Temple tackle Dawkins has made most of his chances

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Temple offensive lineman Dion Dawkins has defied the odds to be a strong force in the Owls' running game.

THIS IS HOW close Dion Dawkins came to not coming to North Broad Street.

Four years ago, he was already committed to Cincinnati as a defensive lineman, his position at Rahway (N.J.) High. Matt Rhule had just gotten the Temple coaching job. One of his assistants, Allen Mogridge, knew Dawkins' uncle.

"He said he had a guy," Rhule recalled. "Just watching the film, you couldn't say he was a very good player yet. Just a big, physical athlete."

Rhule drove the 80 miles to his house. But he couldn't decide whether to offer him a scholarship. Rhule saw him as an offensive lineman, which he'd played in his one season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

"I left and started walking down the street to my car," Rhule said. "It was literally like a movie. I went, 'Why not?' So I turned around and told him if he wanted to come to Temple, to be there on Monday. That was the first day of (spring semester). And this was Friday. Something in my gut said take this guy. We just took a chance."

Score one for feelings. Dawkins started at tackle as a freshman before breaking his foot. The last three years, he's manned the left side, and this season he's been the anchor on a front that's responsible for the Owls' (7-3, 5-1 American Athletic Conference) dominant running game. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper has identified him as a possible first-round pick.

This, for someone who had zero stars attached to his name as a recruit.

"I had no idea who coach Rhule was," Dawkins said. "I just heard him talk. He seemed real genuine. I just trusted him. He came all the way up to see me. Guys from Rahway don't get that kind of attention. I was going to give him my all."

He weighed over 330 pounds when he arrived. These days, he goes about 310. Yet he's always been athletic, as he showed Rhule in the winter of his freshman year when he dunked a basketball. The video turned into a hit on YouTube.

"During workouts, we had one day a week that was like fun day," said Dawkins, who always addresses adults as "Sir."

"We'd do, like, drills and competitions. He took us into the court. And I went, 'Coach, I can dunk.' He was like, 'No way.' I told him again. He asked (the trainer), 'Is he cleared (medically)?' I was still recovering (from the broken foot). He gave me the go-ahead. I said, 'Watch this.' And I bounced it off the backboard, grabbed it and dunked. Coach's face was in full shock. 'Look what this fat kid just did.' "

Obviously, a lot has changed since then. The Owls went 2-10 his first season. Last year, they tied a program record with 10 victories. Now they're trying to repeat as East Division champions. They will be the first Temple team to go to back-to-back bowls and could become the second to win its league (joining the 1967 Middle Atlantic champs). And then there's all that individual stuff.

"I just wanted to play ball," said Dawkins, a criminal justice major who would like to practice law at some point. "At first, I had my doubts with the way it was going. I had to trust it. It hasn't always been easy, but it seems everything has fallen into place. But you find out that it can be taken away from you in a split second."

In January 2015, he and teammate Haason Reddick - a onetime walk-on who's developed into an NFL-worthy defensive end - were arrested in connection with a fight at a Philadelphia nightclub. The charges were dismissed, but later reinstated. Both were suspended from the team for three months, which caused them to miss spring practice, before Temple's Student Conduct Board found them not responsible for the alleged actions. In August, they avoided trial by agreeing to be placed in Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a diversionary program for first-time offenders. If they don't get in trouble for an agreed-upon period of time, their records will be expunged.

"I just see it as another test in my life," Dawkins stressed. "Everything happens for a reason. God wanted that to happen at that time. It doesn't matter if people know you're a good guy. They told me it would sort itself out. I had to keep pushing forward. The past is the past. I had to live with it. It could have ended bad. Bad things do happen to good people. If it was meant to happen, there's nothing I can do. I can only be true to myself. I have to continue to be me. People are going to think what they want . . .

"I live right across the street (from the practice facility). I could literally watch from my window every night. Some days, I would actually sit there and tear up. Like wow, just that fast, it could all be gone. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it all really hits you."

Added Rhule: "He learned that you are who you are, not what people say you did or who they think you are. He got very comfortable in his own skin."

There's no telling how far football can take Dawkins. Maybe he wasn't supposed to even make it to where he is. Yet like a lot of Temple football stories, he's defied the odds. On Saturday, the Owls are at Tulane (3-7, 0-6). They finish next week at home against East Carolina (3-7, 1-5). They were 3-3 at Central Florida on Oct. 15, trailing by five with 32 seconds and 70 yards to go. With no timeouts left. Four plays later, their season was salvaged. They haven't looked back. Neither has Dawkins. Well, almost. But considering what he left behind, can you blame him?

"If I'd gone to Cincy, you never know," he said. "My mom says I'm truly blessed . . . Guys don't really get out of Rahway. I can go back home and see the same ones still walking around. The guys I went to high school with, now they're walking around with them.

"Growing up, I had my bad periods. I would steal, I would fight. Young-like stuff. It could have gone the other way. I see kids I used to hang out with. They're still together, not doing nothing. Dang, that could have been me right there. I don't believe in luck. The No. 1 thing I always think about is, God is true to what he does."

It was a chance worth taking.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn