That old Steelers statesman Dermontti Dawson, one of those rare goodwill ambassadors that willed himself to play great, is going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame some day through the front door.
But at the moment he’s content to help the Bengals’ Kyle Cook along the inner corridors and back stairs of playing center in the AFC North, which is not unlike the old AFC Central Dawson once terrorized with his fierce pulling and trapping so unique to the position.
And why shouldn’t Dawson be here working as a coaching intern with the offensive line?
This is the era where the Bengals all-time passer, Ken Anderson, once coached Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Browns Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome has a 15-7 record against Cleveland as the personnel chief for the AFC North rival Ravens. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who once shut out the Bengals as the Ravens defensive coordinator three straight seasons, is 9-5 against Baltimore.
“We talk about the little things; he played against bigger guys in this division,” Cook says. “Just like the leverage and the striking ability because in our division we play a lot of big nose tackles. It wasn’t like he played a lot of 275- and 280-pound guys. He played big guys. A lot of things he did you can listen to and incorporate them into your own game.”
The gentlemanly Dawson hasn’t changed at all from those days when he was so friendly his Pittsburgh teammates nicknamed him “Ned Flanders” from The Simpsons. Chased down after a practice last week, Dawson offered, “Kyle’s a great guy. I give him advice when he asks. I never try to infringe.”
As Cook says in reference to long-time offensive line coach Paul Alexander, Dawson “is very respectful about not overstepping any bounds,” but no coach or player is hesitating to pick Dawson’s knowledge.
There may be 18 years difference (Dawson turns 45 on Thursday, the day the Bengals finish next week’s mandatory minicamp) and Dawson is black and Cook is white and Dawson grew up closer to the city than the country and Cook grew up closer to the country than the city and Dawson became one of the game’s greatest by starting every game in a single decade and Cook is merely emerging after starting his first 16 games last year.
But centers always have a lot in common.
Like this day the other week:
Bengals equipment manager Jeff Brickner is fond of talking about the grain farm he grew up on in Harrison, Ohio, about a half hour from Cincinnati hugging the Indiana border. His father Steve farms more than 500 acres of soybean, wheat, hay and corn, and Brickner still helps his dad with the major stuff. Like the four mowings a year of the alfalfa and orchard grass. Some players tell him, “If you need help baling hay, let me know.”
“No one ever really offers to help bale hay, so you take them up on it and see if they’re bluffing or not,” Brickner says.
So who else shows up for the year’s first cutting, always the heaviest haul? Besides Brickner, his father, and a cousin?
Dawson, the future of Hall of Famer and University of Kentucky trustee, and Cook, a starting NFL center who just became the first player to have his number retired at Dakota High School in Macomb, Mich.
Dawson: “I didn’t have anything else to do after practice was over. All I was probably going to do was go back to the hotel, relax, and study the plays and installation for the following day. I said, ‘I got time, so I’ll go and help you guys out.’ ”
Cook: “I didn’t think Brick was serious and when he asked me, I jumped at it. I grew up doing a lot of that stuff as a kid. Plus Jeff’s a great guy that does so much for us. He’s in here early in the morning and late at night getting us ready for games. You like to help a guy like that.”
The Brickner Ranch is still buzzing about the venture. Brickner says one bale of hay goes about 60 to 100 pounds. With two or three people it takes about 4.5 hours to do 1,000 bales. Three guys with Dawson and Cook took about two hours, and that entails throwing the bales into the air and from the trailer into the barn.
“You don’t need an elevator when you’ve got Dermontti and Kyle Cook on the job,” Jeff Brickner says. “Very impressive. Both hard working guys.”
Here is Dawson, who played in 184 NFL games, started 13 playoff games, made seven Pro Bowls and didn’t miss a start from 1989 to 1998, wincing at the memory. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., probably more as a city kid, but says he had some similar experiences working on a horse farm in college while playing at Kentucky.
“After I got finished, my forearms were so sore and my shoulders were so sore from tossing those bales up high and tossing them from the trailer all the way into the barn,” Dawson says. “I was a little sore.”
The conversation became a little more personal down on the farm. Instead of technique and fronts, Cook and Dawson found themselves talking about their lives.
“We sweated our tails off; it was fun,” Cook says. “We were telling stories, talking about life and football. Where are you from? What’s he going to do? He’s a dog lover. You learn more about guys when you get out of the office, so to speak. “
That’s when then the similarities began to come out. Dawson was a real estate developer after he retired. Cook got his degree in construction management from Michigan State. Dawson wrestled in high school while Cook played basketball. But both were throwers in track and Cook was blown away when Dawson told him he threw the shot put something like 72 feet and was ranked near the top in the country.
“I was in the mid 50s,” Cook says.
“He likes the outdoors like I do,” Dawson says. “Hunting and fishing. We saw some antlers out there on the farm and they were huge. That must have been quite a buck with those.”
But even though Dawson was a second-round pick and Cook was a free agent and Dawson was known as an athletic rarity and Cook is known more for his strength, they have some similarities on the field, too.
“What I see now in practice is he knows the offense; he knows the calls,” Dawson says. “He’s a technician when he comes to his blocks. He’s got good technique when it comes to making the calls along the offensive line and also how he works on his blocking. He’s a good one.
“It’s kind of hard to compare because centers do different things. What set me apart was the offense I was in and what they let me do. My thing was pulling and getting out on sweeps. Kyle does what this offense needs him to do. He makes the calls and he’s well versed.”
Cook loves Dawson’s attitude because he knows he could be sitting on the couch instead of breaking into coaching on the bottom rung of the ladder.
“Look at him now. It looks like he can still play. The guy’s in shape. He comes out to practice with us now and he’s got the cleats on and the wrist tape and the gloves on and he’s still moving around,” Cook says. “I’m sure that the way he sees the game is how I see the game. I wasn’t able to watch him. I was young back then. But it’s fun to be able to watch that guy actually work.”
Dawson says Cook and his mates are helping him as much as he’s helping them because in order to help them, they need to help him with the terminology and the responsibilities of each lineman. Cook says the give and take has been informative as Dawson strives to pick up the system.
For instance, when the nose tackle lines up one way, or the backer lines up in a gap instead of stacked, Dawson might ask Cook, “Why did you make this call and not that call?” And Cook might ask Dawson, “If you had this look and the guy makes this move on you, where would you put your hands?”
“He says something like, ‘this is what I used to do,' ’’ Cook says. “He’s very big on that. He doesn't want to overstep and that tells you something about him.”
Dawson has a pretty good blueprint to follow when working with linemen, particularly the rookies and those with virtually no experience. When he was a rookie he worked behind his own future Hall of Famer in Mike Webster, and he tells the kids what he saw.
“Even though he was in his 15th season, Mike always wrote everything down," Dawson said. "So I always write everything down. I don’t care if I’ve been in the league 10 years or been to five Pro Bowls I write everything down. I may know it, but I still write it down because it reinforces in your brain where it becomes an afterthought.
“One thing I took from Mike Webster was how to be a professional. How you conduct yourself on the field, film study, classroom with the coaches. Learning the plays. Being first in drills. That’s one thing I emulated from Mike and what I learned from him that stuck with me and I think it helped make me a better player as well.”
Like a couple of good farmers, Dawson and Cook are using the spring to make sure they’re recycling the soil.