons with the Steelers, performing at such an incredibly high level that he not only made the departure of the ironman Webster seem palatable, he re-defined his position.

"What Dermontti did, which is what Mel Blount did, changed the game," said former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who spent seven of his eight NFL seasons running behind Dawson. "You never had a center pull until Dermontti Dawson. He revolutionized and changed how we ran the football today.

"I played with Mike Webster my first year and I never thought I would be able to say someone was better than Mike Webster at center. Dermontti changed how we ran the ball."

"He was the quickest, most agile lineman that I've ever had the privilege of coaching," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who inherited Dawson when he replaced Chuck Noll as head coach 1992. "The greatest thing about Dermontti is, he epitomized what you want in a player. When he came to work, he had a smile on his face. He loved life; he loved practice. He was one of those guys, you talk about tempo, he was running out of the huddle every play. Everyone had to keep up with him."

Indeed, Dawson was the embodiment of everything the Steelers embraced. On the field, he had the agility and athletic skills of a gymnast and the toughness of a sumo wrestler. Off the field, he was polite, pleasant, affable, displaying the gentlemanly demeanor of an English butler.

He was born in Lexington, , went to high school at nearby Bryan Station and played guard at the University of Kentucky. The Steelers were so enamored with his physical skills they drafted him in the second round in '88 and eventually moved him to center -- a position that was manned with excellence by Webster from 1974-88.

From 1992-98, Dawson was named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro six times. Like Webster, he was an ironman, playing in 170 consecutive games -- second most in club history -- before severe hamstring injuries started to derail his career. He missed nine games in '99, seven more in 2000, and was released after the season when he was due a roster bonus. He retired at age 35, rather than play for another team.

At 47, he has started another career, living in San Diego and working for Prime Time West, which provides promotional products and marketing materials to businesses and corporations.

"I didn't want to play for any more teams," Dawson said. "I had teams contact me and say they would take care of me. All they wanted was for me to play on Sundays. I didn't want to go somewhere else and play because I had a great career in Pittsburgh."

Dawson was so dominant that he was named first-team center on the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. The Steelers do not officially retire jersey numbers, but they have not handed out Dawson's No. 63 since he left a dozen years ago -- the greatest tribute the franchise can accord him.

"He was one of the best players that we have ever played against at that position," said New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who faced Dawson twice a year when he was head coach of the Cleveland Browns (1991-95). "He had exceptional quickness; I think that really the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys that are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can't step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for [Neil] O'Donnell and those guys who played behind him."

Former Steelers general manager Tom Donahoe, who was a scout in 1988 and is the person Dawson credits for convincing the Steelers to draft him, also singled out Dawson as game-changer.

"We pulled him and used him a lot like a guard and did a lot of things in the offense with Dermontti out in front of the play, which, probably before that, was pretty much unheard of," Donahoe said

Said Dawson, "When I got to pull, I enjoyed that. I was a runner. I was athletic. It really helped us."

"We pull the center"

It happened innocently enough, in a game that had little, if any, consequence.

In 1992, at a preseason game against Philadelphia, the Steelers and their rookie coach, Bill Cowher, were having problems stopping the Eagles from getting penetration in their backfield.

Dawson went to Cowher and offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and told them he could help correct the problem by pulling and getting out to block the defensive tackle or end, depending on the assignment. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated.

Dawson would just switch responsibilities with the guard and jump out and block the end.

"They were making defensive adjustments and not allowing our offensive line to get up on the second level," Dawson said. "I just happened to tell Ron on the sideline, I can snap it and pull and take the guard's responsibility, depending on the alignment. I told him we can work out a system that if he's close for me to get him, I'm quick enough to get over there and prevent him from penetration.

"I told him we could make live calls that only the strong-side guard and I know, and I'd let the back-side guard know I can pull. I was just making adjustments. I said, 'Ron, I can run, I can pull, and I'll take the guard's responsibility and he can take mine. We started incorporating that, and it became part of our offense."

Just like that, a torch was lit.

The Steelers began running 39 Trap and 39 Boss -- their bread-and-butter running plays -- as though they were the only plays they had. And leading the way was Dawson, pulling as though he were the next Jerry Kramer.

The NFL had not seen a center who could run and pull like Dawson.

"It's something you wouldn't even think of doing," Cowher said. "I almost feel like he could get to the corner faster than [guard] Duval [Love] could, he was so quick. If he can get there as fast as the guards, and it's a much easier reach as opposed to the guard pulling ... it just created great angles for everyone.

"When you can do that with a center, man, he could get that middle linebacker right now. It was just a beautiful ability to get everybody."

"When I went to Chicago, they asked me to show them how we run the football," said Hoge, who left the Steelers after the '93 season and signed with the Bears. "I drew it up and said, 'We pull the center.' They said, 'We can't do that.' I told them, then you can't run the ball like we did in Pittsburgh."

It was all because of Dawson.

DATA

Name: Dermontti Fara Dawson.

Born: June 17, 1965, in Lexington, Ky.

College: Kentucky.

Position: Center.

Draft: 2nd round, 1988.

NFL Career: 1988-2000.

Games/starts: 184/181.

All-Pro: 6 years first team, 1993-98.

Pro Bowls: 7, 1992-98.

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published July 30, 2012 4:00 AM


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