Dermontti Dawson is one of the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A lifelong member of the Black and Yellow, Dawson went to 7 Pro Bowls as the center of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and would later be named the first team center on the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. Dawson, a graduate of the University of Kentucky, spoke with Brad Wolff of FanVsFan about his playing career, life off the field including a bankruptcy filing in 2010, and the current state of the NFL.
Below is the Q&A, as well as an audio player to listen to the interview.
Brad Wolff: After quitting football after your in ninth grade, only to come back in your junior year, how did you develop a desire to play the game of football and explain why you quit and returned?
Dermontti Dawson: The reason I did not play football my ninth grade year was because I was a tight end in middle school and I was pretty much a blocking dummy, to tell you the truth. It just didn't appeal to me that I was going to go out there in the hot heat and be a blocking dummy. So that kind of deterred me from trying out my junior year and because I ran track and wrestled my sophomore year. The reason I went back out and tried out for football my junior year was because two of my teammates on the track team were also on the football team and my high school coach came up to me coming out of chemistry class, and I was kind of tall and skinny (6'2"/288 in his playing career) in high school, thinking I was a parent walking around the hallways. He came up to me and said, "Son, where have you been all my life?" I said, "Well, I'm on the track team and the wrestling team," and he convinced me and said I had to try out for football. He and my track teammates encouraged me to go out for the team and that's where it all started.
BW: What was the greatest opportunity you were able to experience being a legendary football player?
DD: Gosh, just playing in the NFL. When you're coming out of high school and going into college, your thoughts become, "Am I good enough to get to the NFL?" I think what was most exciting for me was never, ever thinking about playing in the NFL and then becoming one of the top players coming out of college, to getting the opportunity to play in the NFL and then having longevity in the NFL. I never thought I was good enough to play in the NFL and to have played in the NFL for 13 years and then all of the individual accolades that came with that was one of the greatest accomplishments. I never, ever thought I'd reach that pinnacle.
BW: Did your thoughts that you would not reach that pinnacle affect your self-esteem or just make you more of a humble player
DD: While my thoughts were not be good enough to reach that level, I was always a competitor. I would always working hard in practice, no matter what the temperature or who I was going against, I was always working. It's my personality is that I just don't want to be beat and I want to be the best at everything. No matter what I would do, I always wanted to be the best at it. I think it was just internal drive and that was my motivation.
BW: After serving as a scout with Pittsburgh and of course playing the position, how do you separate the great from good lineman or a decent one from bust? The normal fan could "scout" a running back or a receiver's athleticism, but can't really figure out whose actually a good lineman.
DD: Scouting them out is pretty hard because it's really only six degrees of separation, as I like to say, as far as good from great. I think what makes a great player as opposed to just a good or average player is just mentality and the work ethic the guy has; guys either have it or they don't. It's just an internal mechanism. My thing was just that I wanted to be the best at whatever I did and that was my motivation, but I always set goals for myself as well so you have some sort of measurable. You have to have short term, midterm, and long term goals, and if you don't achieve those goals, you can't let that deter you. As far as being from an average to a great player, I think it's just something that's built into your personality: the competitive nature, discipline, doing what you have to do in the offseason in order to get yourself ready for the regular season, maintaining your physical fitness during the season and taking care of injuries. It's one of those small things that's hard to determine. The guy just needs that internal mechanism that will make him go the extra mile. Of course, you need to have athletic ability as well. It's really just having the work ethic and athletic ability, and not resting on your laurels. Players need to keep it in perspective and after they have a good year to set the same goals for the next year. That keeps you hungry and grounded so you don't get too bigheaded.
BW: But what is a fan seeing when they see a lineman be so great in their senior year of college, get picked in the top-5 and then become a turnstyle at the pro level?
DD: The draft is just not a direct science. There's really no correlation between being a good college player and then making that transition to the pros. It's really tough. I used to tell people that making the transition from high school to college is that in college you have a scholarship and therefore, you may not play too much and you aren't evaluated as much as you are in the pros because it's all about money and production in the pros. It's a business in the pros, but college is completely different, and making that transition to the pros is difficult because you have salary cap issues and guys waiting in the wings, so each and every week you're being evaluated. A guy may be an exceptional player in college, but it in the pros you have outside distractions, you're worrying about your job, and those things could way on a person if you don't know how to handle that, you could lose that job and that's when people aren't really productive in the league.
BW: How did your personality on the field and off the field differ?
DD: My personality has been the same on the field and off the field. I've always been pretty laid back. I always tell people they have to know how to turn it on and turn it off because I'm so mild mannered and I get along with everybody. People's perception of football players is that we have to be mean, but that's our job. You don't have to be mean, you just have to be aggressive and know how to play the game and put your mind in a different mentality when you have to play football because that's what you're paid to do, but when you get off the field, you have family life and your wife and your kids, girlfriend, you're just a normal person. You have to be able to differentiate the two.
BW: If you had to choose between your two head coaches, Bill Cowher or Chuck Noll, who would you choose?
