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Center Stage Dermontti Dawson of the Steelers possesses talent unmatched by any other lineman in the NFL and clears holes wide enough to drive the Bus through

You're a freshman in college, maybe a sophomore. You're not the
biggest offensive lineman on your team, but you're the fastest.
You have a mean streak but not a rap sheet. You're the
Pittsburgh Steelers' center of the future. Good luck, kid.
You're going to need it.

That's because in four or five years, you will be asked to
replace an institution as beloved in Pittsburgh as Iron City
Beer. The Steelers' 19-16 Thanksgiving Day overtime loss to the
Detroit Lions marked Dermontti Dawson's 156th consecutive start
at center for Pittsburgh. While manning that unglamorous
position since 1989, the 6'2", 292-pound Dawson has also
redefined it. Steelers defensive end Kevin Henry speaks for his
colleagues around the league when he says, "Dermontti Dawson
does things centers have no business being able to do."

Regard the typical center. He spends half his time on the field
with another man's hands on his buttocks, the other half a step
behind everyone else. He often needs help from a guard to get
his blocking assignment done. He's not dealing from a position
of strength. Dawson flip-flops much of that stereotype, much the
way he flipped 350-plus-pound nosetackle Gilbert Brown on his
back--twice--during Pittsburgh's Nov. 9 win over the Green Bay
Packers. Marveled one Packers insider, "That never happens."

Now 33 and in his 11th NFL season, Dawson is so quick that he
needs no help from the guards. The converse is true: He often
ends up assisting them. All the Pittsburgh linemen can run, but
none of the others move like the one nicknamed Dirt. "He's not
the quickest center in the league, he's the quickest lineman in
the league," says Steelers running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis,
the chief beneficiary of Dawson's exertions. "He has the ability
to snap the ball, pull and lead a sweep."

"Other guys snap, then move; Dermontti snaps and moves," says
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who doesn't hesitate to pull
Dawson on screens and counters. "He gets out in space, and he's
as nimble as a defensive back," says Steelers offensive lineman
Roger Duffy, a nine-year veteran. "I've played center, but when
I watch Dermontti, it's like the tape's on a different speed."

It has long been suspected that an imminent date with Dawson
adversely affects a defensive lineman's sleep. Now there's
proof. In the wee hours of Nov. 21, roughly 36 hours before his
team would lose 30-15 to Pittsburgh, Jacksonville Jaguars
defensive tackle John Jurkovic got an elbow in the ribs from his
wife, Brandy. Their eight-week-old son, Jacob, was crying, and
it was Dad's turn to handle the feeding. Jurkovic grumbled and
stumbled to the fridge, but the truth was, says Jurko, "I'd been
tossing and turning before he started crying. Dawson has that
effect on your sleep."

What Jurkovic obsesses over is Dawson's "initial punch--it's the
best in the league. He does a little drop step and then launches
a right, and it just rocks you." His advice to his peers:
"Survive the initial onslaught and you may have a chance to make
the play, because after he blocks you he's usually looking to go
get someone else."

Tackles use various methods to get through afternoons with Dirt,
who has been to six consecutive Pro Bowls. The Tennessee Oilers'
Henry Ford "scoots away" from Dawson, lining up "three to six
inches" farther from the line of scrimmage than he normally
would. "You've got to stay extremely focused" when facing
Dawson, says the Baltimore Ravens' James Jones. "On some plays
you think you've got him beat, but he's just baiting you. He'll
wheel around and use your own momentum against you. You might
get past him with a [pass rushing] move, but he's quick enough
to recover and wash you by the quarterback."

What about the size differential? Dawson gives away 20 or 30
pounds to many of the men he must move. "It doesn't matter how
big and strong you are," says Jones. "If a guy's on top of you
before you're out of your stance, you're done."

