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Dawkins' return to Philly sure to stir emotions for player, fans

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A Philadelphia Eagles crowd legendary for greeting opponents with hostility has a sizable soft spot for Brian Dawkins.

With good reason: The Pro Bowl safety poured everything he had into every play during a tremendous 13-year run in the City of Brotherly Love.

Dawkins' devotion was appreciated and admired. Still, he understands that team loyalty runs deep. So if he draws a smattering of boos when he returns to Philadelphia on Sunday as a member of the Denver Broncos, he won't take it personally.

That's just Eagles fans.

"They are die-hard for their team," Dawkins said Wednesday. "If you're on the opposing team, you are no longer on their team. I don't expect 100 percent cheers out there."

It will be close, though. Dawkins still is that respected and revered in Philadelphia, and Eagles coach Andy Reid predicted that fans will greet Dawkins warmly, if not the Broncos.

When Dawkins signed with the Broncos during the offseason, there was rebellion in Philadelphia as angry fans flooded radio-station phone lines to voice their displeasure. They also gobbled up Broncos jerseys with Dawkins' familiar No. 20 on the back.

Something about Dawkins' play just resonated with the fans. He grew on them, and they on him.

"Philly is a blue-collar place," said Dawkins, 36. "They work hard for what they have. ... They want someone to care as much as they do. If they don't feel like you're giving your all, if they don't feel like you're pouring yourself out on the field, then they're going to let you know about it."

That was never an issue with Dawkins. He was the emotional leader of the Eagles, the spark that helped drive the team to five NFC Championship Game appearances during his tenure, including an appearance in the Super Bowl following the 2004 season.

The Broncos brought in Dawkins to fill a similar role, and they haven't been disappointed. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection has added a nastiness to the defense that has missed it in recent years.

The Broncos' defense already marches to Dawkins' beat. Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb figured it would.

"He's a great player ... in Denver, and you see why people loved him here in Philadelphia," McNabb said.

Dawkins doesn't want to deal with the feelings surrounding his return. Sure, it will be emotional. Very much so. But he has more pressing concerns -- like leading Denver to a much-needed win.

The Broncos (8-6) made their path to the playoffs a whole lot more challenging by losing to the Oakland Raiders in the final minute last weekend, giving several teams renewed hope in the AFC wild-card race.

"This is not just about me going back home," Dawkins said. "This is about the Denver Broncos going into Philadelphia, a tough place to play, against a very good football team. That's where our focus needs to be."

Dawkins will make sure it is. This might be his homecoming, but he refuses to allow it to become a distraction. He's all business -- like always.

"Brian plays every play like it's the last play," said Reid, whose team has won five consecutive games. "That's what you love about him. It is 110 (miles per hour). For him to be doing that the way he's doing that at his age is just a tribute to what a great player he is."

So do the Eagles (10-4) regret letting Dawkins slip away?

"I'm not going to get into that," Reid said. "I'm happy for Brian, and this is a great situation for he and his family. It's a great city that he's playing in."

Broncos running back Correll Buckhalter also will make his return to Philadelphia. Not even a bum ankle can prevent him from missing it.

"I told myself, 'I'm going to be back for this game no matter what,'" said Buckhalter, who sat out the loss to the Raiders.

Buckhalter believes he and Dawkins will receive a "pretty good reception" Sunday.

"I think the fans will probably embrace us," said Buckhalter, who spent eight seasons with the Eagles. "At the same time, we play for Denver now."

And Eagles fans do like their booing, providing quite a difficult environment for opposing teams.

"A lot of guys talk about the Black Hole," Buckhalter said of the fans in Oakland. "I played in the Black Hole this year, and I was like, 'No, it's nothing on Philadelphia.' It's a whole different level."

What makes Philadelphia so hostile?

"Rowdy fans," Buckhalter said. "You have to have thick skin to play in that city."

You also have to play with extreme intensity. That was Dawkins' way -- leave everything on the field.

"I've always played with my emotions on my shoulders," Dawkins said. "I've always been that way. I think that connected with (the fans)."

That's why he's so beloved in Philadelphia and why it will be emotional going back, even as Dawkins tries to downplay his return.

"Once the ball is snapped, it's football," Dawkins said. "It's a very important game for both of us."

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