Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (2024)

Nick Dawkins still looks to his father nearly a decade after he left.

He still watches his highlights on YouTube, still wonders what he would say to him during his toughest and grandest moments. The tattoos on his right arm and leg always remind him.

It doesn't feel like nine years since the Penn State football senior suddenly lost his father and guidepost — the man who's lessons and persona have shaped him into the Nittany Lions' most unique leader. It goes well beyond finally becoming the team's starting center, an anchor of the offense during the 2024 season.

He's become a connector of teammates, family and so many others he wants to help in this world. Much like the man who helped raise him, Darryl Dawkins — one of the NBA's all-time most flamboyant, gregarious and generous.

"It's all the time. I’m not going to lie, I miss him a lot," Nick Dawkins says now. "I don’t think I really got over him passing. I sometimes still talk about him in the present tense as if he’s still here. He'd go on long (work) trips, two, three weeks to China, South Korea, everywhere. Maybe I’m still waiting for him to come home.

"I wish I could call my Dad right now and tell him a lot ..."

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (1)

From Darryl Dawkins to Nick Dawkins: NBA's 'Chocolate Thunder'

To understand Nick Dawkins, one of Penn State's most well-respected pillars and most effusive storytellers, is to know the man who gave him life.

Darryl Dawkins grew up with little means in Orlando, Florida, he and his brothers and sisters often staying with extended family because money was so scarce. They worked odd jobs to help make due, like picking fruit and painting houses, and didn't so much as have indoor plumbing at home until junior high school.

Darryl Dawkins' unique basketball potential, even more than his actual skills, would forever shape him. He was 6-foot-11 by the time he led his high school team to a state title, dominating any and all opponents, and stirred a nationwide pursuit by college coaches.

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (2)

Even some NBA officials were infatuated, too, particularly with how a man of his immense size and power could move so effortlessly. What couldn't he become? The Philadelphia 76ers were willing to gamble their fifth overall pick in the 1975 draft on a high-schooler, much like the rival ABA had done a year earlier with Moses Malone, a future hall-of-famer.

Dawkins, just 18, took the Sixers' million-dollar offer over a college scholarship in part, he said, to help raise up his family as quickly as possible.

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (3)

And yet what early NBA riches Darryl Dawkins didn't give away, he blew through on fancy cars, clothes and whatever else caught his eye. The sudden glamour and attention of the NBA often seemed to enthrall him more than the game.

Why spend countless, mundane hours drilling on technique when he could instantly jolt a crowd with his raw power, then intoxicate them with his ever-willing wit?

It was maybe fitting, then, that the first player to ever go straight from high school to the NBA also would be the first to shatter a backboard during a game. His dunks proved as grandiose as the man who threw them down.

He would become known more for them (and for fouling opponents; his 386 in one season are still an NBA record) than for refining the gifts many believed would carry him toward the fame of Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Darryl Dawkins embraced a litany of nicknames — "Dr. Dunkenstein," "Sir Slam" and the Stevie Wonder-bestowed "Chocolate Thunder," to name a few — boasted that he would escape to a place called "Planet Lovetron" and bought closets full of "crazy" suits.

His pro career would last longer (nearly 20 years combined in the NBA, minor leagues and overseas) and his influence on those around him larger, than most.

He helped raise a daughter from an early relationship before eventually meeting his third wife, who was 20 years his younger. He and Janice Dawkins would raise her daughter, Tabitha, who has Down's syndrome, and two children of their own, Nick and Alexis.

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"Darryl was amazing energy," Janice Dawkins said. "Everybody wanted to be around him because he made everyone feel good. That’s Darryl. Who he was with my family was just an absolutely loving human being. He was very authentic on and off the court.

"It can, honestly, be that simple," she said, continuing. "My son is authentic, that’s why he’s a people-person. They’re not trying to be something they're not. It's just who they are; what's in their heart."

Darryl Dawkins would cart along his kids, especially Nick, to everything he could, even trips as an NBA ambassador who worked camps and clinics and community events. He'd regale Nick, as they drove, with stories and life-lessons, teaching about things he struggled to learn himself, such as self-discipline and managing finances and how to best help those around him.

Nick Dawkins just didn't have enough time with his father. Darryl Dawkins was just 58 — Nick was only 13 — when Darryl died from a heart attack in 2015.

