'Cerebral Wellness' Foremost in Brian Dawkins' Mind

'Cerebral Wellness' Foremost in Brian Dawkins' Mind

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By Bryan Cameron, Philly Sports Network
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Today’s athletes are new-age versions of gladiators. Titans who are invincible in their arena and indestructible outside of it. Their image is created when thousands watch them perform and master their craft.

Depending on the athlete's status in their sports, sometimes they grow larger than life. That was true of Brian Dawkins — a gladiator who left it all on the field and fed off fans’ emotional response.

Dawkins was drafted out of Clemson University in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft. While his pro career looked brighter than the lights that fill outdoor venues, Dawkins' road to the NFL wasn’t always a sure thing. An eventual nine-time Pro Bowler, he had to play second-best on his way to college. A close friend and high school teammate, Patrick Sapp, had to vouch for Dawkins to get him to Clemson. Little did either know, Sapp was helping Dawkins to catapult into the spotlight where he later was seen as much more than merely a generational talent.

Dawkins hit the ground running for the Philadelphia Eagles in his rookie season and forced the world to take notice of his unique skills. One thing became evident: The Eagles had found a player who doesn’t appear twice. In basketball, you have Jordan, Bryant and now James. At the safety position in the NFL, few players have compared to Dawkins.

But conquering the NFL wasn't his only challenge.

Enshrined in Canton in 2018, Dawkins was battling something many people in this world fight against: depression. It took a toll on Dawkins in his rookie season; he has described it as a time he had to wear a mask more than ever.

During a recent interview on the “Flippin’ the Birds!” podcast, Brian went into detail about the struggle he faced that season.

“My rookie year, I couldn’t basically take it anymore. I was having so many thoughts ... going on in my life,” he said. “I was drinking a lot heavier than I usually do to cope with some of the feelings that I wasn’t talking about. I wasn’t letting out.”

He continued: “I had pressure and pull from family members from one end that were needing things, that were wanting things and needing things that I just couldn’t give, and I didn’t know how to say no at the time.”

While Brian continued to battle back and forth with the demands that come with being an NFL player, the 61st overall pick also was learning how to be a father and devoted husband. He mentioned that his newborn son at that time, Brian Dawkins Jr., was “colicky, you know crying all the time, so we didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

It all led to a moment Dawkins never will forget. Hitting a boiling point, he charged at a wall headfirst.

On the podcast, Dawkins mentioned the specific detail he felt led him to that moment: “I was not talking, so I already had a lot of stuff built up from me growing up.”

After that incident, his wife, Connie Dawkins, and former Eagles assistant coach and fellow Hall of Famer, Emmitt Thomas – who he called “Uncle Emmitt,” pushed him to seek professional help. It was in those sessions where Brian learned to open the flood gates of built-up emotions and thoughts.

While Dawkins compiled a phenomenal career covering 16 seasons – 13 with the Eagles and three with the Broncos – it wasn’t until the All-Pro safety landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame that the world heard the truth about what helped him become the man he is today.

He took the stage to give a speech that will be remembered forever. As he waited to say his first words at the podium, the crowd's roar continued to grow louder and louder. He took a deep breath and yelled, “First of all, Hallelujah!” He then led by thanking Troy Vincent, Patrick Sapp, his family and many others. He even took a moment to thank all Eagles fans for their unconditional love toward him.

Dawkins went on to speak about his upbringing, the journey that brought him to this pivotal moment in his life and the role his faith played in all of it. He then admitted to something that resonated through the soul of every football fan watching.

“As you've been listening, as you read this week, I suffer from depression. I went through it mightily my rookie year. I've suffered through suicidal thoughts. And I wasn't just suffering through suicidal thoughts, I was actually planning the way I would kill myself so my wife would get the money.”

That was it. The beginning of a different Weapon X (Dawkins’ nickname). A weapon that's sole purpose would be to provide a vessel for those who suffer from mental illness. He wanted to be not only an advocate, but also to be the ear that people need when they’re stuck inside the darkness.

Dawkins has formulated a plan to help people free themselves. He’s passionate about people finding others to talk to, finding time to pray and finding ways to let loose instead of letting everything build up within themselves.

The Brian Dawkins Impact foundation was started to help people improve their “cerebral health.”

Dawkins mentions cerebral health instead of “mental health” deliberately, explaining it this way: “I talk about cerebral wellness. I don’t talk about mental health or mental illness because there’s too much of a negative connotation. I want to kind of chop away at it, so I call it cerebral wellness.”

The foundation is in the beginning stages of its rollout, with Dawkins launching in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. He intends to bring it to Philadelphia, and possibly Clemson, S.C., next.

“The reason why it really came to fruition is that this is something I wanted to do. A part of my foundation is called the Brian Dawkins Value Packages,” he said, referring to packages that will be presented to schools in various communities – the first focused on cerebral wellness.

Dawkins explained the necessity of focusing on mental wellness by stating, “It's important for us to have this conversation of something that we all have. We all have mental health, but not all of us have a mental illness. As much as we can begin to separate the two, the better we'll be able to handle these things and deal with the things and knock the stigma completely down.”

The focal point of the mission is to make sure people understand that the first step in the right direction is simply to just talk, to open up about the things you battle with internally on a daily basis.

Dawkins is looking not only to “chop down” the stigma of mental health, but also to set an example of what it means “to let go.” Whether that means you get on all fours and crawl like a wild animal during your entrance to the playing field or you simply open up to a close friend, teacher, pastor or even to a stranger depends on the person and the situation.

For everyone, the first step in the right direction comes from recognizing negative thoughts in our mind that could abuse who we are deep inside. Brian Dawkins wants all of us to recognize that our greatness starts with cerebral wellness.

Bryan Cameron is lead Eagles contributor at Philly Sports Network. This article is an adaptation he wrote for ProFootballHOF.com from his original work, published July 23 and available here.

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