Dermontti Dawson spent his entire professional career playing a position where, by and large, anonymity was the goal. For NFL centers, attention typically comes after a botched snap or a missed block, not the six All-Pro selections Dawson earned during his 13 seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
More than a decade removed from his retirement in 2000, Dawson is moving into the spotlight he tried to avoid as a player. This weekend, he will receive arguably the highest level of recognition a football player can attain: Enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Lexington native and University of Kentucky great will be a part of a six-member class of inductees during Saturday's celebration in Canton, Ohio. Dawson will join George Blanda as the second Wildcat in the Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be broadcast on ESPN at 7 p.m. and will surely feature plenty of comments about Dawson's illustrious career.
After being selected in the second round out of UK, Dawson spent his first season in Pittsburgh as a backup, but was being groomed as the replacement for Mike Webster while playing guard, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 1997.
Replacing a legend is never easy, but Dawson did just that beginning in 1989 when he assumed the starting center role following Webster's departure. Dawson wasted no time making his mark not only with the Steelers, but on the way his position was played.
Nicknamed "Dirt" for pounding opponents into the ground, Dawson is known as the first center in NFL history to regularly pull, a responsibility normally left to more nimble guards. He frequently would leave his spot at the line of scrimmage to block for a Steeler running back on the perimeter. Within three years of his move to center, Dawson was named to the first of his seven Pro Bowls. He also played 170 consecutive games at one point, the second-longest streak in Steelers history.
"To me he was the best athlete to ever play that position. He was very powerful and explosive, just a rare combination of quickness, explosion, and he was a very dependable player," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "This guy hardly ever missed a game."
With Dawson anchoring the offense, the Steelers were among the best rushing teams in football. During his 13-year career, Pittsburgh led the NFL in rushing twice and ran for over 2,000 yards as a team eight times. The Steelers also had at least 11 rushing touchdowns in all but two of Dawson's seasons.
"He redefined the position," said Steeler head coach Bill Cowher. "When you look at the numbers we had in the running game, everything we did worked from the inside out, and to have a guy like Dermontti and such stability, that was a staple of every offense we had."
The 6-foot-2, 288 pounder was small by current league standards, but made up for whatever deficit he faced in size with power and quickness that made him a track and field star at Bryan Station High School. In fact, Dawson was exclusively a track and field athlete and wrestler before then Bryan Station football coach Steve Parker recruited him to play football.
Now UK Associate Dean for Academic and Student Services, Parker made arrangements to attend the induction ceremony within days of Dawson's election in early February, but Dawson wanted his first football coach to be more involved. In mid-February, Dawson asked Parker to serve as his official presenter, meaning two men with close ties to both UK and Lexington will be on the stage in front of a national audience on Saturday.
"When he asked me, it was so emotional," Parker said over the phone from Canton on Thursday. "I couldn't speak for a while. He could have asked a thousand other people and he asked me."
Parker won't have any trouble coming up with good things to say about his former pupil, whom he calls the greatest center in NFL history.
"To play that position, you have to be super-intelligent," Parker said. "He's quick, he's fast, he's powerful and he's strong. He has all the elements that you would need in a superior way. He demonstrated that week after week in the NFL."
As Parker suggests, Dawson was always perfectly content simply going about his business on the field. The offensive lineman in Dawson might occasionally wonder if he's cut out for the pomp and circumstance that goes with being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Parker knows a much bigger part of Dawson knows what it all means.
"Sometimes I think he thinks, 'What's the big fuss about all this?' " Parker said. "But he realizes he not only represents himself, he represents the NFL and Lexington and Bryan Station and the University of Kentucky. In everything that he's done, he's always kept that in mind."
During the two seasons he spent playing for Parker, Dawson had no idea what his future would hold. He eventually elected to attend hometown UK because of the opportunity to participate in both football and track. Playing for then UK head coach Jerry Claiborne, it didn't take long for Dawson to figure out the gridiron was where he belonged. He played alongside current UK head coach Joker Phillips when the Wildcats went 9-3 and won the Hall of Fame Bowl.
"Dermontti is a classy guy and represents the Blue and White, the Big Blue Nation, the right way," Phillips said. "That's exactly what we stand for."
While it was clear the football field was where Dawson was supposed to be, his coaches had a tougher time figuring out how best to utilize his considerable versatility. Dawson - who would go on to graduate from the UK College of Education - played linebacker, middle guard and defensive end at UK before settling in at guard, the position where he was named second-team All-Southeastern Conference in 1987, his senior year.
The Steelers, though, quickly pinpointed Dawson as their future center, and the rest is history.
"When you get to the NFL you just want to earn a starting spot and have a career," Dawson told John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Never in my wildest dreams would I ever dream that I would be talked about that way, as a possible Hall of Famer. To be enshrined, it's a very humbling experience."