Defeat used to move Brian Dawkins to tears.
This is Dawkins the little boy from Jacksonville, Fla., we're talking about. Even if he doesn't cry after a loss anymore, a glimpse into Dawkins' emotional childhood helps explain the visible passion he has brought to his 188 NFL games as a Pro Bowl safety.
"I've always been this way, passionate about the game," Dawkins said. "As a kid, I would always cry after a loss. When you're little, you're always told to contain your emotions. Can't show emotions."
So Dawkins would keep his feelings pent-up until the painful heartache of defeat would be too much. The hurt would burst, and then came the tears.
Eventually, to the entertainment of his longtime fans in Philadelphia and his new followers in Denver, Dawkins found a way to release his passion. And it has to do with how, as a junior in high school, Dawkins announced he was giving his life to Jesus Christ.
He looks back now and says it was more "talk," that it wasn't until after his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles that he started to "walk," forbidding himself from alcohol and pollutants that can ravage the body from within.
But regardless of how he restrained some behaviors, Dawkins always experienced liberation through faith. He would unload his energy in the minutes before the game with his demonstrative dances and pep talks from the football pulpit -- otherwise known as the huddle.
In the days leading up to the Broncos' game tonight against the San Diego Chargers, Dawkins has conducted himself as a gentleman. Six days a week, he is intelligent, introspective, kind. Off the field and on, he is serious. He will be wildly unrestrained tonight.
"I've never seen a guy go through such a metamorphosis," said Broncos backup quarterback Chris Simms, who is in his seventh NFL season. "He goes from leader of the choir to psycho safety."
Said Dawkins: "When my walk with Christ increased, I'm now able to turn it completely loose, just turn it on -- everything that I have to offer. The passion, the excitement that I have, I can let it completely show."
Stellar work ethic
This is Dawkins' 14th year in the NFL, and Tuesday marked his 36th year on Earth. It also was an off day for the Broncos players. So how did Dawkins celebrate his birthday?
For much of the day, he was at the team's Dove Valley headquarters.
"You've heard stories about him, but when you're around him, you know you're around a model of a Hall of Famer," pass rusher Elvis Dumervil said. "I come in a lot on our days off, and you'll see him from 8 in the morning till 3 or 4 in the afternoon, getting treatment, rehab. Yeah, he was here Tuesday. I didn't know it was his birthday, but I know he was here."
What 36 is to an NFL player, 90 is to life on Earth. Few make it that far.
Eagles fans may not agree, but after 13 years in Philadelphia, change was good for Dawkins. He had almost become too familiar to the City of Brotherly Love. The problem with familiarity is strengths are often taken for granted and flaws become irritants.
In Denver, a fresh set of eyes appreciates the energy he channels to his teammates and the intimidating presence he poses to the opponents.
Dawkins has shifted from a deep-positioned, roaming safety to a safety who more often roams from within the box. But he never leaves the field. He jams the box on running plays, covers the tight end on passing plays and generally must be accounted for on every play.
"The way I feel about it, if he's one of your very best players on your team, I'd play him on offense if I could," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "There's no reason for him to come out. He doesn't want to come out, I don't want him to come out, and I don't think anybody in our locker room wants him to come out either."
Room for Wolverine
In the Mike Shanahan era, no Broncos player got two lockers. And McDaniels has gone to great lengths to establish a team-before-self mentality in his first year with the Broncos, even going so far as to trade away an obstinate young quarterback to prove it.
One player has received the privilege of a second locker, though, and it happens to be Dawkins. In one, he keeps his jerseys, shoes, helmet, football gear and clothes. The other is a shrine containing more than two dozen "Wolverine" figurines on the top shelf and texts relating to the Good Book on the bottom. The Wolverine comic-book hero has a been part of Dawkins' life since the days when he cried after defeat.
"He's a good guy with an edge," Dawkins said. "He's a spotted hero. Always up for a challenge, always up for a battle. Wolverine would never back down even when the odds don't seem to be in his favor."
Dawkins started collecting Wolverine comic books and figurines a few years ago, but if there's a drawback to this hobby, it's that people might think he derives his animated play from it.
"He thinks he's a Wolverine," said Broncos running back Correll Buckhalter, who was a teammate of Dawkins' for eight years in Philadelphia. "But what you see on Sunday, that's the Holy Spirit in him."
Dawkins has been unofficial team minister since he arrived in Denver.
In a hallway outside the Broncos' locker room Saturday, the interview was finished. Dawkins had provided insight on his upbringing, his lifestyle, his wife and four children, his career. But as the interview dissolved into friendly, off-the-record small talk, Dawkins became preoccupied. There was one more point he wanted to make clear.
"The way I play, everybody says it's the Wolverine," he said. "It's not that. What I do is, during the week, my job is to prepare my body and myself to do battle that weekend. That's by film study, and that's by praying. Rigorously praying for myself and my teammates so that when I get to game day, I can turn it all loose. I have no distractions, I have no worries, I have no concerns. All I have is the ability God gave me to give what I have. So that's the passion you're seeing from me out there."
Denver at San Diego, 6:30 p.m., ESPN