By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Lonesome no more: I nicknamed Phil Dawson “Lonesome Phil” because for the longest time – 10 years or so – he was the lone player on the Browns who could score.
He was also the lone player in the locker room who got it, who felt the pain of a city with each losing season.
As the losing years mounted – 12 in 14 seasons that he kicked in Cleveland -- Dawson could not adequately celebrate his individual triumphs. The controversial field goal off the back support bar in Baltimore, the two field goals through the horizontal blizzard against Buffalo and, ultimately, the field goal record of the great Lou Groza – they took on the feel of consolation prizes in a career doomed to never experience the joy of winning.
So look at him now.
Turning 39 in eight days, Dawson is on the brink of a trip to the Super Bowl. All that stands in the way of his newly adopted team, the San Francisco 49ers, is a win against the division rival Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
It will be loud. It will be intense. It will be wicked awesome.
Driving home from his team’s first official day of preparation – the 49ers take off on Monday and work on Tuesday – Dawson said, “I would say Seattle is by a pretty good margin the loudest stadium in the league. It’s pretty loud to begin with, but then when you bring the 49ers to town, it’s pretty over-the-top. If you’re a fan of football, which I am, to play there on this team in the NFC championship, I don’t know how it could be any better. It’s gonna be one of those games you’ll always remember playing in.”
Not looking back: After a season in which he made 32 of 36 field goals, including a career-long of 56 yards, the weight of his teammates rested on a 33-yard field goal at the end of San Francisco’s wild-card game in Green Bay. Dawson drilled it through to extend the 49ers’ defense of their NFC championship. He never made a bigger kick, having appeared in only one playoff game in 14 years with the Browns.
“In the heat of the moment, you don’t really think about how big a kick it is,” Dawson said. “The most comfortable place on Earth is actually on that field between the white lines. When that game came down to the end, I was so zeroed in, I didn’t really think about what a big deal it was. It’s been a whirlwind since. It was awesome to celebrate with my teammates. The thing I’ve noticed is each week just builds. It gets bigger, a little more each week.
“It’s quite a ride. It’s a lot of fun. A lot of pressure, but a lot of fun.”
Almost instantly after the game, Dawson was deluged with congratulation Tweets and messages from friends and former teammates in Cleveland. He responded with a Tweet of thanks, which has been retweeted and favorited more than 8,600 times.
To this day, neither Dawson nor the Browns have adequately explained why the expansion franchise’s “franchise player” was allowed to leave in free agency. Dawson declined to shed new light on the team’s decision not to offer a contract or his decision to leave.
“I’d never been a free agent, so I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I deliberately stayed out of the inner workings until things started getting serious and San Francisco became an option. Once things got going in that direction, I got excited. I started that transition literally the next day.
“I’m not going to get into all the inner workings. I will say I was very happy in my time in Cleveland and very grateful to be a Cleveland Brown and hold absolutely zero regrets. I consider my time there a privilege.”
When the Browns unexpectedly inched over the .500 mark with a third win in a row to go to 3-2 in October, Dawson phoned linebacker D’Qwell Jackson to wish his old teammates the best.
“Obviously D’Qwell was someone I was close to,” Dawson said. “I just wanted to reach out and encourage him and let him know I was pulling for them. That was my motivation. I have a lot of fond memories of my years there. I tried to keep track of what’s going on. I always will.”
Asked about the way the bottom dropped out of the Browns’ season, losing 10 of 11 games and resulting in the firing after one season of coach Rob Chudzinski, Dawson again deferred, saying only, “I didn’t know what was going on. I’m not in position to comment on what went wrong or what went right.”
Almost heaven: Dawson is surrounded by reminders of his days in Cleveland. Former Browns teammates Colt McCoy, Ray Ventrone and Eric Wright are nearby, along with former special teams coach Brad Seely and former head coach Eric Mangini, who is an offensive consultant to coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I’m not going to compare my years in Cleveland to this,” Dawson said. “What I’ve noticed this year on this team, there’s just a level of professionalism, determination and focus. You walk in the front door and there are five Lombardi Trophies staring at you. Without anyone giving a rah-rah speech, the standard is set. You know you have to give your best effort. It’s a very fun group to be around.”
He is well beyond the one game playoff experience he felt in 2002 with the Browns.
“But one thing that is similar, it almost seemed like a college game. It’s all about winning just one game. I was just trying to figure out a way to win a game that day, and that’s certainly been the experience here.”
Ever the meteorologist, Dawson has scoped out the weather forecast for Seattle on Sunday night. “Fifty degrees, 20 percent chance of rain, not much wind. Should be a nice night,” he said.
He knows that some Browns fans are living vicariously through Dawson’s trip through the playoffs.
“I want to do them proud, that’s for sure,” he said. “The amount of support I’ve received has truly been overwhelming. They mean a great deal to me. I’m trying to do my job for my teammates here and the organization here, but if the 49ers winning brings a little joy to the people back in Cleveland, that’s great.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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