Former Steelers center Dawson is no longer in shadows
Dermontti Dawson spent much of his rookie season watching and learning from the best — center Mike Webster.
It was an unspectacular yet productive 1988 campaign for Dawson. He played in only eight games, but started five times at right guard.
Then, in his second season, Dawson inherited the starting job at center. Webster had manned the position for 12 years after taking over for Ray Mansfield, who spent 13 years as the Steelers' starting center.
Dawson, undaunted by the pressure, stepped into the enormous shadows cast by two workhouse centers and spent more than a decade anchoring the offensive line.
For the third consecutive year, Dawson has an opportunity to join Webster in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He is among 17 finalists, including two former teammates — running back Jerome Bettis and defensive end Kevin Greene.
"A lot of people ask me about the process, but I don't spend energy on something I can't control," he said. "If it happens, it happens.
"Apparently, I've met the qualifications to potentially to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It's great to be mentioned for the Hall of Fame. Believe me, I don't take it lightly.
"It never entered my mind that I would get a call from the Hall of Fame. My first goal that I wrote down was to make the Pro Bowl. I never thought I would accomplish what I did in my career."
Dawson was a second-round pick from Kentucky. It didn't occur to him that coach Chuck Noll would ask him to move from guard to center, mostly because the Steelers drafted center Chuck Lanza of Notre Dame with their next pick.
"After my rookie season, they came up to me and suggested I switch to center," Dawson said. "I didn't think much about it, and I guess the rest is history."
It's a storied history, considering Dawson was a first-time All-Pro selection six years in a row (1993 to '98). Also, he was selected to the Pro Bowl seven consecutive seasons.
Like Webster's, Dawson's career can be defined by its longevity. He didn't miss a game during an 11-year stretch in which he became one of the league's most dominant offensive linemen.
He ruptured a hamstring in the 1999 Pro Bowl that ultimately led to his retirement. He spent the '99 and 2000 seasons trying to fight his way back. But when he tore his hamstring for a third time, he decided to walk away, albeit reluctantly.
"It was just one of those things were my body couldn't take the stress anymore," said Dawson, who played in three AFC championship games and Super Bowl XXX. "I wanted to play a few more years, but I had to come to realization that I wasn't going to play."
Dawson doesn't reflect much on his career. However, he said it took him some time to appreciate his talents — and those of Mansfield and Webster.
"I think the longevity and playing at such high level for so many years, that's something we all lose sight of," Dawson said. "Seeing the things that (Webster) did in practice, off the field, in the film room and in the classroom, I tried to emulate what he did."
Headed for hall?
Steelers finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Jack Butler, cornerback (1951-59)
Dermontti Dawson, center (1988-2000)
Kevin Greene, defensive end/linebacker (1993-95)
Jerome Bettis, running back (1996-2005)
The Dawson file
Draft: Second-round pick in 1988
NFL honors: 7-time Pro Bowl selection; 6-time first-team All-Pro
College: University of Kentucky
Hometown: Lexington, Ky.