Back when he played for the Eagles and lived in Cherry Hill, Brian Dawkins’ children always wondered why they got so much time off from school.
That’s when he explained to them about the Jewish holidays and about a religion he knew little about growing up in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I had a bunch of neighbors who were Jewish, and I saw a lot of people walking to ‘church,’” recalled Dawkins, the former Philadelphia All-Pro safety, who was the keynote speaker at the Katz JCC seventh Sports Awards Dinner in Cherry Hill on Sept 13. “My kids always wondered why school was closed so much. They had friends who were Jewish and wanted to know why they were getting those days off. I helped them understand about our Jewish brothers and sisters and the holidays.”
Moments after sharing this story, Dawkins took to the podium and told the crowd about the lessons in life sports taught him and how it made him a better man. Speaking to a group of people — several of whom wore Dawkins’ No. 20 jerseys — who knew him only through his exploits on the field, he sounded much like someone they might’ve heard in Hebrew school or on the bimah.
The 43-year-old Dawkins emphasized how critical mentors are because of the lasting impact they can have on someone’s life.
“Those of you who have the ability to be mentors, don’t take that for granted,” he said. “You never know what word you’ll say to an individual that will bless them. You never know what will ignite a fire within them. What if they’d given up and tossed me to the side after the mistakes I made? But they stayed with me, pushing me to get better.
“I blossomed because of so many caring individuals.”
According to Dawkins, whose father would not allow him to quit football after a coach moved him from running back to center — and whose poor grades once caused a college to revoke its scholarship offer — he eventually realized it was on him to change.
But without others’ guidance and faith in him, it might never have happened.
“Sports shaped me in so many ways,” said Dawkins, who retired from the NFL in 2011 and came close to being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. “The man you see in front of you had a lot to do with the coaches I had and the direction they took.
“But the mistakes in my life don’t make me. They make me better. They don’t define me. They never have and they never will.”
Listening in front was former Eagles teammate Jeremiah Trotter.
“We’ve still got each other’s backs after all these years,” said Trotter, who was unaware of any Jewish community in Hooks, Texas, where he grew up. (Nearby, Texarkana’s last remaining synagogue shut its doors in 2015.) “I have attended this event in the past. The last time I came here was when Donovan [McNabb] spoke [at the inaugural 2009 dinner]. It was a great event and recognized a lot of people in the community.”
Since then, the list of guest speakers has included Phillies Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino, then-Sixers coach Doug Collins, Olympian Aly Raisman, Eagle LeSean McCoy, then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly and, most recently, former Sixer Charles Barkley. Dawkins, who lives around the corner from the JCC, was scheduled in 2013, but had to hand it off to McCoy due to a family emergency.
He was glad to finally have the opportunity. As for the opportunity of making it to the Hall of Fame, he’ll just wait and see.
“If it happens, it happens at this stage,” Dawkins said. “I’ve already been through the process and had a good time with it. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just continue along with my life.”
Three awards were handed out prior to Dawkins’ address.
Ken Hoffman received the People’s Choice Award for his work with JCC Maccabi. Merrick Wetzler received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his accomplishments in the field of sports medicine. And tennis player Haley Cohen won the David Back Memorial Maccabi Award in recognition of her tennis skills, coupled with her community commitment.