CANTON, Ohio – He was hoarse and throaty for the 22 minutes that he spoke from the stage, his voice on the precipice of breaking throughout a speech that laid bare Brian Dawkins' soul, that revealed just how close he had come, long ago, to killing himself.
This was not a succession of happy memories and light and funny shout-outs to teammates and friends, the kind of time-filler at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony that you hear and forget in the same instant. This was a vital message from the bottom of Brian Dawkins' heart Saturday night at Tom Benson Stadium here, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and this was everything that everyone who follows the Eagles had come to admire and appreciate about him.
Dawkins came out as if he were again the most ferocious free safety in the NFL, just as he was over his 13 seasons with the Eagles, rambling out on all fours as if he were again the final member of the team's defense to be introduced at Veterans Stadium or Lincoln Financial Field.
But instead of delivering a crushing tackle or intercepting a pass in overtime to turn the tide of a playoff game, Dawkins poured all that energy into a confession. He had suffered earlier in his life, he said, from a deep depression that had him contemplating suicide, and he turned his remarks into a plea for people dealing with similar strife to be strong, to resist the temptation to feel sorry for themselves, to fight until they pull themselves out of that darkness.
"The majority of the success I have had has come on the back of pain," he said. "I was actually planning the way I would kill myself so my wife would get the money. But what that pain did for me, it increased my faith exponentially. …
"Don't settle. Don't settle in this life. Don't allow yourself to settle. On the other side of that pain is something special."
The first time that Dawkins came here to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – the only other time, in fact, that he came here – was in early August 2006. Reggie White was a member, posthumously, of that year's class of inductees, and on the day of that ceremony, Dawkins and the Eagles agreed to a restructuring of his contract, a two-year extension for $6.2 million. The following night, the Eagles played in the Hall of Fame Game, then flew home to continue training camp. He had a fair bit on his mind then. What was not on his mind, really, was the possibility that he might someday be inducted himself.
>> READ MORE: Brian Dawkins enters Pro Football Hall of Fame
"The likelihood of that happening, I didn't understand at that point that it was possible for me to be at this level," he had said Friday afternoon, during a media availability at Canton McKinley High School. "My mind was not stretched there. It just was not."
He had so much more on his mind Saturday night. Time after time during that availability Friday, he had fended off inquiries about his background, about himself, by saying he would answer those questions in his speech, and answer them he did. He'd had enough time to stretch his mind and see himself on that stage – to see himself where anyone who had watched him play for the Eagles knew he always belonged.
It is not enough to say that Dawkins was perhaps the most popular Eagles player in the team's history or even that he is the most beloved, because popularity and love don't quite capture the visceral connection between him and the franchise's devotees. If it were possible to create, Frankenstein-style, a being who embodied the mixture of toughness, talent, emotion, and openness that would form the perfect Philadelphia athlete, Dawkins would be the inspired product of that science project.
His speech captured all those qualities. He nearly burst into tears when he thanked his first Eagles defensive coordinator, Emmitt Thomas, for being a father figure, for insisting on greatness from Dawkins and extracting it from him. He had his wife, Connie, stand up in front of the entire crowd, so that he could credit her publicly and properly for helping him turn away from those terrible thoughts. And he closed by acknowledging those thousands of Eagles fans who had traveled here for the ceremony.
Touring the Hall, in hotel lobbies and restaurants throughout this small city, they wore green shirts and black-and-green shirts, each with DAWKINS 20 stretched across the back, their presence a testament to what one of his longtime teammates, Brian Westbrook, called the "reverence" that the Eagles and their fans had for him.
"Thank you for loving me," Dawkins said, "the way I love you."