Chance discovery leads Dawson to Hall of Fame career

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CANTON, O. – It was like the Lana Turner story in cleats.

At age 16, she was discovered in the 1930s by a talent agent as Turner was sitting on a stool in a soda shop. Turner went on to become a Hollywood starlet, a reminder that “the next big thing” might be found anywhere.

The football version has Dermontti Dawson as the undiscovered talent, and Steve Parker, then the head coach at Lexington’s Bryan Station High School, bumping into the massive youngster in the school hallway.

“Where have you been all my life?” Parker asked Dawson, whom he eventually talked into trying out for football. Little did Parker know how each would affect the lives of the other - that Dawson would become a once-in-a-lifetime talent, or that Parker himself would introduce Dawson for enshrinement into the pro football Hall of Fame.

“I’m honored,” Parker told me before the ceremony. “All my family is honored. My wife is here, my kids are here. We were going to go even before I found out I was going to be introducing him. We were going to crawl here.”

In the past, presenters made speeches. Under the current format, they’re interviewed and their remarks are part of a video package that precedes the inductee’s remarks. On stage together, Parker and Dawson pulled the cover off the bust of Dawson. The slab of bronze will stand forever in the Hall of Fame.

“This is unbelievable.” Parker said. “This is a coach’s dream, to have (one of his players) go into the Hall of Fame.”

In his speech, Dawson thanked Parker, and many others.
"If not for Coach Parker," Dawson said, "I never would have played football. I want to thank Coach Parker for having confidence in me.”

Of course, he thanked his extended Steelers family – teammates, coaches, fans – including the several thousand who made the trip to Canton. And he remembered his head coach at Kentucky, Jerry Claiborne, who instilled in Dawson the drive for excellence.

“To my former head coach Jerry Claiborne, who repeated his motto, ‘Be the best.’ I heard that for five years when I attended UK,” Dawson said. “And then one day, a light went off in my head and said, ‘Well, why am I out here if I’m not going to be the best player on the field?’ And that was what my goal, no matter what the task. And that became my purpose.”

It was a purpose that sustained him through 13 NFL seasons and took him to six Pro Bowls, along with an appearance in the 1995 Super Bowl. Dawson’s work ethic was obvious, and it endeared him to fans and teammates alike.

“I think he represents the ‘90s Steelers,” said Jason Stevenson, a Pittsburgh fan who made the trip to the ceremony from his home in Galena, Illinois. “Everybody thinks of the linebackers back then in the ‘90s. I thought of the great running game. The tackles and guards changed throughout the decade but he was the rock in the middle. I think he revolutionized the position. I loved him as a kid.”

Former UK quarterback Bill Ransdell loved him as a friend and teammate and, like Stevenson, strode the grounds in Canton wearing a #63 Steelers jersey with “Dawson” on the back.

“I’m here to give a little support to a former teammate,” Ransdell said. “He’s done well for himself, but he’s also made a lot of people in Kentucky proud.”

Dawson was an All-Southeastern Conference guard when he and Ransdell were together at UK, playing in a pair of bowl games. Ransdell remembered that the coaches had toyed with moving Dawson to center, but things didn’t go smoothly enough to convince them to tinker with success.

That came a year into Dawson’s NFL career, when he took over for the legendary Mike Webster at center. Some said the late Webster, himself a Hall of Famer, was the best ever. Now, they’re saying it about Dawson.

“I’ve got the goose bumps on my arms right now, thinking about it,” Ransdell said of Dawson’s enshrinement. “I think it’s such a great honor. It couldn’t happen to a better person."

The speeches Saturday night ran the gauntlet. Asked to keep their comments to within five minutes, most of the inductees complied. In fact, Jack Butler, a Steelers defensive back from the ‘50s, might have gone just three. However, ex-Seahawk defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy more than made up for Butler’s brevity with a rambling discourse. The former Wildcat,finally, was introduced next.

Dawson’s remarks were succinct, and elegant.

"Being a Steeler meant being a blue collar worker with an unwavering commitment to excellence," he said. "I hope I made Steeler nation proud."

The cheers of the black-and-gold wearing fans in Canton Saturday night told him he had. And he expanded on the credo instilled in him at UK by Claiborne, offering it as advice for future players.

"Do everything with a purpose," he said. "Live, act, play and work with a purpose, with a passion and, more importantly, with honor."

And by doing that himself, Dawson has landed the greatest honor one can reach in professional football.

“No one could do the things Dermontti Dawson could do at the center position,” said Parker, the man who got him started. “He’ll be remembered as the greatest center that’s ever played the game.”

(Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and