Mild-mannered golf aficionado Brian Dawkins has exactly what the Broncos need—a game-day dark side based on a superhero
Emerging from Bible study at the Broncos’ Dove Valley practice facility, Brian Dawkins appears beatifically calm and serene in a cream-colored Lake Nona sweater vest and burgundy slacks. It’s an outfit tailored for a crisp fall day on the links or dinner with his high-school-sweetheart wife, Connie, and their four children.
Worn for this magazine’s photo shoot, Dawkins’ ensemble conceals the heavily muscled 6-foot, 210-pound frame he hurled ferociously into receivers and running backs with tooth-rattling force during his 13 years with the Philadelphia Eagles—and during the first few games of this season, his first with Denver, which signed him to a five-year, $17 million free-agent contract in February.
In the seven-time Pro Bowl safety, the Broncos got more than just a player to shore up their secondary. They got an outspoken leader who quickly has established himself as the new heart and soul of the defense.
They got “Wolverine.”
Wolverine, the man-beast from the X-Men action series known for its steel skeleton and razor-sharp claws, represents Dawkins’ alter ego. On the field, the soft-spoken safety morphs into that superhero personality, clawing and pouncing along the ground like an animal during pre-game introductions and maintaining an almost supernatural ferocity throughout the game. “I like Wolverine because he’s real gritty,” says Dawkins. “He’s not your normal good guy.”
Nor is Dawkins your normal football player. Off the field and on the golf course, he’s a devoted family man who earned the NFL Players Association’s 2009 Byron “Whizzer” White award for his myriad philanthropic endeavors, including hosting the Burn Prevention Annual Celebrity Golf Classic at Pennsylvania’s Saucon Valley Country Club. On the gridiron, he’s a snarling, growling, motor-mouthed bone-crusher who embodies Wolverine’s credo: “I’m the best I am at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.”
Both personae are genuine, and somehow coexist.
At Dove Valley, for example, he has two lockers. The first, the one that bears his name, displays color photos of his beautiful twin daughters, along with other family snapshots and a pair of Bibles. The other, adjacent to the first, contains more than two dozen Wolverine figurines—mostly sent by fans—and he makes sure to bring one to Invesco Field to aid in his Dr. Jekyll-to-Mr. Hyde-like transformation.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says cornerback Champ Bailey, who’s more impressed by Dawkins’ leadership than his figurine collection. “I’ve seen guys who talk a lot, and try to give great speeches, but they don’t go out and do it. And I’ve seen guys go out there and do it, but they don’t talk. He’s both. He’s a great leader and we’re lucky to have a guy like that. I can’t believe Philly let him get away.”
When Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach earlier this year, he made Dawkins (who’s three years his senior) his first priority on defense. But even he cracks up at Dawkins’ intensity. “When I’m calling plays on offense, there’s not one time that I don’t hear him behind me, talking to the defense, talking to the punt team,” McDaniels says. “I’m hearing him behind me, and it’s all positive. It’s all the right things and it’s not phony. It’s real leadership.”
If Dawkins presents such a dichotomy, which side emerges on the golf course? He insists it’s the mild-mannered side, at least nowadays.
“In the beginning I was horrible—my game and my attitude,” he says of the period more than 10 years ago when he first took up the game. “Then I began to understand golf a little more and it became more of a pleasure to play. The thing you can learn most is you’ve got to let that last shot go. You can’t dwell on the shot you sliced and lost the ball on or you’re going to do the same thing on the next shot and have a miserable round. It’s the same thing with football. If you give up a big play defensively, you have to have a short memory, line up and do things right the next time.
“Put it this way: I come home with all my clubs.”
Dawkins took lessons his second year in Philadelphia, and was playing regularly enough to shoot in the high 80s. But lately, with a wife and four kids, and now a new home to settle into, he doesn’t get much time to tee it up. “I was using Adams Tight Lies blades when I was good,” he says. “Now I’m sticking with some Nikes. They’re pretty forgiving.”
His game will return, however, especially when he retires, whenever that is. For a guy three years older than his coach, Dawkins hasn’t slowed a step nor lowered his intensity level. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like at 36. Is there a criteria, a check list? All I know is I have God-given ability,” says Dawkins, who is as ripped as Shannon Sharpe ever was.
Or as Tiger Woods is. For now, Dawkins lives vicariously through Tiger, his favorite player to watch on TV and the anchor in a dream foursome that would include gospel singer Marvin Sapp, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley. Woods lives and practices at Isleworth, while Dawkins has a home at nearby Lake Nona, which explains the sweater vest. The posh Florida club is also home to dozens of professional golfers, including Annika Sorenstam and Ernie Els.
So has anyone recruited Dawkins to play in the annual Tavistock Cup club competition?
“Not if they want to win,” Dawkins quips.
At least he knows his skill set, something Denver fans are just beginning to see. “It’s funny,” Bailey says of Dawkins’ immediate influence on the team. “The guy just got here, but you would think he’s been here forever.”
While Dawkins will always be one of the most beloved athletes in Philadelphia history (look for a standing ovation when the Broncos go to Lincoln Financial Field on Christmas Day), time will tell how his career plays out in the Mile High City.
“We’ve got quite an illustrious history of safeties,” says Broncos VP of Public Relations Jim Saccomano. “Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater, Billy Thompson, John Lynch. Those are some big hitters. But I don’t know we’ve had a guy who displays that kind of emotion. That’s what might set him apart.”
By the time he exits the tunnel onto the field, his intensity appears otherworldly. “It’s like he’s out of his mind…and he maintains that the whole game,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. Dawkins howls, he crabwalks, sometimes he even incorporates a somersault into his furious charge onto the field. He even can be heard talking in tongues, a non-recognizable babble that he says is a form a prayer for himself and his teammates.
He does everything but curse. “That’s something that should not come out of a righteous man’s mouth,” he told Steve Sabol on NFL Films. “It doesn’t mean I’m cushy, or soft.”
Quite the contrary, Dawkins is one of the hardest-hitting safeties in NFL history. Ask Alge Crumpler, the former Atlanta Falcon tight end who was on the receiving end of a vicious hit in the 2005 NFC Championship Game, which put the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
On the golf course, his shots pack punch as well. He recalls years ago when he and best friend Jeremiah Trotter tried to see if they could drive a par-4 at Ramblewood Golf Course in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. “I cranked off like a 350-yard drive and was chipping distance from the green. I didn’t swing as hard as I could, but that thing just sailed.”
Dawkins, however, admits the emotion falls at a different end of the spectrum. “In golf, when you hit your best shot, it’s an effortless swing. You don’t really try to kill it. You catch it clean and your balance is perfect, so it’s more of a peaceful experience,” he says. “When you have a hit on the field, it’s all aggression.”
That’s what the Broncos D needs.
“His energy, his drive, his passion for the game…guys in this locker room haven’t seen anything like it,” says running back Correll Buckhalter, who followed Dawkins from Philly to Denver. “Just seeing him do that, makes you want to play harder. It doesn’t matter if he thinks he’s Wolverine or Superman, He tends to get the job done.”