In 1958, Peter Dawkins was the Heisman winner. But the road to the highest honor in football was battle, to say the least. At age 11, Dawkins was diagnosed with polio, a disease that affects the nervous system and can cause paralysis.
Dawkins, however, did the unimaginable — he weighed 98 pounds going into high school and graduated at 220 pounds — and earned a spot on the West Point football team. From there, Dawkins persevered and won the Heisman Trophy. After college, Dawkins went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and three years later, became a career officer in the United States Army, serving 24 years and fighting in the Vietnam War.
After his time in the Army, Dawkins took a job in finance and earned a spot as partner at Lehman Brothers and head of the public finance banking division.
The now-retired brigadier general and former Heisman winner sat down with Jim Corcoran to talk about his journey, from being diagnosed with polio to working on Wall Street.
GoodSport has been given exclusive rights to publish this interview, which has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood growing up in Michigan? You had some physical issues growing up. Can you tell us about what it was like, and what [your] mom and dad did to help out?
When I was 12, I got very sick and [had] a tremendously high temperature. My father packed me in ice and took me back down to Ford hospital in Detroit, and sure enough, I had polio. My mother, who was a University of Michigan graduate, was really a very intense person. She looked into all the aspects of polio and found out that it yielded scoliosis so most of the people who had polio at the severity I did had a curvature of the spine. And what she learned was that when you were in a rapid growth phase and say your spine was curved like this, that you would have to build up the muscles on [the other] side of the spine and not let them atrophy. And as you’re growing, you would grow back up and go straight so they put me in this treatment and I would literally do two hours of physiotherapy every day for a year.
Was there a question about whether you were going to be able to be active and play sports?
Absolutely and the collateral part of that was that I was undersized, partly aggravated by the polio. I decided I was going to start lifting weights. I didn’t have any weights, however, but I had an iron pipe and some big coffee cans, and so I filled them with cement and started lifting weights. I was 98 pounds when I went to high school and I graduated at 220.
When you graduated, my understanding is you had a four-year scholarship to Yale so it’s Yale or West Point. Was it your decision only to go to West Point?
Well, my high school coach, Fred Campbell, was a very prominent figure in my life so he had been a provocateur and really encouraged me — more than encouraged me, he battered me into wanting to go to West Point. [Campbell] took me to West Point for a visit. We showed up at Coach [Red] Blaik’s office and I had my reel of film from high school, and he said, “I’m here to see Coach Blaik.” The secretary said, “Do you have an appointment?” He said, “No.” She said, “Well, you can’t see Coach Blaik, if you don’t have an appointment.” He said, “That’s OK, we will just wait.” So word murmured around that these two crazy people from Michigan were sitting in Coach Blaik’s outer office, and wouldn’t leave. Coach Blaik came out, was very polite, and introduced himself. We chatted for five minutes or whatever. And from that moment on, I really wanted to go to West Point.
So you came in as a freshman QB, had to play freshman ball and then Coach Blaik decided to move you to punt returner. Tell us about that.
In the fall, when we were gearing up for the season, I had a meeting with Coach Blaik. He said to me, “Dawkins” — he always called you by your last name — “Dawkins, we have five quarterbacks, you’re No. 5. You’re fired.” I wasn’t prepared for that. I was devastated. I think I looked so miserable that as I was skulking out of the office, he said, “Well, if you want to stay on the team, you can be a scrum running back.” I was ready to quit. But my dear mother had a philosophy. Francis’ philosophy was you can fail, that’s OK, but you can never quit. Now what they actually had me do was they had me run back punts. So my job was to receive the punt and then return it. But there were 11 guys coming down after me and I didnt have a team, it was just me. So they would come in and I would get creamed and the coach would be thrilled with that. So they said to do it again and they did it again, and I got creamed again and I was not having a really good time. I finally decided that if I was gonna return punts, if that was my job to do in practice, I was gonna do it better than anybody ever did it before. I just was like, it became maniacal about that. And as fate would have it, one day, I ran one back all the way and the coaches were outraged, and they told me to do it again. They filmed all of the practices and then at night the coaches would watch it. One of the assistant coaches asked Blaik to come over and take a look at it. Coach Blaik looked at that and he said, “Maybe, just maybe, we can make him into a running back.” 435 days later, I won the Heisman trophy.
That’s tremendous. You brought up coach Blaik — what was it like to play for coach Blaik and what did he mean to you?
First of all, he was a major figure at West Point. He wasn’t just the football coach. He was the athletic director. He was arguably as powerful as the superintendent at West Point. So Blaik was a major figure. And the other part of it was that he and Gen. MacArthur were very close friends. [MacArthur] would come to West Point regularly, but without any warning. Like two weeks before the opening of the season, we were in the room taping up, and MacArthur showed up and he said he’d like to speak to the team. If Gen. MacArthur wants to speak to the team, he speaks to the team. Now it was practice, and we were going to play a scrimmage game against Syracuse. So [MacArthur] starts this speech about the history of warfare and there is an intensity in this. I can still remember the words as he was finishing up. He says, “When you go out on that field, you play not for yourself, not for your teammates, not for the United States military academy. When you go out on that field, you play on behalf of the ghosts of a million American fighting men who gave their lives for their country. Now go out and win!” It was a practice, we tore the room, literally tore the doors off the room going out to the bus. So we’re now at Syracuse. The first play goes off. There’s a Syracuse guy on the ground. They carried him out. Second play, another Syracuse guy on the ground. First three plays, three players were hurt. So the coach from Syracuse came over to Blaik and he said, “Red,” — they called [Blaik] Red — “Red, we’re trying to get ready for the season. You’re destroying the team. We’ve got to kind of calm it down,” and Blaik said that there’s nothing he could do. MacArthur talked to the team, and he told them to go out and win.
