There have been two moments in my professional career where I have been what I would consider being "star struck."
The first was weirdly enough when I covered the funeral of Joe Frazier and saw Muhammad Ali walk through the side doors of a church in North Philly. By that time in 2011, Ali's health had deteriorated and I never even got to speak with him, but that was freakin' Muhammad Ali.
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The other was the first time I met Brian Dawkins.
The meeting with Dawkins didn't happen all that long ago - just a couple years ago, in fact. By that time, I was already a relatively seasoned NFL reporter and took pride in my ability to not act like a teenage fanboy. But what I couldn't account for was meeting my childhood icon; this was the first and only time that has ever happened.
Somehow, I managed to keep it together that day. I was able to interview Dawkins without telling him what he meant to me. I got through the day without becoming outwardly giddy (inside was a different story). I managed to avoid telling him that the only football jersey I have ever owned is a white No. 20 that despite being a few sizes too small these days is still tucked in the very back of my closet because, to this day, I still haven't been able to part with it.
But as Dawk is about to be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I'll let my fanboy out just a little bit to tell you all just how much this guy meant and still means to me.
I fell in love with football because of Brian Dawkins. I fell in love with sports because of Brian Dawkins.
I don't think I'd be doing this job without him.
(So blame him.)
I was 8 years old when Dawkins was a rookie in 1996 and I was 21 during his final season with the Birds, so he was a mainstay of my formative years and I fell in love with him as a player just like the rest of the city and surrounding areas did and for the same reasons. The only difference is that I now have an outlet to talk about it and an audience to listen.
The reason I gravitated toward Dawk was the reason everyone gravitated to Dawk. Passion. He played the game the way we all would hope we'd play it if we ever got the opportunity. He played with reckless abandon. He was fierce, intense, he morphed into that "Weapon X" character that was cooler than anything pre-teen me had ever seen. And it remains cooler than pretty much anything I have seen since.
And, like everyone in the city, I was devastated when his time in Philadelphia ended and I was devastated for strictly selfish reasons. I'll admit, I wasn't worried about Dawk - I knew he would be fine, anyway - but there was just a feeling of sadness about one of the last links to my childhood disappearing. I knew I'd never get that back.
Since that first meeting, I've spoken to Dawk several other times. It was a treat to see him in the bowels of U.S. Bank Stadium after the 2017 Eagles finally won the Super Bowl that eluded all those great teams he led. In true Dawk fashion, he was just happy to be a part of it all; he was genuinely happy for the team.
It was heart-wrenching to see Dawkins recount his battles with alcoholism and depression in a recent interview with Derrick Gunn (see story). It's a prudent reminder that depression doesn't discriminate. It also seems incredibly cruel that the man who gave so many in this city life once thought about taking his own.
I truly hope he understands what he meant and means to so many.
I'm just one.
It's always been a point of pride for me, not being overwhelmed by meeting famous athletes. And besides, it's just a part of the gig. But I hope you'll forgive me this weekend if I climb to the back of my closet and bring out that old jersey.
It doesn't fit anymore, but that's OK. I want it to feel some freedom as I celebrate its namesake. On Sunday, I'll go back to being a professional. But Saturday night, I'm going to celebrate a man I barely know who completely changed my life and the lives of countless others, a man I'll never be able to thank enough.