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Pete Dawkins: A West Point Legend

The following feature originally appeared in the Oct. 25, 2008 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. Louisiana Tech.

By Mark Brumbaugh

“He is, in short, the ultimate West Point cadet.”
-Marshall Smith on Pete Dawkins, Life Magazine, October 13, 1958

Today at Michie Stadium, the No. 24 will be retired in honor of Heisman Trophy winner and captain of Army’s unbeaten 1958 team, Pete Dawkins. The honor, which has only been bestowed once before, pays tribute to one of West Point’s most accomplished cadets.

Dawkins could have been satisfied by just making it at the prestigious Academy, but the values instilled in him during the summers on his Grandmother’s farm in Harlan, Mich. (town population of just 12) drove him to succeed and conquer any challenge put before him.

“My Grandmother and I built a wonderful relationship,” said Dawkins. “I worked on the farm and had a horse named Nellie. I drove a tractor when I was 10 and a car when I was 12, as you did on the farms. I ended up getting five acres that was mine where I planted cucumbers. I sold them to the local pickle factory, so I was an entrepreneur at age 10. It was a very formative period for me in that I really did learn a level of self-reliance at a very young age. My grandmother got up at four in morning. We lived in a farmhouse with no running water and she cooked on a wood cook stove. She would work in the fields all day and then wash and cook at night, so I was taught the dignity of hard work and a whole set of values that have served me well.”

Dawkins’ athletic career was almost finished before it began after a bout with polio at age 11 left him with a curved spine. The conventional wisdom of the day was to put the patient in a back brace, but such treatment actually made the curvature permanent. Luckily, Dawkins’ mother found a doctor who setup a program of physiotherapy to allow the spine to grow back straight.

“That took a couple of years with two hours of physiotherapy every day. I was very fortunate. It allowed me to participate in athletics, which I never would have done had we not had the very good fortune of coming upon this doctor that was really ahead of her time.”

 Dawkins entered the Cranbrook School, a private high school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., as a 98-pound ninth grader, with a seemingly bleak future in athletics. However, his years at the school proved to be very helpful both academically and athletically.

“It’s a unique institution and an absolutely first rate high school, so I was the beneficiary of a really good foundation before coming to West Point.  The athletic program turned out to be really ideal for me because I had a terrific high school coach, Fred Campbell, who coached both baseball and football and took a real interest in me.”

At Cranbrook, Dawkins grew and lifted weights, graduating at 185 pounds. It was Campbell, a Marine Corps company commander at Iwo Jima during World War II, who guided his star athlete towards West Point.

“In retrospect, I realize that he had come to believe that the Academy was absolutely the right place for me,” said Dawkins. “He was the driving force. I wasn’t very receptive until quite late.”

Campbell became the driving force quite literally before Dawkins’ senior season at high school. The coach drove Dawkins from Michigan to West Point to meet the Army head football coach, Earl “Red” Blaik.

“Coach Campbell just had my football films, a big 16 millimeter roll of film, and stuck me in his car. We drove through Canada down to West Point and showed up at coach Blaik’s office,” recalled Dawkins. “When we told the secretary we didn’t have an appointment, she said, Well you are not going to be able to talk with coach Blaik unless you have one.’ He told her, That’s okay, we’ll just wait here.’ So we sat in the waiting room for six hours. By two or three in the afternoon we had become a phenomenon. People were coming down and looking at these strange people from Michigan who were sitting in coach Blaik’s waiting room for six hours. Eventually, coach Blaik came to see us. He walked in and we had a five minute conversation. Then we drove back to Michigan.

“Being at West Point, as for so many young people, really inspired me. I became very, very excited about going there.”

Despite his persistence, Dawkins had difficulty getting accepted. All of the congressional principal appointments had been given out by the time he applied, relegating him to the qualified alternate pool. Ironically, it was head hockey coach Jack Riley, not Blaik, who pulled Dawkins into the Academy. Dawkins also earned three letters on the hockey team during his time at the Academy and was a top-scoring defenseman, serving as the assistant captain during his senior year.

