By Mike Greger
The road to Canton now has a big green stripe down the middle lane. Thousands of Eagles fans invaded the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past weekend to pay homage to legendary safety Brian Dawkins. Walking down those corridors of greatness felt more like a trip down Broad Street. In one corner, a horde of fans huddled around the collection of Super Bowl rings, stopping to ogle the 219 diamonds glistening off the Eagles’ ring like grease off a cheesesteak. In front of the gift shop, ESPN analyst Sal Paolantonio sells autographed copies of his new book, “Philly Special.” Across the hallway, a father and son wait to enter the Road to the Super Bowl exhibit, a visual love letter to the Super Bowl champions. The father is eager to tell the story about sitting in a suite during the NFC championship game win with his 8-year-old son and high-fiving Donovan McNabb and Wilbert Montgomery. He’s worried his son only knows winning, a weird thing to think about for those who waited their whole lives to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl.
“Tough life, right?” jokes the dad. “He waited eight years to win a Super Bowl.” Outside the Bust Room, a father and son are rehashing an ongoing 30-year conversation about road-tripping to Ohio for an enshrinement ceremony. It’s six-and-a-half-hours one way, 13 hours round trip, so there would have to be a very good reason – and, according to John Jr., that reason is Dawkins. Just as the story is ending, John Sr. scurries to snap a picture with Dawkins’ former teammate Hugh Douglas. “We decided to finally make this the year, right after we saw Dawkins got in. He’s my favorite player and my dad’s favorite,” John Jr. said. “The Eagles winning the Super Bowl was just the icing on the cake.”
Icing that manifested itself in a cacophony of spontaneous E-A-G-L-E-S chants and karaoke-approved versions of “Fly, Eagles, Fly” throughout the Hall-of-Fame weekend. There was green everywhere: from the merchandise tent to the aptly named Jerzee’s Sports Grille down the road. The announced crowd for the ceremony was 22,205. Half of them wore Dawkins’ jerseys. When the man known as “Weapon X” took his turn at the podium, after performing his Wolverine routine on the stage, he made sure to thank them. “I know some of you drove all the way from Philly here,” Dawkins said. “And, listen, I have a good understanding that you don’t have money just to waste. So that means that you put hard-earned money that you could be saving to come out and celebrate with ya boy! So, thank you. Thank you for loving me the way that I love you! I love you back!”
Dawkins gave one of the most inspirational and emotionally charged speeches of the evening, detailing his personal battles with depression and suicide, and urging people to not give up on themselves. His son, Brian Jr., was sitting front row to take it all in.
“I have grown leaps and bounds because of the things that I’ve gone through and that’s one of those things that I went through,” Dawkins said. “And when I say ‘went through,’ that means I came out on the other side of it. So for those who are going through this right now, there is hope! You do have hope! There is something on the other side of this!” Out in the crowd, Dawkins may have saved a life or two (or maybe two hundred). Perhaps not today or tomorrow, but someday those words might help a father or a son on the brink. On this day, however, the assembled fathers and sons are reviewing Dawkins’ highlights in their minds and discussing their next visit to Canton.
“There’s no other player in Philly sports that identified with the city more,” remarks John Jr. Then, as Randy Moss is speaking, the stadium screen flashes the image of the Patriots’ Bill Belichick, the anti-Dawkins. Seemingly on cue, the throng of Eagles fans unleashes a barrage of vicious boos on the man they beat in the Super Bowl.
The original version of this article appears in Philadelphia Weekly.