The day Dawkins lit up a Detroit Red Wings legend is a lasting memory for one of college football’s finest and America’s bravest.
By Randy Schultz
Following his graduation from West Point in 1959, Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins received an invitation to participate in a Detroit Red Wings practice.
Dawkins had played hockey growing up in Michigan and was good enough to make the West Point varsity team. He got the invite through a friend, went to practice, warmed up with the Wings and then played in a scrimmage.
“When I lined up to take the faceoff,” Dawkins says. “I looked to my right and Gordie Howe was my right winger.”
On the opposing side were Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk. It didn’t take Dawkins long to adjust to his surroundings. Before he knew it, Dawkins had scored a goal against Sawchuk. The opposition took notice and Dawkins was soon on the receiving end of some rough play. Then he scored another goal and that’s when things really got rough for the former West Pointer.
“I was just trying to keep from getting hurt out there,” Dawkins says. “And wouldn’t you know it? I scored again.”
It was the last goal Dawkins recorded that day. Sawchuk stormed off the ice, breaking his stick along the way.
Dawkins, 75, is one of the most accomplished cadets to ever come out of West Point, winning the Heisman and captaining Army’s 1958 unbeaten football team. After graduating from West Point, Dawkins studied for three years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and later received his doctorate from Princeton. He worked his way up to the rank of Brigadier General, serving in the Pentagon as the Army’s deputy director of strategy, plans and policy before retiring in 1983. And it was the sport of hockey that got him in the door of West Point.
“I loved hockey,” Dawkins says. “You learned to love hockey growing up in Michigan.”
As Dawkins entered his senior year in high school, a friend of his, Larry Asbury, began at West Point. Asbury had quite an influence on Dawkins eventually attending there. Dawkins had gone to West Point with his high school football coach at the end of his junior year to visit legendary Army football coach, Red Blaik. To be accepted into West Point, however, an applicant has to be recommended and appointed, and that comes from a congressman or senator. But by the time Dawkins had applied, all of the congressmen and senators had given out their appointments. What he later found out is that athletic coaches at West Point have a claim on a number of people they can pull in from the qualified alternative pool, so Dawkins was able to get an alternate appointment.
“Only later, once I got to West Point, I found out that it was their hockey coach, Jack Riley, not Blaik, who had selected me out of the qualified alternate pool,” Dawkins says. “I suspect to this day that it was my friend, Larry Asbury, who must have talked to Riley about me and my hockey.”
Dawkins did have a problem being a football player who played hockey: the two seasons overlapped. The hockey team played three or four games before the final contest of the gridiron season. And that final football game was the annual Army-Navy contest, which was traditionally played on a Saturday.
“I would play the game on Saturday, take Sunday off and be at hockey practice on Monday,” Dawkins says. “It was a way of life for me that I was grateful for.
“And I will always be grateful to coach Riley and hockey for giving me a chance.”
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