How many people coast on their fame? How many talented people sit on their talent when they realize that they can live comfortably, instead of pushing themselves to do something more significant? How many people make a pile of money and then use that reality to retreat from society or turn away from the road less traveled?
Plenty of those who live in the public eye arrive at a point when they lose their passion or slip into a one-track mindset, never to leave a comfort zone or challenge their own internal capabilities. One can express the impressive nature of Pete Dawkins in many ways, but the man’s greatness is certainly captured in this next statement: He never shied away from a challenge, often when sought out by others, but sometimes by listening to his own inner voice.
The quality of Dawkins’ playing career at West Point speaks for itself: He is one of three Heisman Trophy winners produced by the United States Military Academy. He is the most recent Heisman Winner to wear the Army football uniform. His 1958 Heisman year produced Army’s last unbeaten season. That campaign was also the final hurrah – and a very triumphant hurrah it was – for the greatest and most iconic coach in the history of West Point football, Earl “Red” Blaik.
So much of Army football history is packed into that one 1958 season. It was an amazing and historically resonant season when viewed as a singular journey through one particular autumn. Yet, the culmination of careers and eras – chiefly, those of Dawkins and Blaik together – gives the ’58 West Point season a far broader historical reach. When viewed from a much more distant vantage point, that season – now 57 years ago – rates as one of the more important seasons in all of college football history.
Dawkins was its centerpiece, as Army finished the 1958 season with a No. 3 national ranking. Navy’s 1963 Cotton Bowl season and Air Force’s 1970 Sugar Bowl season were the last seasons in Annapolis and Colorado Springs to attain the highest level of national significance. The 1958 season was Army’s final season at such a lofty elevation. Dawkins’ ability to fashion that kind of season is what will always enable him to claim an especially large place in West Point football history.
Yet, when you look at more of Dawkins’ life, it becomes apparent that even though he was the quintessential football hero for one of the more beloved Army teams of all time, the measure of the man really emerges when you realize that Dawkins didn’t sit rest on fame earned at an early age. A life which could have sought the safe path instead opted for the rougher road, and that’s why Pete Dawkins the person commands such considerable respect, even now.
One noticeable dimension of Dawkins’ post-football days is that while the Heisman Trophy winner naturally had to put his mind to whatever he did, he charted a course which considered the needs of other people and groups. This wasn’t about doing people favors or something with a nickel-and-dime triviality, either – this was about answering the call of a country and its larger institutions.
Dawkins served as an adviser to South Vietnamese troops in the early stages of the Vietnam War, in the mid-1960s. He then joined the faculty at West Point and eventually held various positions of military leadership and responsibility. He carried out his duties with enough skill and distinction that he was made a one-star general and given an assignment in the Pentagon. Dawkins had risen to a great height in his military career, much as he had done in his playing career. A lot of people would have aimed to cling to such a position and never leave it.
Dawkins wasn’t “a lot of people.”
He went to Wall Street for a few years, and that brought him quite a lot of money, but if anyone had the impression that Dawkins was merely trying to “cash in,” that was hardly the point of those years. They gave Dawkins some exposure to a different sector of American life and activity. Dawkins’ foremost aspiration wasn’t to make bank, but to take his resources and his Rhodes Scholar-level intellect into another form of public service: politics, as a United States Senator. He challenged Frank Lautenberg in the 1988 U.S. Senate race in New Jersey.
In a profile of Dawkins from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988, a number of revealing passages got at the essence of who Dawkins was. Craig McCoy was the author of the piece. He noted that “a man who has lived in 21 places in 24 years at the order of his country has paid more than his share of dues.”
McCoy then writes the following, which in many ways serves as the essential summary of Dawkins’ complicated and aspirational but ultimately noble life:
After Princeton, Dawkins held command positions from Korea to Kentucky, with stops in upper-level policy jobs in Washington. Among the more prestigious was his appointment to a special unit that helped plan the all volunteer Army.
Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Montague, the unit's second in command, said he and his boss tapped Dawkins because of his intelligence and eloquence.
"By picking him, you've signaled to everyone in the Army that this is a super-important job . . . " he said. A friend of Dawkins, retired Army Col. Donaldson P. Tillar Jr., said the practice of using Dawkins to make a point took place throughout his Army career, with mixed results.
While he thinks Dawkins had an exceptional military record, "Dawkins never was permitted to develop the professional skills at the pace that most of his contemporaries were allowed," Tillar said. "He was jerked about from here to there, from one highly visible job to another."
For his part, Dawkins acknowledges that some in the military were critical ''that I didn't spend all the time with the troops," but he said his career struck the right balance. between strategic and command jobs. "The job of a soldier is to do what's needed," he said..
Dawkins did decide to step away from the military, sure… but not until he had given decades of life to the Army. He did move a little more to his own beat as his life moved forward… but not until he had made sure to pour his heart into the military family he had joined in the 1950s. He was his own man, but that agency and autonomy were placed at the service of doing what others wanted – and sometimes needed – him to do. This service of others unfolded for a very long time, and in 1988, Dawkins felt the call to attempt to serve in the capacity of an elected leader.
Dawkins lost that Senate election, of course, but failing to win one election could never change the fact that Dawkins used his enormous personal gifts to become a productive and influential leader, within and beyond the military, throughout his adult life.
Pete Dawkins answered the call at West Point, on and off the football field. He answered the inner call to challenge himself with a constancy which inspires a deep and genuine admiration, over half a century after his playing days ended.