Bill Baker was an Arizona football player in 1972, sitting next to fellow freshman Mike Dawson on the bus ride to preseason camp near Douglas.
“I thought I had pretty big legs, but his legs were double mine,” said Baker, now UA’s assistant director of football operations.
“I just felt, ‘Wow, this is big-time football.’ ”
Dawson was indeed big-time football.
One of the most successful athletes ever produced by a Tucson high school and one of the greatest football Wildcats, Dawson died Friday of an apparent heart attack. He was 54.
Dawson, a defensive lineman, helped Tucson High School win state football titles in 1970 and 1971, earning Parade All-American honors. He and Tucson High teammate Marvin Lewis, a linebacker, were the first Parade All-American football players from Tucson.
There have been only 10 others.
Dawson, a defensive tackle, was the heart of the Wildcats’ defense from 1973 to 1975, during which UA went 26-7 – the best three-year period in school history.
“He was the cornerstone,” said Jim Young, UA’s head coach from 1973 to 1976.
“He was just a guy I really admired. He never had much to say, but he really performed and was exceptionally strong. He really came through.”
Dawson was a second-team All-American as a senior and became a first-round draft pick, No. 22 overall, of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976.
Dawson is one of nine UA players to be selected in the first round.
“We were in the Western Athletic Conference in those years, and being an All-American and a first-round draft choice, those were big things for us,” Young said.
Dawson led the defense while All-American receiver Theopolis “T” Bell was the offensive star. Bell died in 2006 at age 52 after a long battle with kidney disease and scleroderma.
“Mike and ‘T’ Bell, those two guys were the dominant players,” Young said.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that Mike is gone and ‘T’ Bell is gone and Larry Smith is gone.”
Smith, the former UA head coach who died in January after a battle with leukemia and lymphoma, was part of Young’s standout staffs at Arizona.
They included Willie Peete, Bob Bockrath, Mike Hankwitz, John Mackovic and defensive line coach Sharkey Price.
Dawson once credited Price as the reason he stayed at Arizona during a difficult freshman season under coach Bob Weber in 1972.
“When I think of Sharkey Price, I think of Mike,” Young said. “Sharkey was a great coach and he really worked with Mike. Mike was his boy.”
Dawson played nine seasons in the NFL, with 91 starts in 113 games. He spent seven seasons with the Cardinals, one with Detroit and one with Kansas City.
“I can’t really pinpoint one moment in my athletic career,” he said in a 1990 interview with the Tucson Citizen. “I always wanted to be a No. 1 draft choice. That was the ultimate.”
Dawson returned to Tucson after retiring from the NFL after the 1984 season.
“I knew when it was time to call it quits,” Dawson said in 1990. “I never felt good and I’d always wake up sore after practice.”
He later co-owned The Sports Page Lounge on the near Northwest Side, was involved in a landscaping business and was an assistant coach at Pueblo and Mountain View high schools.
Baker said that Pima Community College coaches told him this week that Dawson was going to help them coach the defensive line in the upcoming season.
“I’m devastated, absolutely devastated,” said Mountain View head coach Paul Schmidt, who was Dawson’s UA teammate for two seasons.
“I loved that guy. Mike was just a big, gentle giant. Just a wonderful, wonderful person.”
Schmidt recalled his first meeting with Dawson on the practice field.
“Our offensive line coach told me I had to spend a few days going against the first-team defense,” Schmidt said.
“I looked over and there was Mike Dawson. The coaches were filming this, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to blow him up.’ So I pulled and I got into him just perfectly.
“The next thing I knew I was airborne and I hear Sharkey Price yell, ‘Great hit, Dawson!’ I said, ‘Holy mackerel, welcome to the big time.’ ”
That was Dawson.
MIKE DAWSON FILE
• At Tucson High: Parade All-American helped lead Ollie Mayfield’s Badgers to state titles in 1970 and 1971.
• At UA: Defensive tackle, 1972-75; AP second team All-American, WAC defensive player of year in 1975.
• In NFL: First-round draft pick of Cardinals in 1976. Played seven years in St. Louis and one each in Detroit and Kansas City before retiring in 1984.
• Other honors: Member of UA and Pima County sports halls of fame.