UK Football

Dawson on center stage

Some say Dermontti Dawson is the best player ever at his position.

Saturday will tell whether the selection committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame agrees.

Dawson, out of Bryan Station High and the University of Kentucky, is a four-time nominee and first-time finalist for the Hall. A high school tackle and college guard, he made his name with the Pittsburgh Steelers at center.

"I'm real prejudiced, and I hope he makes it," said Lexington's Jake Hallum, Dawson's line coach at UK and now a senior scout for the Cleveland Browns. "In my mind, and I've seen a lot of them, he was the best I've ever seen."

Dawson will need 80 percent approval when the 44-person selection committee meets at Tampa Bay. He is among 17 finalists.

"It's a big honor any time that you're even nominated for the Hall of Fame because that's the biggest accolade you can accomplish as a player. Individual accolade," said Dawson, a semifinalist last season. "It's an honor because the guys who played before me are the guys who pretty much set the bar at a certain level, and you have to measure up to those guys in order to be eligible."

Dawson often is compared with Dwight Stephenson and the man Dawson succeeded at Pittsburgh, Mike Webster. Both are in the Hall.

"But," Hallum said, "Dermontti could do things that those guys can't do."

At Bryan Station, Coach Steve Parker used Dawson as a two-way tackle.

The late John Devlin, an assistant to Jerry Claiborne's UK recruiting staff, visited Bryan Station to scout running back Marc Logan and receiver Cornell Burbage, both of whom would play for UK and in the NFL.

When Devlin came back to UK, Hallum recalled, "He said, 'Jake, there's another player over here I really, really like.' And I looked at (film of) Dermontti, and I knew he was a good athlete."

So Dawson was added to the recruiting class, proving to be a hard worker, of good character and, ultimately, an outstanding player.

The best center from UK: Dawson or six-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Van Note?

Neither, Van Note said.

"The greatest center at Kentucky was Irv Goode, if you ask me," Van Note said. "Big Irv played for the (St. Louis) Cardinals."

Plus, Van Note was a defensive end at UK, and Dawson an offensive guard.

Dawson did play center if needed on the UK scout team, until earning a starting position at guard as a junior.

At the time, the UK coaching staff awarded "cat paws" decals for outstanding play. Hallum recalls a game when Dawson knocked down perhaps 15 to 20 defenders.

"I'll never forget, one of our assistant coaches came in one day after giving out the cat's paws and ... said, 'Dermontti gets the whole cat,' " Hallum said.

Dawson played center in the Senior Bowl.

"Some of the pro scouts wanted to see me play center. I don't know if we had a shortage of centers; I just can't remember," Dawson said. "But they wanted to see if I could play center because I think they felt like I was too small to play guard. So I played center in the Senior Bowl, and Thurman Thomas ran for 200-plus yards and was MVP. That kind of started it — 'Oh, yeah, he can play center.' "

The Steelers, with an aging Webster at center, took Dawson in the second round of the 1988 draft. At 285 pounds, he worked his way into the lineup at guard as a rookie, starting five of eight games before going down with a knee injury.

The next season, Coach Chuck Noll chose Dawson to replace Webster at center.

Early on, Dawson got a rude reception from Detroit All-Pro nose guard Jerry Ball.

"He ate my lunch the first half, and I'm like, 'Man, am I made to play center or should I go (back) to guard?' " Dawson said. "He kind of indoctrinated me to the NFL. But after that, I kind of figured it out, got my bearings."

Dawson's best years were to come, when rookie head coach Bill Cowher "allowed me to start pulling" in 1992.

Dawson recalls lobbying Cowher and Coach Ron Ehr hardt while the Steelers were in camp, preparing for "one of these defenses where the defensive linemen were slanting and getting in the gaps and occupying two blockers. I just told Ron and those guys, 'Hey, I'm fast enough to get around and take over the guard's responsibility if it calls for it; or if I feel I can get the guy, I'll get him.' "

Dawson's combination of strength and speed made him ideal to pull, and running backs Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis reaped the benefits. Dawson's weight eventually got to the 295-300-pound range.

Van Note, who was called on to pull when facing the Dallas "flex" defense, appreciates Dawson's mobility.

"You do it (pull the center) when you feel like you couldn't get to the middle linebacker unless you did something exotic," Van Note said. "You had to have the ability to snap and pull around. It takes some athletic ability. But (Dawson) had some singular abilities that stood out, and that's probably one of them."

Some have called Dawson the best center ever. John Jackson, an All-America tackle for Eastern Kentucky and longtime linemate of Dawson with the Steelers, agrees.

"I think that's a true statement because he set a precedent as far as pulling," Jackson said. "Before Dermontti came, a lot of centers didn't pull. ... Now, all centers have to pull. That says a lot for what he's done for the game and how he's changed the position."

Some other traits that set Dawson apart were his sense of loyalty and dignity.

He passed on chasing free-agent money. He had success in Pittsburgh — five division titles and one AFC championship — and stayed loyal to the Rooney family that owns the team. He played 170 consecutive games, often despite injuries.

"There's a difference between being injured and being hurt," he said. "That's when the mental toughness comes into play, and you have to be able to play through pain."

He played several days with a broken thumb before seeking treatment. When he broke a rib, he opted for a shot to ease the pain but refused a flak jacket.

He did this with a quiet poise that belied his violent position. No trash talk or taunts, just hard work.

Only on occasion did he lose his cool.

He recalls one opponent spitting at him — in the face.

"I told him that any time he sees any movement or a flash, he'd better watch it," Dawson said. "Because it's going to be me, trying to knock you out."

Now, Dawson is knocking on a door. At the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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