Once in the Academy and on both the football and hockey teams, Dawkins realized he needed to get stronger to compete at the college level, but there was a problem. Football players at West Point were banned from lifting weights because it was thought that added muscle would impede speed and agility. The rule forced Dawkins to get creative in his training.

“I snuck a set of barbells into the barracks and took them apart, putting the discs between the metal springs in the mattress. Then I took the bar and used two belts to hold it up behind the horizontal back bar of the bunk, so that when my room was inspected, you weren’t aware that there were any weights there. Every night after taps I would get my weights out and lift them in the dark, and I never got caught in three and a half years. I ended up playing at about 215, which was a very good size for a running back in those days.”

Dawkins worked his way onto the travel squad as a sophomore and began earning attention his junior year, after which he was elected captain of the upcoming 1958 team. That year, Blaik introduced the renowned “lonely end” formation that featured an unbalanced line with the end split wide on the strong side. The team went on to an 8-0-1 record and remains Army’s last unbeaten team to date. Dawkins’ stellar performance and ability to make big plays, particularly against rivals Notre Dame and Navy, earned him the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player. He was later inducted into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1975.

The national star was just as successful off of the football field as he was on it. He became the first and only cadet to become Cadet Brigade Commander, class president, captain of the football team and a “star man,” finishing in the top five percent of his class. His achievements prompted Life magazine to title an article profiling him “Four Top Cadets In One.”

“When I look back on it, I really just loved West Point- every part of it,” said Dawkins. “I liked the challenge. I always had been a tremendously spirited competitor, so I loved the competitive aspect of it. I liked the physical outdoor part of it. I really responded very happily and favorably to all of the challenges that were placed before me. I threw myself headlong into everything. The secret of the place is to just get involved in everything you can and get the experience of it all.”

Dawkins’ accomplishments at West Point were just the beginning of a decorated career in the military that included continued success in academics. Upon graduation he headed across the Atlantic to study for three years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and he later received his doctorate from Princeton.

As a Captain in Vietnam, he advised the 1st Vietnamese Airborne Battalion, the most decorated unit in the Vietnamese Army.

“We were kind of the fire brigade,” said Dawkins. “Wherever there was combat, we would get shipped out there.”

Dawkins ascended through the ranks, tasked with jobs such as working on the conversion of the Army to an all volunteer force and serving in numerous command posts. In 1981, he was promoted to Brigadier General and served in the Pentagon as the Army’s Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy before retiring in 1983 after 24 years of dedicated service.

He then entered the financial world, eventually becoming the chairman and CEO of Primerica Financial Services, Inc. in 1991.

Through all of his endeavors, Dawkins can attribute much of his success as a leader to his time at West Point.

“I think from the very beginnings at West Point, I’ve had the advantage of being immersed in a culture and an environment where leadership is consciously pursued and rewarded. West Point has earned, and properly so, the reputation of really serving as a testing ground for developing the qualities of being an effective leader. I was really fortunate in those beginnings and then had the opportunity to command at a lot of levels. I think that has served me very well.”

Although he recently retired from his position as the vice chairman of global wealth management for Citigroup, where he served in various positions for 17 years, Dawkins has not slowed down in the least. He is now pursuing private equity opportunities as the chairman of his own venture, ShiningStar Capital, and is the American chairman of the American-Kuwaiti Alliance, a non-governmental organization that works to advance mutual interests of Kuwait and the United States. 

Dawkins has also recently worked on study groups examining the Army football program and remains optimistic about the program’s future.

“I think we’ve got a real challenge to be able to compete successfully and have a winning record against teams across the nation. We challenge our intercollegiate athletes, and we particularly challenge our football players, but I think it is a challenge we ought to have and I believe we can be successful at it.”

As the Black Knights continue to build on the great tradition of Army football, one thing is certain: No. 24 will always be Pete Dawkins.

Mark Brumbaugh is the Athletic Communications Assistant at West Point.

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