Cowher has said that Dawson isn't just the best center in the
NFL--he's the best in NFL history. He stood by that statement in
a recent interview in the Steelers' "library," an anomalously
cozy and luxuriously appointed study smack-dab in the middle of
the club's windowless and dungeonlike Three Rivers Stadium
offices. Over Cowher's right shoulder, partially obscured by a
flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was a framed
photograph of a scowling Steeler with thinning hair and
formidable biceps. It looks as if Mike Webster has just told the
photog, "Go ahead, take my damn picture, but make it quick."

Webster played on the Pittsburgh line from 1974 to '88, and
accumulated four Super Bowl rings. He was inducted into the Pro
Football Hall of Fame in '97. "In my day," says Tunch Ilkin, an
offensive tackle who retired in '92 after a 13-year career with
the Steelers, "the great debate was, Who's better, Webster or
Dwight Stephenson, the Dolphins' great center. Webbie's game was
sheer toughness and strength; Dwight relied more on his athletic
ability. Put both those guys together, you've got Dermontti
Dawson. He's scary strong, built like a Brahma bull. No neck,
his trapezius muscles grow right into his ears. At the same
time, he's so quick that he could bucket-step, cross-over step,
do everything wrong from a technique standpoint and still put a
noseguard on his back. He's a genetic mutant. A freak of nature."

If anything, Dawson is freakishly humble and unassuming. When the
subject of his serial pancaking of Brown is broached, Dawson
looks embarrassed and then says, "Gilbert is an excellent
nosetackle. Maybe he tripped." Not exactly one for woofing, is
he? "That's the thing about Dermontti," says Ford. "If you beat
him, he says, 'Nice job,' or 'Good rush.' If he pancakes you, he
just walks back to the huddle."

Dawson may not talk trash, but he does take it out without
having to be told. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., where, as the
oldest of Robert and Bonnie Dawson's four sons, it was his duty
to make sure that the house was clean by the time his parents
got home from work. He took the job seriously. "If it was
summertime and Mom was getting home at 4, I wanted to start
cleaning at 3:30," says DeMarcus, the next-oldest Dawson
brother. (DeShawn and Deaaron bring up the rear.) "Monty always
wanted to start tidying up as soon as Mom left the house. That
was the source of most of our disagreements."

If evidence exists that Dermontti was anything but a perfect
square while growing up, it had yet to be uncovered as SI went to
press. While a junior at Bryan Station High, he started dating
Regina Berry, now his wife of 10 years and the mother of their
children, Brandon, 7, and Briana, 5. Ask Regina if there are any
dark secrets about her husband, and she comes up with this: "He
likes cookies. I mean, he really likes cookies."

The year he got serious with his future bride was also his first
year of organized football. Dawson, a shot-putter and discus
thrower who would become a high school All-America as a senior,
had little interest in football. Before his junior year,
however, he was talked into going out for the team by his
friends Cornell Burbage and Marc Logan, both of whom would also
go on to play in the NFL, and by coach Steve Parker. While
blowing up linemen and linebackers for Bryan Station, Dawson
impressed Kentucky recruiter John Devlin, who returned to the
Wildcats football offices with the observation that, yes,
Burbage and Logan were dazzling talents, "but there's another
guy there I kinda like."

That account comes to us not from Devlin, who has since died,
but from Philadelphia Eagles scout Jake Hallum, who was Dawson's
line coach at Kentucky. In the spring after Dawson's
redshirt-sophomore season, Wildcats coach Jerry Claiborne tried
to turn him into a defensive tackle. The experiment
failed--"Thank god," says Hallum. Dawson ended up starting at
guard in Kentucky's trapping offense, and there he caught the
eye of Steelers coach Chuck Noll, whose offense was the NFL's
most trap-happy. Pittsburgh took Dawson in the second round of
the 1988 draft and started him at left guard, next to Webster,
in just his fourth game. He promptly suffered a sprained knee
and missed eight games.

