Despite having played 170-consecutive games at a violent position in a violent game; depsite being a six-time All Pro and seven-time Pro Bowl selection; despite being regarded as arguably the best player at his position of all-time, ex-Steelers center Dermontti Dawson was made to wait through seven years of eligibility before being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Whatever the reason for the delay, Dawson's membership into the hallowed Hall in Canton was overdue. He was finally inducted in the Hall of Fame in August, and this weekend he was feted around Pittsburgh.
Dawson helped open the Hall of Fame's Gridiron Glory exhibition at the Heinz History Center to the public on Saturday morning. He was honored that afternoon at Heinz Field and again during Sunday's Steelers game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
I was able to speak with him for a few moments Saturday at the History Center.
Q: How gratifying was it to finally get into Canton after a bit of a wait?
DAWSON: Its a total validation of your career. It's the highest accolade any professional football player can accomplish -- leaving a legacy for my family where, when I'm gone from this earth [they] can go and see -- so that's kind of special to me. Being in Canton --seeing my yellow jacket -- that was a big thing. It's really kind of hard to explain, to tell you the truth. ...
But it's a great honor. I'm very humbled. And also very proud that I played my whole entire career here in Pittsburgh, and to keep the tradition going -- succeeding Mike [Webster] who I learned a lot from. To start beside him for a year, and then taking over his position my second year ... and to succeed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I don't know if that's happened before -- two players at the same position for the same team in succession [being elected to the HOF]
Q: You mention Mike Webster -- how do you remember him?
DAWSON: Mike was a consummate pro. I attribute a lot of my success to him. I used to watch Mike in the weight room, watch him in meetings, watch him in practice, in the games - he was always first, always writing stuff down even in his 15th year. He was just a true professional -- never complained, played the game the way it was supposed to be played. When I was given the center position, I tried to do some things that I saw Mike do. And it paid off.
Q: You and he are regarded as the two best centers in the game's history, yet it took you both multiple tries to get in. Is selection tilted against lineman because its harder to quantify your achievements?
DAWSON: [A lack of] Definitive stats could play a role, but you hope that's not the case. You hope you're validated by what you brought to the game, what you contributed to the game, and how you played the game. And you hope its not bias because we have so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame -- why penalize a team because they have good players? But I don't know why and I don't spend a lot of energy wondering about 'what if' and 'shoulda' -- if it happens it happens, and you rejoice if it does.
Q: Skill players have more obvious highlight reels -- what would be on your highlight reel?
DAWSON: I used to like when I'd pull from the center position -- nobody really had done that before ... pulling around the corner and de-cleating a defensive back or linebacker who tries to take you on. Those are the things that I love. I'd like to get all of my highlights of those because I had quite a few of those, where you de-cleat guys.
I remember playing Buffalo once and I think it was a linebacker who -- when I came around the corner, I hit him in the shoulder with my head and he just -- it knocked him out. Things like that. That's what I like. When you come through and block a linebacker who'd gonna try and meet you in the hole thinking he's gonna get the best of you, and instead you get the best of him -- that's what I like -- those collisions.
Q: You're talking about hitting and your eyes light up and you're rubbing your hands together, but I understand that your nickname was 'Ned Flanders.' ...
DAWSON: Levon Kirkland started that. I would come in to the stadium in the morning and I'd be singing or saying good morning to everybody walking down the hallway and I'd always just be happy or singing or just doing something, playing around. He said, 'you're always happy.' I said 'that's because I don't have anything to be sad about.' That's my personality. I'm an early morning riser. That's just me. But he used to joke around and say I was like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons and it kind of stuck [laughs] Hidey ho neighbor! Hidey ho!
Q: So how do you get from Ned Flanders to the de-cleater?
DAWSON: You have to have a switch that you can turn on. Then it's the competitive nature as well ... for me, I never like to be beaten. I never like to be made to look bad on a play and I'd come out with the mentality that even though the guy may be a great defensive lineman or linebacker, I'm gonna make it a 60 minute game for him and come after him each and every play. I might get knocked on my butt once in awhile -- but I'm gonna win the war at the end of the game and I'm gonna wear you out. I'm going to come after you. That's the mentality you have to have. Its that competitive nature. Some guys exhibit that and can turn it on on the field and turn it off as soon as they're off -- that was me. I'm the nicest guy in the world -- but if you push my buttons, I'll flip that switch where I can be the meanest guy in the world. Its something that either you have that you can genuinely control, or you can't. Everybody's different. On the field -- that's your job -- I don't care if its friend or foe. You've got to be able to turn it on.
Q: Who were some guys that you had to 'flip the switch' against?
DAWSON: Michael Dean Perry in Cleveland -- he used his hands so well. Carl Hairston ... Jerry Ball -- my first time moving to center we played against Detroit -- he gave me fits. We were playing in a trapping offense and he was penetrating past me and knocking the guard off -- I thought I'm going to have to move back to guard. That's how bad it was in the first half of the first preseason game. Luckily Coach Ron Blackledge said 'Calm down. You'll get him. Just calm down. You're thinking too much.'
Q: You played under two very different, but legendary head coaches. Talk about their contrasting styles.
DAWSON: Coach Noll was accomplished so much by the time that I got there, and was so knowledgeable about everything ... we wouldn't really hear a whole lot from him -- unless we messed up. Then he'd say his piece, usually to the whole team in meetings.
Coach Cowher was much younger at the time -- he was right in every drill, trying to get on guys, trying to pump them up, he was just so enthusiastic. He'd be running sprints after practice -- he was a hands on kind of guy. He was right there with you.
Coach Noll was like a father figure -- I was in awe of him. Coach Cowher came in and was much younger and it was great the way we reacted to him. Two great coaches.