The final test will be meeting Dermontti Dawson's dog. No one
can be this talented, this rich and this nice. The Pittsburgh
Steelers center has already driven across town at rush hour to
pick up a visitor because, he says, the Lexington, Ky., traffic
would be too frustrating for an out-of-town guest. At dinner,
without the least bit of prodding, he shares his secret for
baking bread (let the yeast rise a second time and then add a
pinch of sugar). "Man, I love bread," he says. "I love eating
it, I love baking it, I love it." He pushes the last dinner roll
on the table toward his guest. "Go ahead, it's yours."
Dawson washes down the meal with an iced tea (five sugars),
tells the waiter to "take care" and plops down a 45% tip. In his
car, with his seat belt securely fastened, his thoughts quickly
turn to dessert. Cookie Monster, the nickname given to Dawson by
his teammates after his chocolate-chip cookie recipe was
published in a local cookbook, has been known to bake and
consume a dozen cookies and a quart of milk just before bedtime.
"I guess my big secret is out. I have a weakness for sweets," he
says as he opens the glove compartment, which is full of candy.
"Want a Blow Pop for the ride?"
The 6'2", 286-pound Dawson has been described as the smartest,
most agile player to snap the ball in the history of the game.
As Pittsburgh's offensive team captain, he makes line calls,
hikes the ball and then routinely pulls to lead the Steelers'
rushing attack. Moved to center from right guard just before his
second season in Steel Town, Dawson, 31, has started 125
straight games at the position. Last February he made his fourth
consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. "You've got centers who hike
the ball and just block whoever is in front of them," says
Oakland defensive tackle Russell Maryland. "He can hike it and
go sideways, diagonal, backward, forward. He can do it all. I'm
surprised he hasn't caught a pass yet."
He cooks, he sews, he's addicted to the Discovery Channel. Can
this guy be for real? The only way to know for sure is to meet
his dog, Hard Rock, a Rottweiler he bought nine years ago during
his rookie season. Dogs, the theory goes, always develop a
disposition similar to that of their owners. Nature does not lie.
As Dawson drives back to his home (which sits beside the 1st
hole of The Champions Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky.), he makes
a few detours through his life. There, near the railroad tracks
that split Lexington, is the small beige stone house in which he
grew up. Dawson took charge of the family for several years
while his father, Robert, battled alcoholism. Late at night, as
his three younger brothers slept, Dermontti would hold his
father down until his shakes from drinking passed. "I have the
highest respect for my dad," says Dawson. "Alcoholism got the
worst of him and he could have given up, but he battled it and
won and now has his life back."
The white Toyota Land Cruiser then winds through the projects on
Race Street near where his grandparents Pauline and Manlius Neal
once lived. When Grandma broke her hip one summer, a teenage
Dawson stayed by her side night and day, cooking, cleaning and
caring for the house for 10 straight days. Dawson owes his
gentle nature--and his cooking skills--to Pauline, who died in
1990. "She is my heart," he says.
Grandpa once owned an entire block of buildings on this side of
town, including a restaurant, a music hall and a hotel. These
business interests made Neal one of the richest black men in
Lexington. (The same could now be said of his grandson, who
earns $2.3 million a year.) Next Dawson turns into the parking
lot of Bryan Station High, where, as an 11th grader, he met his
wife, Regina (they married in 1988 and have two children,
Brandon, 5, and Briana, 2). A state champion and high school
All-America in the discus throw and shot put, Dawson aspired to
compete in the Olympics until Defenders football coach Steve
Parker stopped him in the hallway at the start of his junior
year. "Sir, can I help you find your son?" Parker asked.
"I'm a student," replied the then 6'2", 230-pound Dawson.
"Well, then, where have you been all my life?"
Scholarship offers poured in from across the country, but Dawson
decided to stay close to home and attend Kentucky with Regina.
There he earned second-team All-SEC honors in his senior season
and was selected in the second round of the 1988 draft. After
moving Dawson to center, the Steelers had to instruct him to
stop helping players up off the field after knocking them out of
their cleats. He just couldn't help himself. "Honestly, I've
known Dermontti for 14 years, and I can count on one hand the
times he's been mad," says Regina. "Actually, I don't even need
a whole hand."
Legend has it that a few years back Dawson actually lost his
cool in a game against the Houston Oilers. Frustrated by
repeatedly getting pancaked at the line of scrimmage, then
Oilers linebacker Lamar Lathon retaliated, says Dawson, by
spitting in his face. "I'll admit it, I was boiling over with
rage," says Dawson. "I went after him the rest of the game and
pounded him. Did I think about doing something bad to him, maybe
hitting him wrong and ending his career? Sure I did."
We are finally armed with some not-so-complimentary information
about Mr. Nice Guy. It is time, at last, to meet Hard Rock.
He is larger than expected. The dog emerges from a darkened
corner of the garage, his thick, steel-chain leash rattling as
he stalks into the light. Brandon meets him halfway, and the
five-year-old is suddenly staring into the fangs of a
Hard Rock then licks Brandon's face with the weight and wetness
of a soaked beach towel. He rolls over onto his back, whimpering
for someone to scratch his tummy. It's like meeting a grizzly
with the temperament of Winnie the Pooh.
This is definitely Dermontti Dawson's dog.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT The sweet-natured Dawson is all smiles, but opponents take him very seriously. [Dermontti Dawson]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO With four Pro Bowl appearances, Dawson is a center worthy of attention. [Dermontti Dawson in game]