Dion Dawkins didn’t choose to go to school and play football at Temple University.
Temple, he says, chose him. The college in North Philadelphia captured his heart and was where his talent belonged.
But the start of the relationship between Dawkins and the college that helped make him into an NFL product wasn't easy.
Dawkins is now 25 years old and a third-year offensive tackle with the Buffalo Bills, who face the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday's home opener. On Saturday, Dawkins’ college program will be in Buffalo; the Owls (2-0) play UB (1-2) at 3:30 p.m. at UB Stadium.
When Dawkins enrolled at Temple in January 2013, he was a self-assured teenager who joined a football program that had just slogged through a 4-7 season. The Owls faced an uphill climb with a new coach hired a month before Dawkins arrived, and Dawkins, then 18, struggled.
“You go to college, and you think, as a kid,” Dawkins said. “You think you have it all figured out, until stuff starts going bad or wrong. There’s not as much success as you would want, but then you start listening and really understanding the game and what coaches are preaching. When you fully trust them and put that into the coach, that’s when it all turns.”
Temple has gone from a program that didn’t have a winning season from 1991 to 2009 to one that’s been a two-time conference champion and bowl-eligible for the last four years, including Dawkins’ junior and senior seasons in 2015 and 2016.
Temple's success paralleled Dawkins' personal growth, but as he helped Temple become a winning program, Dawkins discovered that he needed to change. Otherwise, his future in football – and probably at Temple – would be over.
Motivated by tough love
A difficult exchange in the spring of 2014 with former Temple offensive line coach Chris Wiesehan sparked the turnaround for Dawkins.
In his first weeks after joining the Temple coaching staff, Wiesehan saw that Dawkins had the tools to be a great player. He didn’t think Dawkins had the heart.
When Dawkins worked with Wiesehan at a camp for high school football players, his frustration with the campers emerged.
So did Wiesehan's.
“Dion, have a great day, and enjoy the camp,” Wiesehan snapped at Dawkins.
The sarcasm in Wiesehan's voice was obvious enough to prompt Dawkins to ask later in the day what he meant by the comment.
“I told him, ‘That is who you are, every day,’ ” said Wiesehan, who coached for five seasons at Temple and is now a tight ends coach and offensive special teams coordinator at Georgia Tech. “ ‘I have to motivate you, stimulate you and engage you to do anything.’ ”
Then, Wiesehan delivered the final blow: “You don’t know how to be a pro.”
Dawkins started to walk away, but five seconds later, he turned back around. He didn’t cower. He said something that Wiesehan still can’t forget.
“You will never have this happen again with me,” Dawkins said.
Dawkins changed his attitude towards how he treated practice, how he treated academics, how he treated football and how he treated his teammates and coaches. That became a bedrock for his time at Temple.
“He helped change the program at Temple,” said Wiesehan, who coached wide receivers at UB in 1999 and 2000. “He’s so charismatic, and when he became ‘in’ with the program, he brought people with him.”
Ups and downs in Philadelphia
The Owls were 2-10 in 2013, Dawkins’ freshman year. Dawkins became Temple’s starting left tackle in 2014. The Owls went 6-6 but did not qualify for a bowl game. Temple's breakthrough came when it went 10-4 in 2015 and 2016 and won American Athletic Conference championships.
Those four years weren’t all leisurely for Dawkins. He said he and his teammates routinely heard gunshots and police sirens during Temple’s practices at Edberg-Olson Hall in North Philadelphia. Dawkins broke his foot midway through his freshman season and missed seven games. He was suspended for three months in 2015 and missed all of spring practices when he and teammate Haason Reddick initially faced aggravated assault, conspiracy and other misdemeanor charges that stemmed from an off-campus fight in January 2015. He and Reddick avoided trial when they agreed to be placed into a diversionary program in the summer of 2016.
“It’s life, you feel me? It’s life for a black man,” Dawkins said. “It’s the way life goes, and I just had to overcome it all and understand that I can’t let lightning decisions predict the future. There was light at the end of that tunnel and I had coaches who believed me and believed in me, and I got that second chance.”
Football became an oasis for Dawkins, and inside a crowded sports landscape in Philadelphia, the only FBS program in the city became relevant under Matt Rhule, who is now head coach at Baylor.
While they often played in front of sparse crowds, Temple found its place among the city’s major-league teams and its Big 5 basketball programs based on a tenet cultivated inside the football program.
“The coaches embedded it within us, that we are truly all we have,” Dawkins said. “Nobody cares about us, but us. We’re always going to be the underdog. Live, breathe, sleep, dream that. Don’t ever expect people to be on our side.”
The wins and losses reflected that. So was Temple's production of professional football prospects. Wiesehan said 34 players from Temple have gone to the NFL in the last three years, whether it’s as a draft pick or as a free agent; the Bills selected Dawkins in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft as the 63rd overall pick. He became a full-time starter in the ninth game of the 2017 season and has started every game since, and was named one of six captains for this season.
“What legacy do we want to leave?” Dawkins asked. “That’s what helped me get in the position I am in now, and helped a bunch of other players. Temple is spitting out NFL talent now, too. It feels good to finally be noticed.”
'Painting that giant Temple 'T' '
Dawkins has a loquacious personality, and he recently gained some attention for his postgame comments regarding a popular side dish. But Dawkins is also introspective, and considers where and what he’s come from.
Wiesehan recently got a phone call from Dawkins. They’d been texting over the last few weeks, but when Wiesehan answered his phone, he was surprised by the emotion in Dawkins’ voice. It sounded nothing like an entertaining sound bite about macaroni and cheese.
“He called me and said, ‘Coach, thank you again,’ ” Wiesehan said. “I asked him, ‘Is everything OK?’ And then he said to me, ‘Every time I walk in this room in Buffalo, I think of all the things that you told me, about stacking plays and stacking days.’ ”
Those principles became the building blocks for Dawkins’ career in football. Those also became the building blocks for Temple football.
Dawkins, Wiesehan said, was one of the cornerstones in the change of culture at Temple.
“It’s a blessing," Dawkins said. "I’m just happy to be one of those guys. I’m a number. There are plenty more numbers who are painting the picture for Temple. Everybody who goes through that program, they’re slowly painting that giant Temple ‘T.’ Every year, there’s more and more pieces that are being painted.
“I’m Temple proud. I never forget where I came from. Temple is me, and I am Temple.”