March 1, 2009

Lonesome Day

"Let kingdom come, I'm gonna find my way,
yeah, through this lonesome day."
-Bruce Springsteen

A few days ago, I was having a discussion with my roommate about whether athletes should still be considered role models. My point was that athletes, above all, are people. Just because they happen to be good at shooting three-pointers or hitting home runs doesn't mean that they have good hearts, that they care about society or that they conduct themselves in a matter that others should mimic. I said that admiring their talents is one thing, but blindly assuming that they'll live up to some loftier moral code is a bit old-fashioned.

My roommate disagreed, and his point of reference was Brian Dawkins.

Brian Dawkins is someone we can all aspire to be. He is one of the most passionate athletes ever to come through Philadelphia, and he is, by all accounts, a loving family man and a wonderful human being. If any complaints are leveled against Brian Dawkins, it is because he cares too much. Any late hits or overly zealous tackles are because he plays with a fire that most human beings can only dream of, and when his newborn twins were born premature, his love for them was so powerful that it clearly affected his on-field play. If you were ever to feel something more than the general fan-athlete connection towards someone on your favorite team, it should, and probably would, be directed at Brian Dawkins.

And now, he is a member of the Denver Broncos. This entire weekend has been filled with talking heads and newspaper columns extolling the pros (few) and cons (ample) of this decision, so recapping them is a practice better left to others. All I can say is, the Philadelphia Eagles professed at least a week before free agency that Brian Dawkins would be resigned quickly and professionally. They made it seem like a no-brainer, and to any Eagles fan with an actual brain, it should have been. It's a cliche to say that an athlete brings something unquantifiable to the table, but Brian Dawkins does. Besides Bobby Clarke and perhaps some amalgamation of John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and Dave Hollins, no one has represented a team as perfectly as Brian Dawkins did for the last 13 years of Eagles football.

For a while, when Dawkins was still, without question, a top 2 or 3 NFL safety, this mostly meant that he was the face of the defense. He was already ready with an interview, a quote or a pregame pep talk to his teammates that would make your hair stand on end. He was important and he was beloved, but you could make the argument that he was just another great player on a very competitive football team.

In recent years, though, that all changed. As his old teammates retired (or, more aptly, were let go with little fanfare), Dawkins became a mentor as much as a superstar. Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard, Quintin Demps, Quintin Mikell - all of them have loudly professed how much Brian Dawkins meant to them, as a football player and a man. Eagles guard Shawn Andrews shared the same sentiments yesterday. Much as Jamie Moyer receives a great deal of praise for counseling Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and other young Phillies pitchers, Dawkins set an example, consciously or not, for the next round of Eagles defensive backs.

In doing so, Dawkins became something more. His impact could no longer be measured in tackles, sacks or fumbles; it was ingrained in the team's psyche. During the playoffs only a few months ago, Dawkins was almost a man possessed during games, dancing wildly to the Eagles fight song and delivering arguably his most enthusiastic pregame speeches to date. I don't know if he knew what might happen to him, but at the time, all we could see was a man utterly committed to his team and his fans. Now, remembering it is extremely sad, because it will be the last time any of us see Brian Dawkins in Eagles green.

As much as we try and deceive ourselves, the NFL is a business. It's about making money, and although making money and keeping fans happy are certainly tied together, there will eventually be unpopular decisions made. The Eagles, unfortunately, are masters at this, and perhaps more unfortunately, they have often been right. Lately, though, it seems that Andy Reid has become more egotistical with age. He thinks he can weasel his way out of any situation, whether it's letting go of a legendary player, keeping key positions understaffed or ignoring glaring holes in his depth chart. This time, he has, knowingly or not, declared Brian Dawkins to be "expendable".

Brian Dawkins is not expendable. He is a living legend, a human being with the ability to link generations of Eagles fans, and a player with whom anyone my age has grown up with. Worst of all, he remains extremely talented. He almost defines the term "irreplaceable," and to make things even worse, the Eagles have no replacement plan in action. He might not be the right fit in Denver; he might never make another Pro Bowl outside of this city. But he deserved the chance to try, for what he has done and for what we know he can still do.

Everything I know about Brian Dawkins indicates a man of great pride. He does not seem like the kind of man who would continue to come onto a football field, week after week, if he was not playing at a high enough level. This should have been reason enough to keep him around. He knows what he can and cannot still do, and the Eagles, admittedly, have played to these strengths. And with all that, they still made the NFC Championship Game. At the most basic level, if you are a team who is arguably thisclose to a Super Bowl berth, letting go of one of your Pro Bowl-caliber players is inexcusable.

I heard Brian Dawkins' choked up voice during his Comcast SportsNet interview, and I won't deny that I've choked up a few times myself this weekend. I don't want to see a game at Lincoln Financial Field without Brian Dawkins in green, and even worse, I don't want to see him on the visiting sideline in Broncos orange. For this, Andy Reid, Joe Banner and Eagles management, you will never be forgiven. My only advice to you is win, win big, and win soon. There are too few role models left in the world of professional sports, and one of them was just forced out the door.


cifuentj said...

I've shed tears no less than 2 times since this reality sunk in. I sent your article to the dude at bleedinggreen

Nick Cifuentes said...

never forget you dawk!