You're a freshman in college, maybe a sophomore. You're not the biggest offensive lineman on your team, but you're the fastest. You have a mean streak but not a rap sheet. You're the Pittsburgh Steelers' center of the future. Good luck, kid. You're going to need it.
That's because in four or five years, you will be asked to replace an institution as beloved in Pittsburgh as Iron City Beer. The Steelers' 19-16 Thanksgiving Day overtime loss to the Detroit Lions marked Dermontti Dawson's 156th consecutive start at center for Pittsburgh. While manning that unglamorous position since 1989, the 6'2", 292-pound Dawson has also redefined it. Steelers defensive end Kevin Henry speaks for his colleagues around the league when he says, "Dermontti Dawson does things centers have no business being able to do."
Regard the typical center. He spends half his time on the field with another man's hands on his buttocks, the other half a step behind everyone else. He often needs help from a guard to get his blocking assignment done. He's not dealing from a position of strength. Dawson flip-flops much of that stereotype, much the way he flipped 350-plus-pound nosetackle Gilbert Brown on his back—twice—during Pittsburgh's Nov. 9 win over the Green Bay Packers. Marveled one Packers insider, "That never happens."
Now 33 and in his 11th NFL season, Dawson is so quick that he needs no help from the guards. The converse is true: He often ends up assisting them. All the Pittsburgh linemen can run, but none of the others move like the one nicknamed Dirt. "He's not the quickest center in the league, he's the quickest lineman in the league," says Steelers running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis, the chief beneficiary of Dawson's exertions. "He has the ability to snap the ball, pull and lead a sweep."
"Other guys snap, then move; Dermontti snaps and moves," says Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who doesn't hesitate to pull Dawson on screens and counters. "He gets out in space, and he's as nimble as a defensive back," says Steelers offensive lineman Roger Duffy, a nine-year veteran. "I've played center, but when I watch Dermontti, it's like the tape's on a different speed."
It has long been suspected that an imminent date with Dawson adversely affects a defensive lineman's sleep. Now there's proof. In the wee hours of Nov. 21, roughly 36 hours before his team would lose 30-15 to Pittsburgh, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle John Jurkovic got an elbow in the ribs from his wife, Brandy. Their eight-week-old son, Jacob, was crying, and it was Dad's turn to handle the feeding. Jurkovic grumbled and stumbled to the fridge, but the truth was, says Jurko, "I'd been tossing and turning before he started crying. Dawson has that effect on your sleep."
What Jurkovic obsesses over is Dawson's "initial punch—it's the best in the league. He does a little drop step and then launches a right, and it just rocks you."
His advice to his peers: "Survive the initial onslaught and you may have a chance to make the play, because after he blocks you he's usually looking to go get someone else."
Tackles use various methods to get through afternoons with Dirt, who has been to six consecutive Pro Bowls. The Tennessee Oilers' Henry Ford "scoots away" from Dawson, lining up "three to six inches" farther from the line of scrimmage than he normally would. "You've got to stay extremely focused" when facing Dawson, says the Baltimore Ravens' James Jones. "On some plays you think you've got him beat, but he's just baiting you. He'll wheel around and use your own momentum against you. You might get past him with a [pass rushing] move, but he's quick enough to recover and wash you by the quarterback."
What about the size differential? Dawson gives away 20 or 30 pounds to many of the men he must move. "It doesn't matter how big and strong you are," says Jones. "If a guy's on top of you before you're out of your stance, you're done."