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Cass Tech's David Dawson, headed to Michigan, staying focused after tough year

1:00 AM, Sep. 21, 2012 EDT

David Dawson, left, and Erick Mumford run a play during Detroit Cass Tech football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2012. / WILLIAM ARCHIE / DFP

Every morning, David Dawson waits for the phone call that no longer comes.

For years, the caller asked the same question: "What is the word of the day?"

And each day, Dawson had the same answer: "Focus."

After football practice, Dawson leaves Detroit Cass Tech expecting to see the familiar face of the man waiting to drive him home and ask that same question: "What is the word of the day?"

And each time before he left the car, Dawson gave the same answer: "Focus."

To be honest, the question and answer sessions got a little ...old, day after day.

Now, Dawson would give the world to hear the man on the other end of the phone ask it just one more time.

The phone call was from his father -- David Dawson Sr. -- and the phone calls stopped April 11.

"David's father was an MDOT worker," said Andrea Pye, Dawson's mother. "He was responding to a call, and on his way back to his car he was hit by an oncoming car. He survived the surgery, but that night he became unresponsive and was on life support for six days."

His father's death rocked Dawson's world. Suddenly he didn't feel like the dominating 6-foot-4 1/2, 280-pound offensive tackle who committed to Michigan.

He seemed like the little boy wanting to have his father call him one more time so he could say the word "focus" one more time.

"That was something he tried to instill in me," Dawson said. "He said there were going to be a lot of things thrown my way during the process of life. He said I had to keep moving, not let things knock me off my square."

Neither the father nor the son realized how prophetic his words would prove to be.

Dawson's rise to become one of the top high school linemen in the country took several twists and turns and began with the youngster being unable to play football before he entered high school.

"Growing up, I knew I wanted to play football; I just couldn't play it as a child because of the weight limit, so I was going to wait until I got to high school," he said. "I came over here, and Coach (Thomas) Wilcher looked at my test scores and they were high enough for me to get in here, and I started playing."

Initially, Dawson didn't want to play football in high school. He just wanted to be a student.

It was his mother who sold him on the idea of giving football a chance. She didn't urge him to try football because she thought he could earn a college scholarship. She thought football would be a deterrent to trouble.

"It started out with me not wanting him to be sitting around the house all summer," she said. "We were living in the inner-city at the time. I was concerned about him being caught up with the wrong crowd. He was with my mom a lot as well, and my mom lives in the city, and she's not in the best neighborhood. I didn't want him to have idle time."

Although he jokes about it now, Dawson didn't think idle time in summer was a bad thing, especially when he learned how much time he would have to devote to football.

"My ninth grade year I really didn't like football -- I hated it," he said, laughing. "It was probably just the hours that we were up here all the time. I like contact, so it wasn't that. It was just that my summers were gone. When I realized that, I said I couldn't do that. But it's paid off right now. I wouldn't change it."

While he didn't like all of the time he had to devote to football, there was one aspect of football that appealed to him more than you can imagine.

"I started liking it," he said, "when I found out I could beat up people and not go to jail or get in trouble."

Dawson never was a bad kid and always steered clear of trouble, but he was always physical because of his neighborhood buddies.

"Growing up, I usually played rough with my friends," he said. "I had a lot of older friends, so they played rough with me. We played street basketball, and that was kind of rough, and we played tackle football in a field. I was always around a lot of contact."

After spending his freshman year on junior varsity, Dawson joined the varsity and was able to crack the starting lineup as a sophomore.

The thing Wilcher liked about Dawson from the get-go was his eagerness to be aggressive and bury defensive linemen ... or anyone in his way.

"It's hard to find big kids who are aggressive, because as they're growing up they're always told not to hit anybody -- 'You're too big; don't touch anyone, you're too big,' " Wilcher said. "Now he's finally hearing somebody say: 'Go mash 'em.' So the light went on."

The light stayed on through a productive sophomore year, and Dawson was looking forward to his junior year when his mother told him they were moving to Houston.

"It was a family crisis; nothing David was connected to," she said.

Dawson was not happy about leaving Cass Tech, but he embraced his teammates at Cypress Ridge High school and had an excellent season.

He even liked Houston, except for a few things.

"They didn't have any Coney Islands down there, but they had everything else," he said. "Their food was good. Most of it was like Mexican food, and I got to like that. One day I asked somebody if they had any pop, and they looked at me like I said something bad. They call it soda."

During his time in Houston, Dawson realized that some aspects of football in Texas are dramatically different than they are in Michigan.

After practice, players would take off their equipment and go to the film room to review film of that day's practice.

He also thought the level of football was higher when it came to overall talent.

"It's real serious," he said. "With the best teams, it's no different. I would say teams like Catholic Central, Cass, Brother Rice ... we can go down there and compete with them. Down there, they have a lot of talent. Up here, you're going to have talent maybe once or twice a year. But down there, week in and week out, you're going to go against somebody who's committed to Oklahoma State or Arkansas or Alabama."

The biggest downside to leaving Michigan was not being a part of the Cass team that became the first Detroit Public School League team to win a state championship in the state's largest division or class.

Dawson was overjoyed for his former teammates, who became his teammates again when he and his mother returned to Detroit in late January and he re-enrolled in Cass.

"We had all worked the off-season, so it was great to see them get rewarded," Dawson said. "It was still like I won, but I didn't get a ring. I was very proud of those guys for accomplishing that major goal that we had set, but I was disappointed I didn't get to be on that team. All I could do was tell Coach Wilcher I was going to win him another one."

That has been Dawson's battle cry from the moment he re-enrolled in Cass. He needs a ring, too.

"Early in the year, our practices weren't going like they were supposed to, so the coaches said we had to get Dave a ring," he said. "We want multiple championships. We want to become the Catholic Central of Michigan football or the Brother Rice."

For the rest of the winter, Dawson didn't think things could get much better. He was back at Cass with his buddies and U-M offered a scholarship, which he accepted.

And then there were the daily phone calls, which continued when he lived in Houston, and rides home from his father.

Then came his father's accident, and Dawson was a mess.

"One day, a few days before the accident, I got in the car and he was staring at me for 5 minutes," Dawson said. "I asked him why he was staring at me. He said: 'I'm extremely proud of what you're doing now.' When I thought about that, it sent me into an emotional wreck."

When his father died, nothing seemed important to Dawson anymore. Not football, not school, not anything.

"He's still dealing with it," said his mother. "He's a little better. He's getting through it. I let him talk about it. If he has to cry, he cries; if he has to talk, he'll talk.

"I think he misses his dad because his dad was a lot calmer than I am. When David needed someone to be on his side, he would call his dad. He took up for David a lot of times. That was his protector."

Immediately after his father's death, Dawson went into a funk, and it has taken months to get to the point where he can even talk about it.

"I took a couple of weeks off school because I just couldn't do it," he said. " But right now I think I'm doing well. I did OK on his birthday."

Did he ever. Cass Tech played Renaissance on what would have been his father's 59th birthday, and Dawson wound up having a Michael Oher moment from the movie "The Blind Side."

"This guy had been talking stuff the whole game," Dawson said. "I took him to our sideline and ran him into the fence."

Had the fence been shorter, the player would have wound up on the other side of the fence, just as Oher did to the defender in the movie.

Dawson still spends a lot of time thinking about his father, and there is one memory he keeps coming back to.

"Two weeks before he was in the accident, we went to eat at this restaurant on Jefferson," he said. "The waiter came over and talked to me, and the whole conversation was: Cherish your dad. He said I was lucky to have him and wished he had his father.

"I knew I was lucky. I did cherish him."

And he always will remember the word of the day.

Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or mmccabe@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.

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