Learning From Center: Dawson’s Role Models


Former Pittsburgh Steelers center Dermontti Dawson had the NFL career that every player dreams of.  He was a seven-time Pro Bowl center, and played his entire 13-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It’s a story book life that I’ve lived,” Dawson said, as he thought back on his career, and the players and role models he was privileged to work.  He took over the center position in his second season with the Steelers, taking the reins from Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center who played for the Steelers from 1974 to 1989.

One of the great keys to the success of the Steelers organization over the years is the stability that they’ve had on the offensive line, particularly at the center position.  Webster and Dawson held the position continually from 1974 to 2000.  Webster is already a Hall of Famer, and Dawson is a semi-finalist for the 2012 Hall of Fame class.  That’s an amazing run of quality and longevity at a key position.

Dawson talks about everything he learned from playing with Webster.  “I had the pleasure of getting to start with him my rookie year,” Dawson said.  Dawson played guard his rookie year, while Webster was at center, so they played next to each other on the offensive line.

“I used to try to emulate what Mike did.  Mike was in his fifteenth year my rookie year.  I used to get in early in the morning to life weights, to get it out of the way.  Mike would be in there way before I got in.”

Webster still set the standard and was happy to groom his successor in Dawson.  “Mike, in his 15th year, was still riding me on every note.  He probably knew the offense better than the coaches,” Dawson said.

“He just reinforced it in his brain until he knew it backwards and forwards.  And that’s what I tried to emulate when I took over after Mike as a center.”

In his second year, Dawson moved over to the center position and Webster left as a free agent.  Webster actually played another two seasons with the Chiefs before retiring in 1990.  Webster died just 12 years later, at the age of 50 in 2002.

“He was a great person to take lessons from on how to be a true professional in your sport,” Dawson said.  “It’s just sad that he’s gone, but I learned so much from him.  I think a lot of my success was based on just looking at him and trying to emulate some of the things he did.

Beyond Webster, Dawson had some other key influences as well.

The Rooney’s taught Dawson a lot about building a quality organization, and the importance of how you treat people.  “Mr. Rooney was a big influence,” Dawson said.  “Art, Dan and the whole Rooney family and just the way they treated players, throughout my career.”

But one of his most memorable learning experiences came from a rival.  Asked to think about who gave him the best battle, among all the defensive linemen he played against over the years, Dawson went all the way back to when he moved from guard to center.

“My first year at center, which was my second year in 1989, Jerry Ball was playing for Detroit and Jerry was a Pro Bowler at that time,” Dawson explained.  The Steelers played the Lions in the first preseason game that year, so Dawson’s first game at center lined him up across from a Pro Bowl nosetackle in Ball.

“I was like, ‘Holy Moley!  This guy is quick, strong,’ “ Dawson said,  “I was second guessing myself.  I was doubting my abilities.  And of course, the first half, he was blowing up plays, knocking the guard off.”

Dawson laughing said that he thought about moving back to guard.  Ultimately, Dawson regained his confidence and went on to become one of the great centers of his generation.  In addition to his seven Pro Bowls, he was voted as the center on the NFL’s 1990’s All Decade Team, as chosen by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

“Jerry was the one who welcomed me to the NFL at the Pro Bowl level, my first year at center,” Dawson said.  “It was eye-opening, I can tell you that.”

By Nolan Harrison III, MBA

Nolan is the Senior Director of the NFLPA Former Players. Nolan played defensive end and defensive tackle for 10 years in the NFL for the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins. After retirement Nolan spent three years as an entrepreneur and seven years as an executive in the financial services industry before accepting his position on the NFLPA staff.

Follow Nolan at @NolanHarrison74 and @NFLPALegends

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