With father's memory close, Penn State recruit Nick Dawkins forges own path in football
Nick Dawkins celebrated his 17th birthday last month by getting two tattoos to remember his father.
The first was of a signature — the looping, flowing autograph that Darryl Dawkins gave thousands of times during and after his NBA career.
The second was of a Bible verse, from Philippians, that includes this phrase: “I focus on this one thing, forgetting the past and looking to the future to what is ahead.”
Nick had a dream about that verse after his father died in 2015. It was printed on Darryl Dawkins’ prayer card, along with the nickname “Chocolate Thunder,” which his wife Janice carries with her today.
Nick and Alexis Dawkins are a lot like their father: tall, outgoing, confident, competitive, with a sharp wit and the birthmark that every Dawkins seems to have — one that, as Alexis said, “looks like Antarctica.”
But they’re also quite different. Nick, a junior at Parkland High School, is a 6-3, 300-pound offensive lineman who has accepted a scholarship to play football at Penn State. He’s enrolling there in January.
Alexis, a 16-year-old Parkland sophomore, is a former basketball and lacrosse player who thrives as an artist and wants to attend culinary school.
They’re proud of their name, proud of who their father was, both in public and at home. But they’re also determined to shape their own paths, to look to what is ahead. Just as Darryl Dawkins had wanted.
“People loved being around Darryl, and people love being around these two,” their mother Janice Dawkins said. "But Darryl wanted them to find their own passions. He also didn’t want people comparing them to him.”
"And yet, they still compare me to my dad:" Nick Dawkins occasionally watches videos of his father’s basketball career, marveling at the power behind his dunks. It’s evident even from obscure clips of Italian-league games, where Darryl Dawkins played later in his career.
“It’s crazy that the first time he broke a backboard he wasn’t even trying to," Nick Dawkins said. “He didn’t even know he had the strength to do that. The only backboard I broke was a Little Tikes.”
Basketball never really was Nick Dawkins’ game — “I’m a 6-2 center. That’s not thriving," he said — and before football, his game was lacrosse. He played as a high school freshman and thought it might be his primary sport. But then Nick gravitated back to football. And he excelled.
Nick Dawkins made Parkland’s junior varsity team as a sophomore and last season became a varsity starter. College coaches first took interest in Nick’s size. But then he started adding the footwork and leg drive and field sense to play lineman.
Further, Nick committed to it. Parkland coach Tim Moncman said Nick has made a “total transformation” of his body since last year, adding strength to his size. Nick doesn’t miss a lift and has participated in extra Saturday sessions with Moncman to become more physical.
“He started the game later in life, but athletically he’s catching up to his body,” Moncman said. “When people came to recruit him, I told them that Nick’s best football is ahead of him.”
Nick Dawkins loves football because it channels his mean streak, a trait he didn’t see in his father’s game. Even now, when he watches videos of his father, Nick is struck by the smile.
“In a sense, I’m not really like my dad that much athletically,” Nick said. “My dad was a lanky, athletic center who could jump. I’m a 6-3, 300-pound guard. My dad played to have fun. I like hitting people.
“I don’t know how you can compare those two kinds of athletes. And yet, they still compare me to my dad. But that’s cool.”
His family: Darryl Dawkins famously skipped college, becoming the first high school player drafted into the NBA in 1975, but valued the experience nonetheless. He put five siblings through school and coached the men’s basketball team at Lehigh Carbon Community College.
His NBA career was theatrical, punctuated by his league-changing dunks and verse-rhyming flair. But in the Lehigh Valley, Darryl Dawkins became a home-bound father after marrying Janice in 2001.
They entered the relationship with kids of their own: Dara, Dawkins’ daughter from a previous marriage, and Tabitha, Janice’s daughter from a previous relationship.
Darryl Dawkins considered Tabitha, who has Down Syndrome, as his own daughter. Tabitha volunteers at a thrift shop and a food bank twice a week. She swims in Special Olympics events. She attends Nick’s football games. And she inspired Janice’s new career.
After Darryl died, Janice worked multiple jobs — as a clerk with Lehigh County’s voter registration office and as a pastry chef at Edge Restaurant in Bethlehem — to care for her family. She still makes desserts at Edge on occasion.
Last year Janice became a job coach for the Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21, in which Tabitha was involved. The program was significant for Tabitha, and Janice thought it was “amazing.”
In announcing his commitment to Penn State, Nick Dawkins began by saying, "Mom I’m staying home!!”
“My No. 1 thing," Nick Dawkins said, "was my mom being able to see me."
"Sprinkles are for winners:" Alexis Dawkins tried lacrosse and basketball as a kid, but sports didn’t appeal to her. Her dad was fine with that. It saved him from more frustrating encounters with referees.
Once, when Alexis was playing lacrosse, Darryl Dawkins sat on an empty patch of grass distant from the field. She thought that meant her father didn’t want to watch the game.
“Turns out, he just didn’t want to get mad at the refs and start yelling,” Alexis said.
It happened during youth basketball games, too. One afternoon, a few referees had a conversation about what to do with Darryl Dawkins.
“And the head referee for the youth association said, ‘Do you really think we’re going to kick Darryl Dawkins out of a game?’” Janice said. “He just wanted them to call a fair game because he was always worried that the kids weren’t having fun.”
Darryl and Janice Dawkins certainly infused their kids with their competitiveness. As a coach, Darryl bought ice cream after every game. “Sprinkles are for winners,” he would say.
Tired of losing to Nick in a video game called “Surf’s Up,” Janice once stayed up nearly all night practicing. Nick was 4 years old.
And for a long time, Alexis (who is just under 6-3) was taller than her brother. Nick called that the “reign of terror." Now, Nick says, “The reign of terror is over. And I’m the supreme leader.”
“I have some very competitive kids,” Janice Dawkins said.
A plan in place: Nick Dawkins reads the Bible before practice and games. He says “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am” to everyone. He has detailed goals for his Penn State career.
He plans to graduate early from Parkland and enroll at Penn State in January to get a head start in the strength-training and nutrition programs. He wants to major in business management, possibly to pursue a career as a team’s director of player personnel.
When they met with coach James Franklin at Penn State, Nick and Janice Dawkins asked specifically about the NCAA transfer portal, which has affected the Lions. They wanted to know whether this was a “bump in the road” or something worse. They appreciated Franklin’s answers.
“We learned this early,” Janice Dawkins said. “You definitely don’t want to go to a university where there is turmoil within the coaching staff. That really does impede what you are going to do. But I just felt very comfortable with [offensive line coach Matt Limegrover] and Coach Franklin. They have Nicholas’ best interests at heart. And it isn’t just football.”
Nick Dawkins said his father “wasn’t really the biggest fan of me playing football,” though he watched proudly nonetheless. This is Nick’s game. And he wants to extract everything out of it.
“I just want to be the best player I can be at every level,” Nick Dawkins said. "Like right now, in high school, I want to win a state championship. I want to be Mr. Pa. Football, the Gatorade player of the year.
“In college, I want to win national championships. And then, if I’m able to go to the NFL, I want to win the Lombardi Trophy.”