Sapakoff: Clemson’s 1996 Gator Bowl loss to Syracuse still stings for Brian Dawkins
The inevitable conversation took place soon after Brian Dawkins and Donovan McNabb became Philadelphia Eagles teammates.
McNabb, a former Syracuse quarterback, wanted to talk about a certain 41-0 victory over Clemson in the 1996 Gator Bowl.
“He tried to remind me,” said Dawkins, a former Clemson safety, “I quickly changed the subject.”
It’s been almost a full 18 seasons between Clemson-Syracuse games — a blustery New Year’s Day in Dawkins’ hometown of Jacksonville starring McNabb and fellow future NFL star Marvin Harrison, and this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference clash inside New York’s Carrier Dome.
So much has happened.
Dawkins graduated from Clemson.
He established himself as the Tigers’ best-ever NFL player: 16 seasons, nine Pro Bowls.
The Eagles retired Dawkins’ jersey, No. 20.
He and his wife Connie have four children.
But Dawkins, 39, will never shake memories of Clemson’s worst bowl loss.
The nasty weather, the thorough beating, the perfect nightmare.
“We got absolutely whupped,” Dawkins, an NFL analyst for ESPN, recalled this week. “It was a bad day for the Clemson Tigers. We gave up a lot of play-action passes. I think we might have gotten Marvin Harrison drafted in the first round (with) how many touchdowns we gave up.
“It was a rough day. It was raining, wet, cold and we didn’t come out on top.”
Clemson was favored by two points. The Tigers arrived in Jacksonville with an 8-3 record. Tommy West’s high-water mark as Clemson head coach included a five-game win streak capped by a 38-17 victory at South Carolina.
Syracuse led 20-0 in the first quarter.
McNabb and Harrison
Harrison, on his way to becoming Peyton Manning’s favorite Indianapolis Colts target, caught seven passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
“With Marvin, he was so fast even back then that you saw that he was going to have a career in the NFL,” Dawkins said. “I did not know it was going to be potential Hall of Fame careers for (Harrison and McNabb), but you definitely knew they would be playing at the next level.”
McNabb as a redshirt freshman threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score. Dawkins knew he was watching an emerging star.
“You could see that back then,” Dawkins said. “I remember watching film on him and trying to game-plan for him and seeing how many times he did the Houdini-type moves to get out of harm’s way in the backfield, scramble for long yards or touchdown passes.”
McNabb joined the Eagles in 1999 as the second overall pick in the NFL draft, three years after Philadelphia selected Dawkins in the second round.
They helped the Eagles reach Super Bowl XXXIX, a 24-21 loss to New England. In Jacksonville, of all places.
“Great dude. Funny cat,” Dawkins said of McNabb. “A guy that I knew I could count on every week to go out and give his best. Sometimes, your best is not good enough. He was just one of those guys I knew I always had a chance to win with him at the quarterback position.”
Dawkins, however, has a much better shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Most recently he was the leader of a Denver Broncos defense that didn’t receive enough credit during Tim Tebow’s remarkable 2011 playoff season.
Dawkins on Dabo
Just before the Eagles retired Dawkins’ jersey, longtime Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret offered a rare tribute.
“No one represents the spirit of Clemson University better than Brian Dawkins, the single most respected Clemson graduate at the professional level I have met,” Bourret posted on Facebook. “Sunday he will get his due from the fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.”
Dawkins’ likes Clemson’s chances this week.
“Dabo (Swinney) has done a great job with that team, with the talent that is continually coming there now on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball,” he said. “When you have a program like that, as an alum, you can be very proud. You can stick your chest out a bit more knowing that Dabo is raising young men, not just football players. Those guys coming out of there are better individuals because of going to that program.”
Among some other reasons Clemson is favored by two touchdowns against Syracuse: Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison aren’t around to put together a highlight tape for NFL scouts, and it definitely won’t rain.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff