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Dawson was Steelers' center of attention

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AP Pro Football Writer

When Dermontti Dawson looks around at his fellow inductees for the Hall of Fame's class of 2012, he can't help but smile.

On Saturday, the six newest members of the pro football shrine will include four linemen. To Dawson, that's nirvana.

It is kind of neat and very special to have four linemen, two defensive and two offensive, go into the hall the same year, and for them to have played in the same era,'' Dawson said.Chris (Doleman) and Cortez (Kennedy), I went up against them. And Willie (Roaf) on the same side of the ball as me.

``I am surprised we had four going in this year.''

It's the third time so many offensive linemen have entered the hall together. Dawson will be the 12th center enshrined, but the first since Dwight Stephenson in 1998.

Dawson's predecessor as Pittsburgh's center, Mike Webster, is one of those dozen hall members. When Dawson was drafted in the second round out of Kentucky in 1988, he played one season at guard. Then he moved over to replace Webster - the snapper for the great Steel Curtain teams - and was the Steelers' best offensive lineman for the next 12 seasons.

He was such a competitive guy, but another thing is always he was so positive,'' said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an NFL analyst for CBS.He had this really upbeat attitude, you enjoyed talking to him, there was a sense of joy to him. He enjoyed the games, the big games, the pressure. He never really changed.

``Dermontti is a special guy, very unique talent.''

Dawson was that rare center that every team seeks, but few find. He combined speed, strength, knowledge and leadership skills, anchoring Pittsburgh's offensive line for five AFC Central championships and one AFC title. He made six straight All-Pro teams (1993-98) and seven Pro Bowls.

As a player, I think he really took the position of center to another level,'' Cowher said.His athleticism - he would lead a basic run play we ran all the time. Dermontti allowed us to do blocking schemes that you never saw before in terms of a pulling center.''

After being selected 44th overall in the draft, Dawson was unsure how he would fit in Pittsburgh. He knew Webster was one of the game's top centers, and didn't expect to supplant him.

When coach Chuck Noll plunked him at guard, Dawson was a backup, not starting until his fourth game. He wound up starting five games that year.

Those were his only five starts at guard.

``Coach Noll came up to me in the hallway in the stadium after (the season) and said, I want to switch you to center in88.' I knew Mike was a legend, but once Mike wound up leaving for Kansas City, they gave me the nod in training camp.''

And he held the job for 170 straight starts until being sidelined by a hamstring injury in 1999.

Dawson played one more season and probably could have continued his career elsewhere in the NFL.

Even when I had the injury and the Steelers had to cut me and I had to retire after 2000,'' he said,I still had some teams that wanted me to play for them. They knew the situation with the hamstring tendon and still wanted me.

``But I had a great career in Pittsburgh, why mess that up? I was proud to play with one team the whole career, and that's a testament to the Steelers. They know the guys who really contribute and who are dedicated to the team and they take care of them accordingly.''

Dawson is well aware there will be plenty of black-and-gold Steelers jerseys in the crowd at Fawcett Stadium for the inductions. Pittsburgh is only 77 miles from Canton, Ohio.

He can't wait.

I'll probably have more than 100 people, family and friends, coming to Canton,'' Dawson said.Black and gold nation will be there.''

As will those three other linemen, all of whom Dawson praises for their ability, diligence and longevity.

With defensive linemen, the way they contribute in doing their job, especially in the interior, that is the toughest defensive position, which is what Cortez played so well for all those years,'' he said.He always had two or three guys trying to hit him. Then he has to find the ball and try to get to the quarterback. Cortez was a tremendous athlete for his size and did all that.

``Chris did it, as well, but from the outside, where he also had other responsibilities. He could really get to the quarterback.

``Willie? Well, you know how they say the tackle's most important job is protecting the quarterback, whether from the blind side or the sprint side? And they go up against outside linebackers and defensive ends, some of the best athletes on the outside, guys like Chris. That's what Willie had to face and what he excelled at doing.

``I think this is a pretty special class.''

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