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Dawson center of attention again

Posted Feb 4, 2012

It’s not often a player comes along who has the ability to re-define the way a position is played, and those are precisely the kind of people who belong in their sport’s Hall of Fame.

Dermontti Dawson re-defined the way center is played in the National Football League, and that’s why he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame today.

When the Hall of Fame announced the members of its Class of 2012, Dermontti Dawson was included and thus became the 12th center in history to earn a place in Canton, Ohio. That Dawson was deserving of enshrinement never really was much of a question, and then it just became a matter of when. After coming close three times as a finalists and then being denied, Dawson made it on his fourth try. And so the “when” also has been answered – it will be on Saturday, Aug. 4 when Dermontti Dawson is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“What Dermontti did, which is what Mel Blount did, was change the game,” said ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who played with Dawson from 1989-93. “You never had a center pull until Dermontti Dawson. He revolutionized and changed how teams ran the football in the NFL. I played with Mike Webster in my first year with the Steelers, and I never thought I would be able to say someone was better than Mike Webster at center. But Dermontti changed how we ran the ball. Who knows if the Steelers would have evolved to where they are today in terms of running the football? It was because of him.”

Hoge left the Steelers for the Chicago Bears via free agency following the 1993 season, and when he arrived there the coaches picked his brain about what made the Steelers running game so successful.

“When I went to Chicago they asked me to show them how we ran the football,” said Hoge. “I drew it up and said, ‘We pull the center.’ They said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I told them, ‘Well then you can’t run the ball like we did it in Pittsburgh.’”

Dawson was drafted by the Steelers in the second round in 1988 from Kentucky. He played his entire 13-year career with the Steelers, and he took over for Mike Webster at center in his second season and remained a dominant force at the position throughout his career.

It wasn’t an easy task replacing the legendary Webster, but Dawson’s unique talents and leadership ability made him the perfect fit.

“He had all of the physical tools that were necessary – balance, strength, everything,” said CBS color analyst Dan Dierdorf, himself a Hall of Fame offensive tackle. “The one thing that always impressed me was his ability to handle a nose tackle by himself. The majority of centers who play the game almost always need some sort of a double-team, or a rub from the guard next to them. The great centers, and there aren’t many of them, block the nose tackle all by themselves, and Dermontti was one of those guys. That’s what makes him so special.”

Dawson was without a doubt one of the most athletic offensive linemen in NFL history, and he was durable and dependable as well, as his streak of 170 consecutive games played – second most in Steelers history – proves.  

“He was one of the best players we have ever played against at that position,” said New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had to face Dawson twice a season when he was the coach of the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s. “He had exceptional quickness. I think that really the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys who are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can’t step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for (Neil) O’Donnell and those guys who played behind him.

“The other thing that I think was a key to the Pittsburgh running game for years is when the nose tackle or the defensive tackle is offset to the play side. If you are running to the right and the nose tackle is lined up in the center-guard gap on the right, or sometimes even on the inside shoulder of the guard, that is a very hard block for the center to get. Defensively, you feel like they should not be able to cut him off from the center position, but Dawson made that block consistently.”

Dawson was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and was a first-team All-Pro six times. He was also named to the NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1990s.

“Dermontti could just crank you,” said former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin, who played with Dawson from 1988-92. “He had the ability, the explosive strength and the athleticism to do it, to just knock guys out. He also had that stability to take on guys. He was strong enough to just absorb a 320-pound nose tackle and not give ground.”

Ilkin has seen his share of great centers, also having played with Webster, a Hall of Famer, and he also watched Dwight Stephenson, another Hall of Famer, who played for the Dolphins in the 1980s.

“The argument used to be back in the early 1980s about who was better, Mike Webster or Dwight Stephenson,” said Ilkin. “Dwight was a great center because he was so athletic. Webbie was a great center because he was so strong and tough and smart.

“You put those two guys together and you have Dermontti Dawson.”

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Dermontti Dawson Hall of Fame Bio
Center … 6-2, 288 … Kentucky … 1988-2000 Pittsburgh Steelers … 13 playing seasons, 184 games … Steelers’ second-round draft pick (44th player overall), 1988 NFL Draft … Second-team All-SEC at Kentucky … Started five of eight games played as a rookie at right guard … Missed eight weeks at midseason with knee injury … Became starting center in 1989 replacing future Hall of Famer Mike Webster … Doubled as team’s long snapper, 1988-1993 … Named Co-AFC Offensive Lineman of the Year (with Richmond Webb) by NFL Players Association, 1993 … Selected as NFL Alumni Offensive Lineman of the Year, 1996 … Played in 170 consecutive games before streak ended in 1999 due to hamstring injury … His exceptional speed and strength enabled him to do things not typical of a center … Named first-team All-Pro six consecutive years (1993-98) … Selected to play in seven consecutive Pro Bowls (1993-99) … Anchor on offensive line that led Steelers to five AFC Central Division championships and one AFC championship … Born June 17, 1965 in Lexington, Kentucky.