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.