By David Fleming
Monday, June 23
Updated: June 23
11:15 AM ET
Time stands still inside this dingy room, quite literally, because the hands of the clock have been grotesquely twisted and rearranged during a fit of anger, as if by Salvador Dali himself. The floor is littered with crusty, blood-soaked cotton balls. And the only sunlight comes from a large, freshly destroyed section of wall. Although the outline from the damage is a familiar shape, none of the handful of visitors in the room can place it -- nor is any brave enough to ask the suspected architect behind this unique bit of alfresco venting. He stands in the middle of the room, pulverizing a red-leather punching bag in tune with the vicious beats of Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
Philadelphia Eagle Brian Dawkins -- the nastiest safety to prowl the deep third since Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott -- is in Jacksonville, Fla., right in the middle of his off-season workout regimen. He has paired up with Ultimate Fighting legend Tim "Obake" Catalfo, a cross between Yosemite Sam and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Catalfo leans in to keep the bag in place as the intensely focused Dawkins snaps off a series of precise, piercing jabs, stopping only occasionally to spin and knee-kick a third man -- all 300 pounds of him -- off the floor. Dawkins' movements are so fierce and full of fury that his audience is mesmerized. Which is to say, scared witless.
Then, without notice, Dawkins disengages from the bag, throws one more spine-snapping kick and heads straight toward the onlookers. There's a palpable he's-coming-this-way feeling, for good reason. This is the same man who, in a playoff game last January against the Falcons, popped Mike Vick so hard that the quarterback looked for a moment like he might land in the Atlantic Ocean; the same headhunter who knocked Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard out for the season last October; the same guy who a year ago bumped into Catalfo while working out and immediately realized he'd found a kindred, junkyard-dog spirit.
But as Dawkins draws closer, the sweat from his chin kerplunking on the mat like raindrops, his entire posture changes. He twists off his wedding band, smiles softly at the visitors watching his workout and drops the two-tone gold ring into the open palm of his wife, Connie. "Afraid I'll bend it, baby?" he asks, winking before he returns to the bag. Connie shrugs, then responds to a question that no one has asked. "I know. He's a maniac, then he's all mushy. That's just Brian. He kinda just, you know, transforms himself."
Himself and a whole lot more. Dawkins -- who has cornerback speed, linebacker power and the mind of a defensive coordinator -- is the man most responsible for taking the safety position from post-Lott afterthought to marquee spot. "You remember what Lawrence Taylor did for outside linebacker?" asks Eagles backer Ike Reese. "Everyone wanted that type of linebacker. Well, that's what Dawk is doing with the safety spot."
The Eagles obviously agree. This spring the team rewarded the 29-year-old Pro Bowler with a seven-year, $43M contract (including an $8M signing bonus) that makes Dawkins the highest-paid Eagle on defense. What makes Dawkins unusual -- in this era of specialization for every down and distance -- is an adaptability that lets defensive coordinator Jim Johnson keep his 5'11", 200-pound star on the field and attack with him from virtually anywhere. Dawkins might cover a speedy slot receiver, creep into the box for run support, blitz up the middle to harass the quarterback or show pressure on the weak side before backpedaling 20 yards at the snap to play traffic cop. "I want to push the envelope on what people think a safety can do," says Dawkins between bites of seared tuna at a Jacksonville restaurant. "Push it until the seal explodes. I want to take safeties from this image people have now of a boring last line of defense, into the first player you think about. I want to be the one who transformed the position."
Dawkins has entered that rare area of superstar status, where offensive coordinators game-plan around him and go so far as to put a scout-team player in a red No. 20 jersey. That's the type of respect reserved for Ray Lewis or Warren Sapp, and that's the company Dawkins now keeps. Last season he earned his fourth trip to Hawaii after leading the Eagles in tackles (131) and forced fumbles (7). He sets the tone for a defense that finished No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed (15.1).
And his versatility isn't limited to where he lines up. Last September, Dawkins became the first NFL player to grab himself a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery and a TD reception (on a fake punt) in the same game, a win over the Texans. "A safety dominated a game by himself," says ex-Eagle Blaine Bishop. "I've never seen anything like it, and I'll never see anything like it again."
At least not until this fall. Because of his amazing burst to the ball -- thanks, in part, to his training with Catalfo -- Dawkins is one of the game's most disruptive blitzers. He has accounted for 10 career sacks, 63 hurries and hundreds of sleepless nights (they don't keep stats for that yet). In the trenches during games, blockers are constantly screaming "20 in the box & Hey, 20's in the box!" In a 17-3 victory over the Giants last October, Dawkins slithered so close to the line of scrimmage (with no deep help behind him) that a startled Kerry Collins yelled, "Damn it Dawk, that ain't right!"
Most free safeties cover a third of the field. Dawkins' fiefdom is closer to twice that -- which makes opposing offenses feel like they're playing against 12 defenders. Imagine: You practice all week to contain three linebackers or two corners to spring a play. Then Dawkins walks up or shifts outside during the quarterback's cadence, and suddenly there's an extra guy to deal with. That's why Dawkins is the NFL equivalent of a stealth bomber: fast, lethal, versatile, untraceable. He's everywhere and nowhere all at once. "Like seeing double," says Bucs quarterback Jim Miller.
