INDIANAPOLIS – Sundays were sacred to Duke Dawson. Regardless of what was going on, life stopped whenever the Packers and Nick Collins were playing.
“I watched every game he played,” said Dawson Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I know everything about him.”
Dawson and Collins call themselves godbrothers. More than 10 years Collins’ junior, Dawson grew up idolizing the three-time All-Pro safety, whose interception return for a touchdown was pivotal in Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV win over Pittsburgh.
The parallels between Dawson and Collins are vast. Both hail from Cross City, Fla., and starred at Dixie County High School. At 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, Dawson’s measurables are nearly identical to Collins, who played at 5-11, 207.
As long as Dawson can remember, Collins has been a central figure in his life. The two have trained and watched film together for years. Dawson even took a few trips to Green Bay to watch Collins over the course of his seven NFL seasons.
“Since Day 1, he’s always been somebody I looked up to,” Dawson said. “He’s like my blood brother. We pretty much talk about anything. He always calls me and sees how I’m doing. If there’s anything I need, I can always hit him up and ask him about anything.”
Before developing into a stalwart in the Gators’ secondary, Dawson began as a lightly recruited player at Dixie County. With no real buzz after his sophomore year, Dawson recalls his uncle and assistant football coach telling him he was going to go “big one day.”
Dawson laughed off the comment at first, but it stayed with him. He pushed himself in the weight room and aimed to follow in Collins’ steps, watching his mentor develop into a perennial Pro Bowler.
Dawson figured that would mean playing in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision like Collins, whose historic run at Bethune-Cookman provided the necessary platform to be the Packers’ second-round pick in 2005.
However, Dawson wound up attending a summer camp at the University of Florida. A part-time quarterback and part-time receiver in a read-option offense, the coaches asked him which position he’d be playing.
“The defensive backs coach came up to me and … asked, ‘What position you play?’” Dawson recalled. “I said, ‘I play offense pretty much.’ He was like, ‘Well, you’re going to be a DB today.’ I’m thinking in the back of my mind, I never played DB. This is going to be my first time playing DB.
“Once I went out there, I excelled at a high level. (Gators coach) Will Muschamp that day gave me an offer.”
Dawson’s dream as a child was to play at Florida State, but he immediately fell in love with Gainesville despite interest and offers from the Seminoles, Alabama, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Dawson feels those first two years at Florida provided him with a chance to mature both on and off the field. After waiting for his turn in the secondary, Dawson developed into an impact player as the Gators’ nickel cornerback during his junior and senior campaigns.
While Dawson and Collins played different positions in the secondary, the biggest area of Collins’ game Dawson tried to emulate was his hard-hitting style as a tackler, a trait that was evident throughout his college career.
Dawson finished with 82 tackles, 23 passes defensed and six interceptions (three returned for TDs) during his time at Florida. A bulk of that production came as a senior, when he was voted second-team All-Southeastern Conference after leading the Gators with four picks and 13 passes defensed.
It all culminated in Dawson arriving at the combine, where he aimed to show scouts his game will translate to a pass-heavy league plush with three- and four-receiver sets.
In his last conversation with Dawson, the former Packers safety provided the young protégé with the same advice he has since he was little: “Just be yourself.”
“It’s been a great experience. You only get it once in a lifetime,” said Dawson of the combine. “I try to take care of any opportunity I get. This is the biggest job interview of your life.”
Collins, who was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame in July 2016, has been an active member in the Orlando community after sustaining a career-ending neck injury during Week 2 of the 2011 NFL season.
After watching Collins in awe for so many years, Dawson is looking forward to his opportunity to be the player children back home in Florida someday aspire to be.
“It’s great because Nick and I are really the only two who made it big, to this level here,” Dawson said. “He was a phenomenal player. He was one of the best safeties in the league throughout his whole seven years. Somebody like that from a small town that we both came from, it’s great to see.”