Reese chuckles. "I could never understand how somebody so small could deliver the punishment he did," he says of the 6-foot, 210-pound Dawkins. "When Brian Dawkins got his hands on you, he wanted to hurt you. He hit you with violence. I remember thinking when I saw that hit on Bettis, 'Man, this guy can bring the wood.' "
For 16 seasons in the NFL, Brian Dawkins did just that. Off the field, he was a reserved, genial man, only to undergo a transformation on Sunday into his alter ego, comic-book superhero Wolverine. Over the course of his stellar career - 13 years with the Eagles and 3 with the Denver Broncos - Dawkins recorded 1,131 tackles, 26 sacks and 37 interceptions. After he parted with the Eagles as a free agent in February 2009 when contract negotiations stalled, Dawkins continued playing at a distinguished level in Denver, where he was selected to his ninth Pro Bowl. Upon announcing his retirement in April, Dawkins was signed to a 1-day contract by the Eagles, who will retire his jersey No. 20 in a ceremony before the Giants game Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
With the possible exception of Elvis, few had a longer list of greatest hits than Dawkins. In interviews with his former teammates, it was hard for some of them to choose one that stood apart from the others.
"Goodness!" Reese says. "Where do you begin?"
Of course, there was the hit on Bettis. Others remember how Dawkins pulverized 6-4, 256-pound running back Brandon Jacobs, the former Giant now with San Francisco. But perhaps even Dawkins would have to agree that his hardest hit was on Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler in the 2004 NFC Championship Game. Dawkins walloped the 6-2, 275-pound Crumpler with such intensity that vultures began circling overhead. When he heard that Dawkins had retired, Crumpler told former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook: "I guess I can go back and play again now."
So how did it feel to be hit by Dawkins?
Westbrook knows. "When I was a rookie, we ran against the first-team defense in practice," he says. "And let me just say that Brian did not spare the rod. He was a tough joker."
Some Eagles caught what Reese called "friendly fire." Former linebacker Jeremiah Trotter recalls a line from the movie, "The Program," in which a coach exhorts a player to hit an opponent so hard, "I want to see nothing but snot bubbles in his nose." Trotter says he always wondered what "snot bubbles" were until he saw defensive end Hugh Douglas accidentally hit on the back of the head by Dawkins in a textbook example of friendly fire. Trotter says he remembers it "like it was yesterday."
"We were playing the Giants and [running back] Tiki Barber came up through the hole," Trotter says. "Hugh jumped in the way just as Dawkins exploded on Tiki. Hugh ended up getting the better part of the hit. And he began blowing snot bubbles."
(Douglas did not return a voicemail message.)
No one can dole out the physical abuse that Dawkins did without absorbing it himself. Says former safety Quintin Mikell: "Every week he got banged up. You would see him on Monday and Tuesday and even on Wednesday and wonder if he would be able to go that week. He would come up to me and say, 'Q' - this is when I was young - 'be ready to go this week, 'cause I am not sure how I will feel this Sunday.' "
According to Trotter and others, it was not uncommon to see Dawkins tending to his battered body at the NovaCare Complex well into the evening. By the end of his Eagles tenure, he had started 182 of 183 games. And he very rarely would sit out practice.
"You could see he was struggling to get to his workouts on certain days," Reese says. "He would move gingerly. I can remember him having stiff-neck issues. He would get stingers. Obviously, I think he probably could have taken some of those days off. They would have allowed that. But it was always a priority for him to get to practice every day, not just to prepare himself but to set an example for his teammates."
Mikell added, "He was old-school that way."
He grew into a leader. But he only spoke up when he had something to say. Offensive lineman Todd Herremans says, "Brian was not the type of person who would back down from speaking up . . . He had a sense for knowing what to say and when to say it." Reese added that quarterback Donovan McNabb leaned on Dawkins for counsel, especially when it appeared that McNabb faced an uncertain future with the organization. Reese remembers, "Their lockers were across from each other. And I know for a fact that they had some long conversations." McNabb could not be reached for comment.
On both sides of the ball and on special teams, Reese said the Eagles "fed off the energy" Dawkins created. On Sunday when the defense was introduced by the public address announcer, Dawkins could always be counted on to add some personal flair. Reese laughs and says, "He would give you a shimmy shake or roll around and come up like he was looking for a target to shoot." Reese adds, "Whatever he did, I just knew he was going to come with energy. And I was always looking to soak it up." Only then would Dawkins suddenly transform into a player for whom opponents would always have an eye out.
"Opposing teams feared Brian Dawkins," Westbrook says. "They knew where he was on every single play."
Trotter echoes that. "Pound-for-pound, he was the hardest hitter I have ever been around," Trotter says. "And you never saw him miss a tackle. He struck fear in the hearts of receivers. They would get alligator arms just because they knew he was near."
Reese adds, "Through the week, he would lead praise and worship meetings. But once he got into that uniform on Sunday, he would tap into his dark side."
That the Eagles allowed him to sign with Denver became a sore point with the fans who had followed him since the organization had chosen him out of Clemson in the second round of the 1996 draft. While it was true that he had some age on him by then (35), it is also true that certain players add a dynamic to a team that cannot be quantified by statistics. Westbrook says, "Look at how the Ravens have held on to Ray Lewis. He is no longer one of the 32 top players in the league, but he adds something." Well apart from the fact Dawkins still played well enough that initial year with the Broncos to be selected to the Pro Bowl, he had something to contribute to the Eagles in terms of intangibles.
And they were?
"Heart," says Westbook.
"Leadership," says Trotter.
To which Reese adds, "You never wanted to let him down. Because he never let you down."
Contact Mark Kram at email@example.com.