Harris: Dawson's coach also gets Hall call
Pro Football Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson, who picked up where Mike Webster left off on the Steelers' offensive line, didn't want to play high school football.
Dawson was big enough, strong enough and quick enough, but a bad experience as a ninth-grade tight end soured him on the sport.
Steve Parker, the young coach at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, Ky., wanted to meet Dawson and convince him to come out for the team. Parker had heard all about Dawson, a big kid who would be a natural fit despite limited playing experience.
Dawson, however, let it be known he was a track star in the shot put and discus who had no interest in football.
Parker wouldn't be denied. He convinced Dawson to come out for the team.
Dawson, in turn, became arguably the greatest center in the history of pro football.
Dawson never forgot who gave him his start. He selected Parker to present him at the Hall of Fame ceremony on Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio.
"He was instrumental in getting me to play,'' Dawson said Monday. "I thought it was only fitting for him to present me.''
"I get goose bumps thinking about it,'' Parker said. "Very few coaches have a player who makes it to the Hall of Fame.''
Parker recalls his first meeting with Dawson, who was coming out of his biology class three decades ago, like it was yesterday.
"He was on my list of athletes to come out for the team, but he didn't come out and I lost track of him,'' Parker said. "One day I'm walking down the hallway at Bryan Station and I see what I thought was a man. I said, 'Sir, may I help you?' He said, 'I go to school here. I'm Dermontti Dawson.' I said, 'Where have you been all my life?' He told me he wanted to compete in track and field. I said, 'You can play football and track and field.'
"We finally got Dermontti down to the weight room, and the rest is history. He's the greatest offensive lineman I've had the privilege of being around.''
Full disclosure: I feel old writing this column.
The Lexington Herald-Leader was my first full-time newspaper job after I graduated from Mansfield University. Bryan Station was one of several high schools in the city that I was assigned to write about as a cub reporter. Bryan Station was my favorite school to write about during football season because it had the best team. It featured Dawson, Marc Logan and Cornell Burbage, all of whom went on to star at the hometown University of Kentucky as well as play in the NFL.
I was too young to know not to root for the teams I covered. Parker was a joy for this kid reporter to deal with, a consummate professional who always answered every question, win or lose. Dawson was an outstanding player from the first day he stepped on the field; he gave great quotes, even as a teenager.
To think that 30 years later, the kid that I saw grow into a man and the coach who helped him get there would come together again for something as special as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I was 27 when I got the Bryan Station job,'' said Parker, a high school football coach for 10 years who is Associate Dean for Academic and Career Services and Associate Professor for Kinesiology and Health Promotion at Kentucky. "Dermontti was really green his junior year. (Kentucky) coach (Jerry) Claiborne started recruiting him after he saw him at a track meet. People around the country knew about him when he became a senior because you fill out those forms that ask you if you have any Division I players. I thought he was going to be a steal for a lot of schools.''
Dawson said Parker had the ability to connect with his players. Until meeting Parker, Dawson, who didn't play center in high school, had no interest in returning to football. He played tackle in high school and moved to center at Kentucky.
"When I played tight end in ninth grade, I never caught a pass,'' Dawson said. "I didn't really understand the game. I ran track my sophomore year. I wasn't thinking about football. When I met Coach Parker for the first time, I was coming out of biology class. He said, 'Son, where have you been all my life?' He got me to change my mind about playing football.''
Parker also challenged Dawson to focus on his life beyond football. Even when Dawson became a dominant NFL player, he realized he couldn't play forever.
"I'm a great believer that academics and athletics can enhance one another,'' Parker said. "I told my players their pictures would never go up on any walls that I had until they graduated from college. I remember Dermontti finally got his degree when he was playing for the Steelers. I was just so proud of him, and his picture went up on the wall.''