One of the earliest memories of Brian Dawkins that comes to mind is when he placed a textbook tackle on Emmitt Smith, driving his shoulder into the midsection of the NFL's all-time leading rusher before lifting him from the turf and onto his back.
Smith quickly bounced up from one of the countless hard hits that Dawkins delivered in his career and tapped the animated safety on the head in a complimentary gesture. Dawkins would receive many of those throughout his 16- year career in the NFL, leaving a legion of football fans wondering if the man who transformed himself into Marvel Comics superhero Wolverine on game day would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Let the debate begin.
On Monday, Dawkins used Twitter to announce his retirement from the league he loved and dominated ever since the Philadelphia Eagles selected him out of Clemson in the second round of the 1996 draft. The game made Dawkins a millionaire, a fan favorite and opened his eyes to how fortunate he was to be in the NFL.
"The Lord has blessed me to play in the NFL for 16 years," Dawkins posted. "I would like to thank the Eagles & the Broncos 4 believing In me. I would like 2 thank all my teammates & Coaches that I have been blessed 2 go to battle with. Along with u, the fans 4 helping make my career 1 that i have enjoyed tremendously. In other words. I am announcing my retirement from the NFL."
The emotional and inspirational leader both on and off the field was battling a neck injury that kept him out of last year's playoff run for the Denver Broncos. Dawkins obviously felt there was no need to risk further injury and will now let the writers decide if he is worthy enough to have a bust in the Hall of Fame.
A class act all the way with the media, Dawkins would be one of very few pure safeties to have NFL immortality. Ken Houston, Paul Krause and Larry Wilson are just a few, while Ronnie Lott was recognized as both a safety and cornerback. Dawkins should get at least a look since he played against bigger, stronger and more skilled athletes.
If it were up to the fans in the voting process, Dawkins already would have a space reserved in Canton, Ohio.
A chiseled specimen and nine-time Pro Bowl pick, Dawkins finished his career with respectable numbers: 37 interceptions, 624 tackles, 26 sacks, 28 forced fumbles and a Super Bowl appearance with the Eagles back in 2004. He spent his first 13 seasons in Philadelphia and won over a tough crowd with his blue- collar style of play.
For Eagles fans, the hard-hitting safety will most likely be remembered for drilling Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler in the 2004 NFC Championship Game, and then demanding respect from the nation during the George S. Halas trophy ceremony (see youtube.com).
The man who loved to show off his biceps and instilled fear behind a tinted visor also made lasting memories against the Houston Texans in 2002, when he became the first player in NFL history to intercept a pass, record a sack, force a fumble and score a touchdown in the same game. Dawkins also picked off Brett Favre in overtime during one of his many playoff runs shortly following the infamous 4th-and-26 connection between Donovan McNabb and Freddie Mitchell.
Hearts in the City of Brotherly Love were later broken, though, when the Eagles opted not to bring back Dawkins prior to the 2009 campaign. Still a dominant force in the run game with his ability to take on much larger backs, his coverage skills began to diminish. The Broncos didn't think so and shelled out a ton of dough for Dawkins, who made the Pro Bowl in his first season in the Mile High City.
Dawkins will be honored by the Eagles on Sept. 30 versus the despised New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field, and there likely won't be a dry eye in the house. Eagles head coach Andy Reid had a few words for his former defensive backfield warrior.
"The NFL will miss a player as talented, ferocious, and determined as Brian Dawkins," Eagles head coach Andy Reid said. "He was one of the most dedicated and hardest-working players I have ever coached. Whether it was on the practice field, the film room or the weight room, Brian always put in the extra hours it took to become the star player that he was. And he transferred all of that and more onto the field on Sundays. He poured everything he could into doing whatever was best for his teammates and this organization. He was the unquestioned leader of our defense. He will go down as one of the greatest Eagles of all-time and I have no doubt we'll be celebrating his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Broncos head coach John Fox, a defensive-minded instructor, also weighed in on the retirement news in a team statement.
"Brian Dawkins is one of the best to ever play the game, a future Hall of Famer who changed the way his position is played," Fox said. "In many ways, he helped my job as a coach with his great leadership and preparation. He brought so much to the table and was such an enormous asset to our football team."
With the support of both Reid and Fox, two instrumental coaches in the NFL, it's still debatable whether Dawkins will have a day of glory in his first year of eligibility, or even at all. Fans, former teammates, coaches and executives will have to wait five years to discover B-Dawk's HOF fate.