Mike Sielski: Brian Dawkins seemed invincible with the Eagles, but he shows another side in his new book
PHILADELPHIA — Brian Dawkins was an executive with the Eagles — nine years since the last time he lined up at safety for them, six months before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a couple of days after they had just won the Super Bowl — when he began contemplating writing a memoir. It was 2018. He was 44, an age when a man might recognize he possesses some wisdom and might want to share it.
"My heart was leaving football," he said in an interview Tuesday. "My passion and thoughts began to go in other directions. One of those directions was this book."
"Blessed by the Best: My Journey to Canton and Beyond" is Dawkins' attempt, by telling the story of his life, to have readers reflect on theirs. It's no coincidence that the book's publisher, Camino Books, is a Philadelphia-based company and that his coauthor is Villanova professor and longtime local sportswriter Michael Bradley. There is no more admired pro athlete in Philadelphia sports history than Dawkins. The admiration and adoration for him here are universal, and he is banking that his status will give him a way to reach those who might need the book's message and lessons most.
“When people see me or an image or picture of me from a game,” Dawkins said, “a lot of people come up and say, ‘When I see that picture, it motivates me to do such-and-such’ or ‘It motivates me to be a better man and to go after something in life.’ Sometimes they think nothing ever happens other than me having triumphs or great times. That’s far from the case.
“What I wanted to show was that some of the things I’ve gone through in my life helped me and blessed me. Some of them were extremely painful. Some of them were extremely hurtful. But it’s the way that I see them; I see how they’ve helped me to become the man that I am. To have the drive, the passion, the determination, the won’t-quit attitude — that has come from some of the failures, the shortcomings in my life.”
On the field, those few failures and shortcomings are already familiar to Eagles fans, and Dawkins adds detail and color in retelling them. During the Eagles' 2002-03 NFC Championship Game loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, he spent much of the game screaming at coach Andy Reid, "Run the ball! Just run it! We got you!" And he blames himself for the Eagles' 14-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the following year's conference title game, when he lost sight of a jump-ball pass that Muhsin Muhammad caught for a touchdown. "That play still haunts me, to this day," he writes.
But the book's darkest passages emerge from Dawkins' rookie season with the Eagles in 1996 when the pressure he felt as a young husband, father, and football player nearly crippled him. He drank frequently, mostly shots of whiskey and vodka. He rammed his head through a wall in his house. He thought about killing himself so that his wife, Connie, could collect the insurance money. He writes:
"Depression started to kick in. I was basically walking around with a mask on, pretending nothing was wrong, pretending I was just fine. There was nobody I could talk to about this, or so I convinced myself, so it was eating me away from the inside."
Emmitt Thomas, the Eagles' defensive coordinator at the time and a mentor/father figure to Dawkins, intervened to help him, persuading him to see a psychiatrist and confront his depression. And in the book, Dawkins continues to peel away his veneer of indestructibility by acknowledging, in a revelation that isn't particularly surprising, that he would put on a "suit of armor" before every game by getting a shot of Toradol — a powerful anti-inflammatory common in the NFL — in his rear end. His liver functions are normal, he said, though he still has them checked regularly.
"It became, for me, one of the hazards of playing the game," he said. "That's probably a strange mindset to have. I knew that I was going to get a Toradol shot before games. That was going to happen. My thing was not to take anything after that. So I was not taking, during the week, any painkillers. As quickly as I could get off the hard stuff and get on regular stuff, I was going to do it. In my mind, I never wanted to go down that road because I'd heard about other people getting addicted. I never wanted to get addicted, and sometimes I would suffer because I wouldn't take the doggone painkillers, and it would come back to bite me. It would be painful."
That was the side of his career that Dawkins let only so many people see, and he has been able to move on from it since his last game, in 2011 for the Denver Broncos. The act-the-fool frenzy that he would work himself into before kickoff, the controlled fury with which he played, the "period of mourning" that he entered after contract negotiations with the Eagles fell apart in 2009: They suggest that Dawkins would struggle to adjust to retirement, that he derived so much meaning from football, especially during his 13 years in Philadelphia, that he would be empty without it.
Not so, he said.
"It is not a hole in my life. A lot of people say it, but I was able to grasp this: Football is not who I am. It's what I do. That's very important for people to understand in general, that the job that you do is not who you are." The most beloved Eagle of all was right to think he had some wisdom worth sharing.