It was already a fearsome unit prior to 1996, with future Hall of Famer Reggie White anchoring the Packers defensive line at left end, Sean Jones and his over 100 career sacks on the right side and the 350-pound “Gravedigger,” Gilbert Brown, at nose tackle.
Despite that star-studded trio, GM Ron Wolf walked to the podium in March over 15 years ago and announced with confidence that with the signing of defensive tackle Santana Dotson, Green Bay had found the missing piece of the puzzle. The suggestion was not just for the defense, but for a team that had lost to Dallas in the playoffs for three straight seasons.
“You realize what pressure really is when the expectations are that high,” Dotson said this week as he looked back on Wolf’s comments and Dotson’s arrival in Green Bay as high-profile free agent. “When your employer says that, I took it as if I was responsible for what happened that season. It was one of those things where you either sink or swim.”
By luring Dotson from Tampa Bay with a three-year contract, Wolf proved to be as shrewd as ever. The Packers won Super Bowl XXXI in ’96, the defense only allowed 13 points per game, and Dotson posted 5.5 sacks. There was the thrill of the moment after Green Bay defeated the Patriots in the Superdome, but it also allowed Dotson to breathe a little easier after an intense first season with the Packers.
“They had been in the NFC Championship the year before, and here I was coming from the Buccaneers,” he said. “I was in awe at first. I remember wanting to be an asset instead of a liability. I hate to be corny, but after holding that Lombardi Trophy, knowing my wife and mother were crying in the stands because they knew how special it was for me, that’s what stories and movies are written about.”
He now lives in Houston, and his focus is the Santana Dotson Foundation, which is committed to providing kids in underprivileged areas an improved quality of life. Along with camps and workshops, awarding seven scholarships a year and academic tutoring, the foundation also operates the sprawling Dotson Family Park. The facility includes behavior and health services and youth baseball, soccer and football leagues. The park is affiliated with the Houston Astros and the Alief School District.
“It’s a big project, and what happened was I started looking back at the reasons I ended up being the person I am,” Dotson said. “There was a coach who picked me up from the age of nine until I was 12 to bring me to practice. So we do youth sports for kids and they are required to turn in a report card. We take in whole families for general counseling and we do some leadership counseling. You realize how many folks are definitely in need.”
Dotson also remembers White, whose locker was near his, as a dramatic influence on his life. White also recruited Dotson to Green Bay when he was a free agent.
“Reggie called me, and I had heard his name for so long it was something really special,” Dotson said. “This was Reggie White calling me and I was like a kid at Christmas, but I tried to play it cool. With that Reggie voice he told me they were putting something special together in Green Bay.
“I’ve always told people that you had your mom and dad looking out for your best interests, and then you had Reggie White. I started my foundation in ’93 in Tampa Bay, and I kept it separate from football, but he was the one who made me feel like it was OK to bring the two together. He was always talking about family, about being a better husband, a better father, about doing service for your community. That’s where his focus was. When he passed, I tried to figure out how he had so much time for so many people.”
Dotson signed with the Packers after four years with the Bucs, where he was named NFC defensive rookie of the year in ’92 after recording a career-high 10 sacks. Though the Bucs never made the playoffs during his time in Tampa Bay, he remembers those years fondly. He finished up his 11-year career with a brief stint with the Redskins in ’02.
When he looks back on his NFL career, he thinks of having been a fixture in Green Bay, where he played in 88 games, starting 83. What means the most to Dotson was joining former Packers that played on the four Super Bowl-winning teams. He’s still trying to forget the crushing loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII. He brings his 16-year-old son, Kahri, a promising linebacker at Memorial (Houston) High School, up to Lambeau Field to soak up the atmosphere.
“The name on the trophy is Vince Lombardi,” said Dotson. “The guys who played in the first two Super Bowls would show up in the locker room from time to time, guys like Bart Starr and Willie Davis. I remember when they’d walk in, they were very gracious, but you knew when they were there. It was something greater. There was some silence. We saw Ray Nitschke before the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and it was like your grandpa saying he was proud of you. When you have Hall of Famers coming out of the woodwork, there’s some added pressure.”
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