Penn State football: How Nick Dawkins grows from stunning loss

The stunning feelings of loss, Nick Dawkins said, would gradually be salved by a growing sense of peace and purpose, knowing he needed to be as much of a protector and guide as possible — "an organizer, a strong shoulder to cry on" — for his mother and siblings. Just like his father had always told him to be.

He tried to uphold that as extended family members and friends dropped away, as if no longer able to be fed by Darryl Dawkins' oversized faith, generosity and celebrity.

"When those people (left us), it made me realize why my dad raised me the way he did," Nick Dawkins said. "He knew this was something that could have happened and it made me the man of my house. Now, I’m able to read people differently, read their morals, read ... why they’re near me or what they want out of me. What they’re trying to get out of me."

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (6)

That faith and resolve guided Nick Dawkins through Parkland High where he grew into a team captain, then Mr. Pennsylvania Football Lineman of the Year as a senior. He was the one who huddled his teammates and barked out pregame speeches.

His impact is still felt there. He volunteers at Parkland sports camps and tutors their offensive linemen whenever home, pulling them out of the weightroom, coach Tim Moncman jokes, for pointers and drill work. He's also become a big brother and mentor to Moncman's blind son, A.J., a college freshman who works with the East Stroudsburg University football staff.

Dawkins would "do anything to help a kid out," Tim Moncman said. "If I have a player who's struggling a bit with life, I have Nick talk to him. He relates; tells them how life is ..."

"He's always smiling, always focused. Everything he does, there’sa purpose for it. That’s just him. He’s so goal-oriented and knows what path to follow. You can just tell he’s going to be successful."

Maybe even more so because of how tough, Dawkins says in the best of ways, it has been at Penn State. He worked his first four years as a little-used offensive lineman, learning from centers Juice Scruggs and Hunter Nourzad, both now in the NFL. He worked more diligently than ever, on and off the field, while missing nearly all of the 2022 season with a shoulder injury and surgery.

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Dawkins became so respected by teammates that he was nearly voted a team captain last year, even as a backup, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said.

"He's kind of the leader in that room," offensive line coach Phil Trautwein said just before the 2023 season. "When he says something, everyone listens."

Dawkins has become one of the most popular Nittany Lions, in part for his engaging personality and public outreach, which runs true to his father. Nick Dawkins hosts a popular podcast, "The Lions Den," started his own clothing line and created a non-profit organization.

The Dawkins Family Foundation aims to "empower young minds with the knowledge and skills they need to unlock their full potential" through sports clinics and sponsoring college scholarships and school-supply drives.

He's also the new president of Penn State's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which raises money for rare disease research, highlighted by its "Lift for Life" workout competition each June.

Dawkins graduated from Penn State in December and is now pursuing another degree in organization development and change essentials.

He's determined to not just earn the starting center position in his fifth and final season at Penn State but to lead his teammates through whatever they may encounter.

If anything, he learned that from his parents. His mother, always the mediator and organizer of the house, worked two and three jobs after Darryl Dawkins died to finish raising their three kids. She's "a selfless person, a fixer-upper; she likes to fix people," Nick Dawkins said with a smile. "Always kept us on track. Sacrificed everything for us."

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (8)

He learned as much as possible, too, from those 13 years with his father.

The man he calls "a charismatic servant of his community," a basketball pied piper, who coached young girls and college men, who prodded church leaders to fund youth groups, who won over anyone who'd give him time, from North Philly to China to the Choctaw Nation.

The one, he knows, used his NBA money to give his seven siblings the college education he never got.

"Just that connectivity of people," his son said.

"You just wanted to be around him all the time. He was an entertainer. I’m kind of like that, too. You get your people around, you court, your group, you’re telling stories at the table."

Though confident in his abilities and life mission, Nick Dawkins doesn't hesitate to say how he still calls upon his father. He took his No. 53 jersey number. He watches those video highlights and interviews of him to inspire as much as keep him close, often just before Penn State games.

He cherishes those moments and memories, opportunities, even. Too many he knows, including teammates, never had a relationship with their own father, never even met him.

He hopes to use his foundation to start a mentorship program for children who have lost a parent. A final college football season to drive him to what's beyond.

“He just implemented that this has always been bigger than me, football, sports, life. It’s never about that," Nick Dawkins said of his father. "It’s about what can you do for other people and who are you when you’re not in the sport. What are people going to say about you when you pass away? What is your legacy going to be?

"I can always give. I always will ..."

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him atfbodani@ydr.com and follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @YDRPennState.

Penn State football anchor Nick Dawkins: Learning, living, leading from his famous father (2024)
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