Brian Dawkins knows he can still play football.
And thats why he decided it was time to walk away.
That may sound crazy, he said. But knowing I can still play this game at least another year gave me a lot of peace. Itd be better to step away a year too early than a year too late.
Dawkins, one of the greatest Eagles ever, announced his retirement on Monday after 16 NFL seasons, the first 13 with the Eagles.
And for Dawk, there will be no unretiring.
Once I say its over, its over, Dawkins said. And its over.
Dawkins was named to nine Pro Bowl teams, and only two safeties in NFL history -- Hall of Famers Ken Houston and Ronnie Lott -- have been named to more.
Although Dawkins has been banged up the last couple years -- stingers in his neck limited him to 11 starts in 2010 and 12 in 2011 -- he said hes actually 100 percent healthy now and not retiring because of the injuries.
I know a lot of people want to speculate about my age or the neck or whatever, and they can do that all they want, said Dawkins, who turns 39 in October.
I always said I would know when it was time. ... I made a promise to myself and in prayer that when I made peace with me stepping away from the game, that at that time, it was time for me to stop playing.
I cant say that my desire isnt where it used to be or anything of that nature. Its just the fact of being at peace with stepping away from the game knowing that I could play the game another year.
Dawkins is one of only two safeties in NFL history with at least 25 career sacks and 35 interceptions. The other is Rodney Harrison.
He was picked to the NFLs Team of the Decade for 2000 through 2009 and was also selected to the Eagles All-Time Team.
Along with Steve Van Buren, Reggie White, Tommy McDonald and Chuck Bednarik, Dawkins is considered one of the greatest players in the franchises 79-year history.
And without question, the most popular Eagle of this generation.
The love and devotion Eagles fans have for Dawkins? Its mutual. Like perhaps no other athlete in the citys history, he not only understood what the fans were feeling. He always felt it, too.
One of the things that Ive been blessed with or cursed with is I played with all of my emotions on my sleeve, and you can kind of read me pretty easily by the way Im feeling on game day, Dawkins said in a conference call with Philly writers Monday afternoon.
I like to try my best to not disappoint people. I purposely try and go out and do my best to make sure my coaches, teammates and fans know that I gave it my all on the football field.
With me playing as long as I did in Philadelphia, I heard what they said. I didnt just hear it, I heard and listened to what they said. I felt the pain they had from past failures and the way they are treated sometimes in the media. I heard those things, and I took it to heart and I understood them.
The thing that I always wanted to do is to go out and put a certain product on the field to have those certain entities proud of me when the game was over. Hopefully, I have poured everything emotionally and physically out on the field.
Dawkins became a full-time starter three weeks into his rookie year of 1996 when Ray Rhodes inserted him in the lineup ahead of Eric Zomalt. But Dawkins didnt become a star until legendary Jim Johnson became his defensive coordinator in 1999. From 1999 until his retirement, he made the Pro Bowl team all nine years in which he played in at least 14 games.
Dawkins and Johnson are inexorably linked in Eagles history. And for both, the 2008 NFC Championship Game loss to Arizona was the end of their remarkable Eagles tenures. Dawkins signed with the Broncos on March 9, 2009, and Johnson lost his courageous battle with cancer on July 28.
The Eagles have not won a playoff game since.
Dawkins spoke Monday of his fondest and most disappointing moments in 13 years as an Eagle, and both revolve around Johnson and an NFC Championship Game.
His best memory? The Eagles 2004 NFC Championship Game win over Michael Vick and the Falcons.
It was, without question, and I didnt even have to think about it, when we finally won the NFC Championship Game after losing how many times in a row three, he said. The exuberance, the joy, the feeling of a burden lifted off of your back. And to see the joy on Jim Johnsons face, the late and great Jim Johnson, to see the joy in his face and the tears in his eyes when he grabbed me and said, Dawk, we did it, we did it!
Ill never forget that, and thatll be something that will always stand out among so many great moments I had in Philadelphia. That will be one that will stand out the most.
Four years later, the Eagles played in another NFC Championship Game but lost to the Cardinals, 32-25, in Glendale, Ariz. Thats Dawks lowest moment.
As low as the Super Bowl was, and it was a low, I still had the sense that we well be back, weve got a shot to get back, he said. So it hurt. It hurt bad. But when we lost to the Cardinals ... thats why I apologized to the fans. Because I felt that real bad, because it was not 100 percent that I was going to be back. I didnt know at the time, I was hoping at the time that I would be back. Didnt know. And to know that Jim was as sick as he was. He wasnt letting off how bad he was, but I could tell that he was hurting pretty good.
Its been more than three years since Dawkins sent Philly spiraling into a city-wide depression by signing with the Broncos. There were a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of angry words, a lot of ill will.
But just the fact that the Eagles have already planned a night in his honor in September is evidence that relations between the Eagles and one of their greatest players have thawed a bit.
And it wasnt the Broncos that arranged for his retirement press conference Monday. it was the Eagles.
It erases some of the negative feelings, Dawkins said. Those things happen, theres nothing you can do about those things. You can learn from the mistakes in the past and hopefully not make the same things in the future. You forgive, you forget. What you forgive, you still remember, but it does not hurt as bad as it did at the time.
Theres going to always be pain, theres going to always be feelings there. It is. It just is. ... Theres always going to be pain there. You know, there will always be pain. At the same time, I understand that community, the fans, Philadelphia and my teammates meant so much to me. They mean so much to me. And I would never allow something that happened years back to prevent me from allowing all the celebrating.
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org