1958 — your senior year. Tell us about the season. What expectations did you have coming into your senior year?
We had great expectations, great hopes. We felt we had a strong team, but a tough schedule. Back to MacArthur and Blaik, Blaik was musing about what he’s going to do, how they could fashion this into a really first-rate, intercollegiate team. What they kind of came up with was that Bill Carpenter – who was the best receiver in the nation — [Blaik] said, “Let’s split him out 30 yards away from the rest of the huddle.” The lonesome end became the word of the formation. And when we line up, if they choose to try to defend against him man for man, we’ll throw the ball to him every play for the entire game, because there’s nobody who’s going to be able to cover Carpenter man to man. Sure enough, they had to cover him with a man and a half. Well, [that] gives us a half-a-man advantage in our part of the field. But the interesting thing was they thought that he would get worn out running back and forth to the huddle, and that’s why they left him out. We learned that there’s no reason to do that, but we didn’t know that. So there was the issue of how would he know what route to run if he’s not in the huddle. So the way we solved that was I knew all of his routes as well as my routes. And when the huddle broke, I would signal him. MacArthur was the one who actually coached Blaik into setting up this lonesome end formation, and 30 yards away, standing all by himself was Bill Carpenter, the lonesome end.
You beat up Andy Hawkins in South Carolina pretty bad. When you did that, you had a monster game — you had four TDs. At what point did Heisman talk begin for you?
I can’t really remember. We got off to a blazing start and then from that point on, they just came tumbling one after another. It seemed like the more we played, the more we won, and the more we became confident. We were first in the nation for several weeks, and ended up third in the nation. It was a magical season. And when we all look back, it’s with wonder and awe. When I learned that I had been selected for the Heisman, I was obviously thrilled beyond description, never believing that it would be the case.
You joined a special group of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, obviously to be the third army player to win the Heisman. You’ve said many times when we’ve spoken in the past, the trophy is like a magnet. What do you mean by that?
The Heisman is an iconic figure. It’s gained a status of remarkable distinction. There are lots of awards. There are lots of trophies associated with college football, but the Heisman has risen far above that. It has come to stand, I think, in a very important way for excellence, not just in football. It has a power and a respect that’s remarkable. It’s a fraternity, it’s a special fraternity.
At one point, your senior year, you held the titles of brigadier captain, senior class president, a star man — which is the top 5% of your class — and captain of the football team. That was in 1958. We are 60-some-odd years later. No man has ever held all those titles at one time. How does that make you feel?
There was certainly a real element of pride, but more importantly than being proud was that I felt fortunate, truly fortunate, to have had those opportunities.
You win the Heisman, and now it’s, “What do I do next?” The NFL is calling and you have a choice. You choose to go across the pond and take your Rhodes scholar, and go over and study. Was that your decision?
It was. It was nice to have options. The pay in the NFL at that era was tiny. So it wasn’t like nowadays when they had these multimillion-dollar contracts, but there was an allure of being able to move to the next level. But I had the good fortune of receiving a Rhodes scholarship and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to Oxford so there wasn’t any particular competition there in my life. I wanted to move on with that.
So you came back and now it’s your military service, [which] turned out to be 24 years long. You rose to the ranks of a brigadier general — youngest brigadier general. It’s kind of hard to summarize your whole military career, but when you hear the words “duty, honor, country,” what, what do you think? How do you react to that?
Duty, honor, and country. Those are words that echo in my mind. They’d become a set of values that I’ve always tried to live by and a frame of mind, and an attitude that I cherish.
What was the most scared you were for yourself and your troops? Was there one particular time that you thought maybe this was the end?
Probably several. I fought shoulder to shoulder with a lot of courageous soldiers and was fortunate enough to come back. But I owe a great debt to those who shared the foxhole with me.
After a stellar military career, you go into the business world to Wall Street. To me, you’re clearly a born leader. What do you think the most important qualities of a leader are?
One of them, I believe might surprise you, is that you need to be a good listener because many times people will tell you what it is you need to know in order to be effective as a leader. And if you fail to listen, you miss some of the most important parts.
Do you think playing football helped as far as leadership is concerned, like teamwork, accountability, never giving up at all — all that goes with you when you go out to the business world as well or into the real world?
Yeah. I think sport is a wonderful petri dish of values and much of what allows you to be successful or to excel in whatever domain you happen to find yourself in has its foundation in the experiences you had in competitive sports.
When Pete Dawkins isn’t here anymore and we are waiting for that new Pete Dawkins to show up at Army, when you’re not here, how do you want to be remembered?
How do I want to be remembered? I want to be remembered as a fighter, as somebody who would never give up.
Emilee White is the editorial and marketing manager for GoodSport, a media company dedicated to raising the visibility of women and girls in sports.
Photo credit: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons