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HUMBLE AND HUNGRY: INSIDE DAN DAWSON’S RISE THROUGH THE NLL HISTORY BOOKS

On January 15, 2022, Toronto Rock forward Dan Dawson solidified his contribution to lacrosse and his place in the history books when he scored his 1447th career point, a goal late in a competitive game versus the Halifax Thunderbirds. The goal moved him past John Grant Jr. for second all-time on the NLL points list, behind only John Tavares.

The Rock were tied at 12 in the fourth quarter with the Thunderbirds in an empty FirstOntario Centre; no fans were allowed in due to Covid restrictions. Dawson, tangled with Tyson Bell in front of Halifax’s net, accepted a pass from Dan Craig with one hand. Dawson dodged to the left to evade Bell and leaned forward to put the ball past Warren Hill.

Dawson entered the league at age 21 in 2002, drafted by the Columbus Landsharks out of the Brampton Excelsiors junior A program, which was just a hop skip and a jump away from his hometown of Oakville, Ontario.

He was drafted as a defenseman, but when Bob Hamley became bench boss of the Landsharks in his sophomore season, Dawson was shifted into a forward, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s still a little surreal to see my brother as the #2 leading scorer of all time in the NLL,” says Paul Dawson of the Rochester Knighthawks. “I couldn’t think of a guy more deserving than Dan. He does everything right; he puts in the work on the floor and off the floor and I am so proud to call him my brother. You don’t find many guys like Dan.”

I have been fortunate to interview Dan Dawson several times in the last few years, and every encounter has been memorable. When he speaks, Dawson is thoughtful and critical; he avoids clichés and speaks from the heart. He is every sports journalist’s dream as both an honest, eloquent speaker and a patient, friendly presence. He minces no words following a loss, and yet after a win still puts the game into perspective. He is grounded; he is endlessly grateful for the opportunities received through lacrosse.

I was happy to speak again with Dawson following his milestone night about the goal, his career to this point, and what the future holds.

AT: It wasn’t a typical gameday without fans. Walk me through your day. How did it differ from a typical Rock game day?

DD: Most lacrosse guys are creatures of habit, they have routines throughout the day, some rely on superstitions. My game day was the same. The missing piece to that was the environment and energy that your home crowd gives you. We were 2-0 at home in Hamilton heading into that game which goes to show how much we like playing at home in front of our fans and the emotional lift they give us. It was different but at the same time Halifax is facing the same thing so it’s nothing we can control, it’s just the times we’re in right now.

AT: What was it like playing without the fans?

DD: It was different. I’ve played in big arenas where we’ve had no fans in an exhibition format so that wasn’t new to me, but it was new that there was something on the line. We know we have to beat Halifax to get out of the division. You rely on those fans. We knew we had to answer because they handed it to us in Halifax. You rely on the energy of the bench more because you don’t have those cheering fans, so you rely on the energy of your teammates and coaches.

AT: For the goal itself, we saw your teammates congratulating you on the bench so they certainly knew it was a milestone for you, but going into the game did you know you were coming up on that number?

DD: Mike Hancock (Toronto Rock Director of Communications & Lacrosse Operations) and guys like Ripper (Craig Rybczynski, Rochester Knighthawks Lacrosse Operations Manager) and Shaye (Getzinger, Toronto Rock Digital Media Coordinator), they keep track of these things and I know I’m pretty close and just needed the two points so it was almost like a relief. There it is guys, let’s move on and focus on winning the game.

AT: What were some of the things your teammates said to you?

DD: It didn’t happen until the end of the fourth quarter and Halifax answered right away and then we were in overtime. They said congrats and they were proud of me so that’s really it. It’s tough when you’re in a game, you can’t really stop the game and focus on the individual. I don’t want that either, no one likes that. I just want to focus on the game.

AT: Did John Grant Jr. reach out to you after the game?

DD: Jr. was a teammate of mine and a guy I idolized growing up but I haven’t talked to him. Unless you call me on my phone it’s really tough to reach me because I’m not on social media. I have a Twitter account that I don’t really use. I must have played for 10 different teams since my last tweet.

(NOTE: Grant did mark the occasion on Twitter!)

AT: From those you did hear from, who was the coolest to reach out to you?

DD: Outside of my family and close friends, certain coaches throughout the league and players I’ve played with that are still playing. Guys like Derek Keenan who I think the world of. Josh Sanderson. Past guys like Ryan Cousins who’s one of my best friends. A lot of people reached out to me. I’m very thankful for that.

AT: Of the 1447 points, which has been the most memorable one in your career? I’ll give you a minute to think about it if you need to, there are a lot to choose from!

DD: The most memorable one… obviously like an overtime game in lacrosse where you score the winning goal is exciting, but I would say when I assisted on Craig Point’s winning goal in overtime in the 2014 mini-series versus Calgary. That was the most memorable because of the way we came back in overtime. I actually get more excited when my teammates score than when I do.

AT: Do you have another 303 points in you to pass John Tavares for first place?

DD: Absolutely not. I’ll go on record with that. I’m not chasing John, I’m not chasing his records. Where I’m at in my career, I’m chasing championships. To be a top 10 guy in this league you need the ball in your stick 50-60 per cent of the time and that’s not my role anymore.

AT: But you will, however, break another of Tavares’ records, once you get to 307 games played.

DD: I’ve said it before, this game has given me and my family so much. I still love the grind, working out and watching game film. The biggest part of stepping away from the game for me is competing for championships but more than anything it’s being in the locker room. I love the guys. I’m one of the last guys out of the room and I really do enjoy that. I’m just taking it one game at a time.

AT: Any idea how many more years you have in you?

DD: I’m year-to-year. At age 40, you can’t look past even weekly. At my age, there are nagging injuries that happen and you just can’t perform like you can when you’re 25. I’m actually weekly. I want to play this season out, re-evaluate it, and we’ll go from there. I’m not thinking past this season yet.

AT: 300 games is quite the feat. To what do you owe your longevity in the league?

DD: My preparation. I take a lot of pride in my lifestyle from the way I eat, the way I train, to the way I prepare for games and recover, and that’s not done alone. That’s done with my strength and conditioning coaches like Sean Holmes, who’s been with me for the last 10 plus years, Danny Noble, Andrew English and Jim Mirabito, the list goes on and on. Along with an amazing medical staff that keep you game ready. You think of an athlete like a car. You tune up, you change your oil. Without those guys I probably would have played two or three seasons.

AT: How has the league grown and changed for the better over the course of your career?

DD: The level of play and the pride that the guys have in being professional athletes is the biggest change.

AT: How did you get into lacrosse and who has influenced you the most throughout your career?

DD: My best friend down the street Dan Phillips, he started playing a year before I did. Our dads were both Toronto police officers, they were best friends and coached hockey together. Whatever Danny Phillips Sr. said I should do, dad would follow. He said “get Danny in lacrosse, it’ll help his hockey, hand eye coordination, it’ll make him tougher,” so we signed up for lacrosse. There’s a lot of people that don’t get enough credit for my upbringing and that’s Bruce Donavan and Rob MacDougall, both guys that I owe a lot to. They instilled passion and love for the game in me like you can’t believe. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am. Those were the guys that had me from the foundations that set the tone for me in those Oakville minor lacrosse years. Sadly both have passed on in the last three years, but Rob’s everywhere you look and Bruce was just an a amazing guy for me.

AT: You were drafted by Columbus. Who were the architects of that decision?

DD: The biggest guy who took a chance on me was Wayne Colley. He was a coach in Orillia at the time and I played against him in Brampton. I was a sixth round pick out of seven rounds, a hail Mary pick I think. Ronny Roy was the head coach and the owner at the time was Mike Gongas. I do owe a lot to those guys for taking a chance on me. I tell people, I wouldn’t be playing if I hadn’t been drafted to Columbus. If I had been drafted to Toronto as a sixth round pick there’s not a chanced I’d get any games in. I’d be hard pressed to make their roster. In Columbus I made the roster and I got into 11 out of 16 games. Sometimes life has to do with timing and taking opportunities and running with them.

AT: Who from those early years gave you some advice that you took to heart and implemented into your game?

DD: Early in my NLL career Bob Hamley was very important for who I was as an offensive player. Bob came in my second year in Columbus and I played for him for five seasons (one in Columbus, four in Arizona). Bob gave me the keys to the franchise. One of his lines was “goal scorers don’t stop at three.” I didn’t think I’d be scoring three goals in a game, but he was dead serious about it. I took so much pride in that. They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.

AT: You mentioned to Ashley Docking the origin story of your nickname Dangerous. How early in your career was that and did you feel any pressure to live up to it?

DD: It was the PA announcer in my first year. We were stretching in the half circle and he was walking around getting to know the guys, and he was like yeah you’re Dangerous Dan Dawson. It was more of a joke. I was a D guy, I was a sixth round pick, there was no pressure on me.

AT: You’ve had a largely uninterrupted career. How do you deal with adversity like trades, injuries, seasons missed to Covid?

DD: I’m a big believer that in anything I do, I don’t sweat the stuff I can’t control. I always try to not stay in the “why” phase. It is what it is, so how do I make the best of these situations? I’ve been traded twice in my career. Injuries happen. There’s an emotional component to me that gets crushed when I get injured, absolutely: you’re missing games, you can’t contribute. But you have to move to how do I make this better? I always move to the answer phase of what’s bothering me quick.

AT: What has kept you grounded throughout your career?

DD: I just know that the success that I’ve had is not individual. We play a team sport and there’s so many people that I owe a lot to, whether its teammates, coaches or training staff. It’s important to be humble and hungry. If you take yourself too seriously, and you think you’re better than anyone in this world, I just don’t have time for those people. Everyone’s got a story. I have a story, you have a story and it’s how we tell those stories that make us interesting.

AT: Is there anything in the league that you would still like to accomplish? You’ve done quite a lot.

DD: If I could write the final script, it would be that the last game I win, is the last game I play.

See Dawson and his Toronto Rock teammates in action this coming Saturday, February 5th at 8 p.m. ET when they visit the Philadelphia Wings on TSN.ca and ESPN+.

NLL