As it happens, many players who come into contact with Dawkins end up with blurred vision. A list of his big hits reads like an outline for one of the safety's favorite X-Men comic books. (His home on a golf course south of Jacksonville and his locker in Philly are adorned with Wolverine action figures, T-shirts and lithographs, some of which he picked up last season during a tour of the Marvel Comics offices.) "A few years ago, Jerome Bettis came around the corner once and & BLAM!" Reese says, referring to a game against the Steelers in 2000. "Dawk dropped him right where he stood. Bettis is, what, 260? He was tiptoeing around for the rest of the game. Hardest hit I've ever seen."
There was the filling-rattler on Eddie George last September. POW! The smackdown on Emmitt Smith in December. KA-BLAM! The destruction of Tiki Barber in the season finale. SPLAT! But none of those compares to the blow Dawkins delivered to Hilliard on Monday Night Football last October. That one had an entirely different ring to it: SNAP! (Hilliard's right shoulder) and CHA-CHING! (Dawkins' wallet).
Hilliard, who didn't have the ball, was in the air and defenseless when Dawkins blew him up, head first. So a fine of some sort was appropriate. But the amount ($50,000), particularly for a first offense, seemed excessive to Dawkins, who's quick to call the league hypocritical for both publicizing and punishing players for in-game violence. "I hated what happened," he says. "I will always deliver a message -- and, yeah, it may hurt just a bit. But you never want to take someone out."
Still, Dawkins' scariest, most damaging hit was self-inflicted. It occurred during training camp of his rookie season. The Eagles plucked him out of Clemson in the second round of the 1996 draft. But a few weeks before the beginning of his pro career, Dawkins' life had begun to unravel. Connie, his high school sweetheart, had just delivered their first child, Brian Jr., by cesarean section. (They also have a daughter, Brionni, 3.) But after Connie's C-section scar became infected, she was hospitalized for a week. Dawkins returned to the team, only to be tortured by guilt. While he was struggling to learn the Eagles defense, he was facing demands for money from family members in Florida. He felt pulled in a thousand directions. Adding to the difficulty was that Dawkins, who says he drank too much in college, had recently quit.
Whatever the cause, he snapped. Connie still remembers the date: Aug. 7, 1996. "Rock bottom," she says. That's when Dawkins took off running in the couple's condo, torpedoing himself into a locked steel door. He fell to the ground and broke down crying.
"Brian looked defeated in the eyes," says Connie, who called then-Eagles defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas. Thomas came over and comforted his rookie, telling him then and through the rest of the training camp that his potential was unlimited. "If it wasn't for the grace of God and Emmitt Thomas," says Connie, "I'm not so sure Brian would be here today."
Mention the incident to Dawkins, and he quickly gives you a look that says, "I don't want to talk about it." But it was a defining moment in his career. With help from Connie, Thomas (now with Atlanta) and Eagles All-Pro corner Troy Vincent, Dawkins went through his most important transformation during that rookie year.
He started praying with Vincent, who organizes weekly team prayer meetings. He began taking antidepression medication. And he learned to handle pressure better. "The human body is just not designed to live with so much worry," Dawkins says. "But if you do fall into one of those pits and you make it out the other side, you come out stronger, freer."
You also come out with a new list of priorities. For Dawkins, that list reads as follows: faith, family and, only then, football. Because once you get your life straightened out, your perspective on getting burned for a touchdown changes.
Teammates started to see a difference in Dawkins' on-field persona, which until then could best have been described as tentative. Thomas brough him in to watch a tape of his play. Dawkins looked hesitant, scared even. He didn't take any chances, backpedaling 20 yards deep at the snap of the ball. Disgusted, Thomas clicked off the film.
"I could get a bum off the street to do this," he yelled. "I want a safety who'll make some damn plays, a safety with some balls." Thomas told Dawkins that he'd been blessed with the physical gifts to be the best safety ever to play the game. You can do that, Thomas said, or you can have a nice, safe, nothing career.
It was as if someone had cut an anchor from his waist. Dawkins was starting by the third game of the season. And while the normal spot for a free safety with deep coverage responsibilities is 10 to 12 yards off the line, Dawkins began creeping up -- to eight & seven & six yards from the ball. He started playing the spot in a way that made a mockery of the word safety, a style that perfectly fit the attacking scheme of Johnson, who replaced Thomas as defensive coordinator in 1999. Dawkins made his first Pro Bowl that season.
If you were to watch Dawkins doing agility drills next to the league's best defensive backs, his uniqueness -- and the benefits of his work with Catalfo -- would become obvious. Like a Roy Jones Jr. overhand right or an Ernie Els drive, Dawkins' eye-popping power comes not from brute strength but from his smooth, fluid biomechanics. Watch his fingers when he runs: They're always loose and dangling, not squeezed into a fist. That was a tip from Catalfo, as was backpedaling into coverage in a more upright and flexible position. "I've never seen anyone this successful at what they do," Catalfo says, "or so insane about getting better."
Back in that wrecked workout room, Catalfo is running Dawkins through an odd obstacle course, forcing him to scale steps, dodge an attacker, somersault onto a cushion and then reorient himself before finding and destroying a target. As he navigates the course, Dawkins flashes so quickly past that hole in the dry wall that his back-and-forth movements create a strobelike effect. Behind his frenetic movement, you can't help but be drawn to the peculiar but familiar shape. But what is it?
"Got it!" someone says. "It's a quarterback."
And at that moment, the scowl on Dawkins' face transforms into a sinister grin.