DD: I'm lucky to play for both of them, but if I only had the chance to play for either Coach Cowher or Coach Noll, I'd probably choose Chuck Noll because of the history and the Super Bowl's he won and just being such a phenomenal coach.
BW: When Chuck Noll retired and Bill Cowher came in going into the fifth year of your career, what was your first impression?
DD: Cowher was a very personable and he wasn't too many years older than I was, so he was closer to some of the guys' age, which made it nice because he was right in the mix of everything. He was right in the drills and very enthusiastic as a bit of a rah-rah kind of guy. He was always involved in every aspect of practice, but let the coaches coach and he'd sit back and interject if things weren't going right or if he didn't think we were practicing hard enough. He was just one of those guys who was always into everything and every aspect of the game, and all the guys loved that because he was so involved.
BW: Did Cowher's young age and personability cause the Steelers to go out and hire another young coach in Mike Tomlin when Cowher retired?
DD: The Steelers didn't feel like they had to go out and hire a young guy, but rather who was best for the job and fit the system the best. Coach Tomlin's a phenomenal coach and most people didn't know about him. He was a young guy up in Minnesota and very well respected among the coaches, but I don't think that prompted the Steelers to hire a young coach after Coach Cowher retired.
BW: How difficult was it to reach the pinnacle of the sport in Super Bowl XXX and be defeated?
DD: It's your goal every year to make it to the Super Bowl and to make it there and lose is not the best scenario. It's not the way you want it to play out. It's just part of football. You win some and lose some. It's hard enough to just get to the playoffs each and every year and we made three AFC Championship Games and lose two and win one against the Colts and then go to the Super Bowl and lose against Dallas. I try not to dwell on it.
BW: What was your ritual prior to games, especially before those big playoff games?
DD: I really didn't have any rituals. Right before the game, I was just doing my same my old thing, getting my clothes on, sitting in the locker room, watching some television, listen to a little music or read the game program, and then we'd go out for pregame and warmups. Then it's just coming back in and then back out for introductions. My pregame varied.
BW: Since retiring from the game in 2000, have you ever dreamed of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy?
DD: Not really. My time has passed and I really don't give it too much thought to tell you the truth.
BW: In 2010, you filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. ESPN did a piece on bankrupt athletes, "Broke", a few months prior, but what would you say to an athlete if you saw him spending his or her money lavishly?
DD: Guys file for bankruptcy for many reasons and I filed for bankruptcy to get away from the banks because I was a partner in a home development company. You just have to live within your means and I was living within my means and just got caught up with the economy when it went bad. I had to file for bankruptcy. You spend at a certain level because you are making so much money during your career, but once you retire, you have to invest that money and put it away and curtail your spending habits because you have to go back down. Not everybody in the league makes the same amount of money, but you put that money away and let that money grow and build within your means and downsize everything, your money could last you for a long period of time. You need a good financial advisor to help you with that as well.
BW: Who is the Dermontti Dawson in the NFL today or the closest star to him, and how could a kid become the next Dermontti Dawson?
DD: I'll tell you what, I'd say Maurkice [Pouncey] (Pittsburgh Steelers). It's amazing how similar he and I are as far as ability and athleticism. He's doing an amazing job in Pittsburgh. As far as becoming the next Dermontti Dawson, everyone's given God given talents and what worked for me won't necessarily work for anyone else if they tried to do it. I was given the God given talent as a runner and someone who was very athletic use that talent and that's why I was able to reach that pinnacle. Not everybody has the same capabilities so I don't think you could ever duplicate me, but just try to be the best person you could be and give it your all each and every time and that's it.
BW: If you were the commissioner of the NFL, what's the main thing you'd be working on to improve the game?
DD: I'm not really sure. I know the concussion issue is the main issue the commissioner is dealing with right now. I have given it too much of a thought.
BW: What was your first reaction to the "Bountygate" scandal of the New Orleans Saints?
DD: I couldn't believe that in this day and age that it was really happening when it was first discovered. In the past, I've heard about teams having bounties on players, but as a player, I think that's disrespectful because us players know how difficult it is to stay healthy over the course of a year and for someone to try to intentionally take that player out is just disrespectful. If you think about it, it doesn't make sense because the amount of money they had for the money doesn't wasn't really that much if you were to compare to if you were going to get caught and all of this came out. The dollar amount didn't equate to if you were going to get fined and how much you would lose. It really didn't make sense. It only takes one place for your career to be ended so I just can't believe the guys would participate in something like that.
BW: What is your Super Bowl prediction?
DD: It's too early too call. Atlanta's playing extremely well, but the AFC is really just a toss-up.
BW: Do the Steelers have enough and are they able to stay healthy enough to possibly get there?
DD: I think if they stay healthy, they have an opportunity, because they are still in the running. You just never know and nothing is guaranteed every year. That's the main goal, but anything could happen over the course of the next eight games. All you want to do in the first half of the season is set yourself up so you're still in the running to make the playoffs. It all starts over from there. Time will tell.
BW: Name the one offensive and one defensive player you'd want on your team with the season on the line.
DD: I like Tom Brady as my quarterback and I can't recall a defensive player that I'd want on my team.