Dawson started the last four games of his rookie year at right
guard, and when Webster retired after that season, the center's
job was his. Since returning from that knee injury, Dawson
hasn't missed a start, a jaw-dropping feat that is a testament
to his superb conditioning and snap-to-whistle intensity. Many
injuries occur toward the end of a play, when players
prematurely relax. Dawson doesn't relax. "He plays like he wants
to hurt you," says Cowher, "but away from the field he's the
nicest guy you'll ever meet."

Try telling that to the deer population of western Pennsylvania.
Dawson, who hunted squirrels and rabbits as a lad, has lately
taken up deer hunting. He was planning a hunt for Nov. 30, the
day that deer season opened in the state. "He's so sure he's
going to get a deer, he wants to buy a freezer," Regina says
with a sigh. "Now watch. He'll buy the freezer, and he won't get
a deer."

The best thing to do when her husband acquires a hobby, Regina
has learned, is to make sure the checking account is flush. At
the family's off-season home near Lexington, Dawson keeps what
he describes as a sizable gun collection. When he has a
hankering to discharge his weapons, Dawson need only repair to
the 50-yard shooting range beneath his house. The range adjoins
Dawson's gun room, the walls of which are "poured concrete a
foot thick, reinforced with steel bars," he says.

His arsenal includes "a fully automatic M-16 and a lot of
semiautomatic weapons," says Dawson, along with a generous
supply of ammunition and "high-capacity magazines." If he gets
hungry, the gun room is stocked with military surplus
MREs--Meals Ready to Eat, victuals with a shelf life of up to 10

Just when you think you've got a read on a guy, you begin to
think he has visions of joining a militia. But when you ask
Dawson if he's a survivalist, if he spends his spare time on the
lookout for black helicopters and was disappointed when the Cold
War ended, he laughs. "No, nothing like that," he says. "I just
enjoy shooting."

Does the rat-a-tat-tat provide a release for pent-up
frustrations, an antidote to road rage? "Not really," he says.
"I don't get that wound up to begin with."

Adds Regina, "He doesn't bring his work home. When he walks in
that door, he's all about family." Dawson describes the best
moment of his day as the stampeding of his children, who rush to
greet him when he walks in the door every night.

Of course, it's easier not to bring work home when it's
acknowledged that you're better at your job than anyone else in
the world. How long can Dawson reign as football's supreme
center? While Cowher says he hasn't seen "any true signs" Dawson
is aging, not everyone shares that opinion.

"He's slowed a little, and he's still the best," says Joel
Steed, the Steelers' cerebral nosetackle. Steed would know. He
has been going up against Dawson in practice since 1992. That
summer Dawson so dominated third-round draft choice Steed--"He
might as well have had an S on his chest," Steed says--that
there was concern that Pittsburgh had squandered a high pick.
"There was some question: Could [Steed] play?" says Tom Donahoe,
the Steelers' director of football operations. Steed, it turned
out, could play: He was All-Pro last season. It helps when the
center he's up against isn't Dawson.

It was Donahoe who presided over Pittsburgh's college scouting
operation when the Steelers drafted Dawson. And it was Donahoe
who seemed to wince recently when reminded that in a few years,
he would have to think about replacing his prize center. "He's
such a fabulous player and fabulous person," Donahoe says, "that
it's not something I want to think about."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS [Jerome Bettis running behind Dermontti Dawson--T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [Dermontti Dawson crouching with football]

COLOR PHOTO: ALLSPORT TAG TEAM With Dawson (63) leading the way, Bettis is on pace for his third 1,000-yard season since coming to Pittsburgh in '96. [Dermontti Dawson blocking for Jerome Bettis in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS FAMILY MAN No slouch at home either, Dermontti gets high marks from Regina for the time he devotes to Brandon and Briana. [Regina Dawson, Brandon Dawson, Briana Dawson and Dermontti Dawson]

"I've played center," says Duffy, "but when I watch Dermontti,
it's like the tape's on a different speed."

"He's not the quickest center in the league, he's the quickest
lineman in the league," says Bettis.