Lining up for the future
by Saleem Choudhry
The Pittsburgh Steelers had enjoyed 14 years of service from future Pro Football Hall of Fame center Mike Webster heading into the 1988 NFL Season. While Webster had shown no signs of calling it quits, the Steelers knew that they would eventually need to find a replacement for the nine-time Pro Bowler. The perfect opportunity to address this future need fell into Pittsburgh’s lap as the 1988 NFL Draft unfolded.
The obvious choice to fulfill this need was University of Kentucky offensive lineman Dermontti Dawson. He was the top-rated center in what was considered to be a very weak draft class at that position. The fact that no other team in the NFL had a desperate need at center also worked to the Steelers advantage.
Dawson was one of the most dominant linemen in college football during his tenure. He started at guard every game during his junior and senior seasons, and earned All-American honors in the latter campaign. Dawson, a tremendous athlete, was usually the strongest person on the field of play. In fact, he won an off-season SEC weightlifting competition with a combined total lift of 1,570 pounds.
It was with that strength combined with his excellent footwork, finesse and technique that enabled him catch the eye of nearly every NFL scout. In 1987 he had a sensational game when he recorded 15 knockdown blocks in 41-0 drubbing of Utah State. A few weeks later he took out four defenders on a single block in 35-6 victory over Mississippi. The bulldozing effort allowed his tailback to score on a 40-yard TD run.
Although Dawson had earned high acclaim at guard, his size – 6’2”, 272 pounds – was considered too small to play the position in the NFL ranks. Center it seemed would be his professional football calling.
The Steelers nabbed Dawson in the second round, 44th overall, of the ’88 draft. He was the sixth offensive lineman taken. To hedge their bets in planning for the future, Pittsburgh took another center, Notre Dame’s Chuck Lanza, with their next pick in the 3rd round. Incredibly Lanza was the second rated center in the entire draft pool.
With Webster still firmly entrenched as the Steel City’s starting center, Dawson had the opportunity to learn the center position from one of the game’s best.
“Playing with Mike was like playing with a living legend and it was great to interact with him,” Dawson reflected later in his career. “Usually veterans don’t like to give advice, especially to guys who play their position. Mike helped me in several ways, on and off the field.”
Dawson’s rookie season was interrupted by a knee injury that placed him on the injured reserve. He was able to return later that season and eventually started at guard in five of the eight games that he played.
Webster announced his retirement on Feb. 23, 1989 which paved the way for Dawson to move over to the center position. He quickly seized and never relinquished the opportunity. He won the starter’s role over fellow draftee Lanza and went on to start every 1989 regular season game and both postseason contests, a feat only matched by fellow lineman Tunch Ilkin.
Dawson got better and better with age and never seemed to wilt under the pressure of following Webster.
“All people had known for a long time was Mike. He was one of the best centers in the game,” Dawson once commented. “I knew that I would be compared to him and I knew the expectations would be high.”
Dawson exceeded those expectations and went on to anchor of the Steelers’ o-line for the remainder of this 13-year career. This summer he will rejoin his former teammate and mentor in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Choudhry is a researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He joined the Hall of Fame's staff in 1994.
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