Pete’s unlikely journey from the smallest player on his high school freshman football team, to being selected as the outstanding college football player in the nation, is the stuff of legend. Along the way, he also played baseball, hockey and, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, England, wrote yet another remarkable chapter, playing rugby, into his storied career as a world-class athlete.
Pete arrived at Cranbrook School as a thirteen-year-old freshman weighing in just shy of a hundred pounds.
Fortunately, Pete’s competitive spirit caught the eye of Cranbrook’s football and baseball coach, Fred Campbell, who put the diminutive first year student on a vigorous weight training program, which was unheard of in high school athletics at that time.
Under Campbell’s tutelage, Pete became the baseball team’s Captain and starting centerfielder his senior season.
He found similar success on the football field as quarterback where, in his final year, Pete led the team to a winning season and was singled out for All-League honors.
By graduation Pete was a 6’2”, 180-pound athlete who had earned six varsity letters in three years.
Despite an offer of a four-year scholarship to Yale, Coach Campbell, a former Marine, urged Pete to consider the United States Military Academy and recommended him to Earl “Red” Blaik, West Point’s legendary football coach. Coach Blaik recommended that Pete attend an Academy-affiliated Prep School for a year before entering West Point.
Pete chose not to follow that advice. He was offered – and accepted – a place in the Class of 1959, out of the “Qualified Alternate” pool, as an intercollegiate athlete prospect.
Pete began at West Point as a left-handed, running quarterback on the academy’s freshman team but during spring practice that year, it became evident that he would not be competitive in that position on the varsity squad. In a step that turned out to be crucial to his developing college football future – but was, at the time, a bitter disappointment – Coach Earl “Red” Blaik removed Pete from the quarterback line-up, and placed him with the substitute running backs on the practice unit.
While running back punts against the punt coverage squad, Pete broke through several times for long runs. As the coaches reviewed practice films, they were impressed by the potential in Pete’s running, and moved him up to the tailback ranks, focusing time and attention onto improving his skills.
As a sophomore, he earned a place on the traveling squad, and scored his first college touchdown in front of a home-state crowd at the University of Michigan stadium in Ann Arbor.
Convinced that his continued success depended on adding pounds and strength, Pete snuck a set of barbells into the barracks, hiding the plates beneath his mattress and strapping the bar to the bed frame. Each night after lights out, he would lift weights in the darkness, ultimately adding almost 40 pounds of muscle to handle the rigors of a Division 1 running back.
As a junior, Pete began to amass a reputable array of statistics, and emerged as Coach Blaik’s trusted, on-field leader. By the end of the season, he was elected Captain for the following year’s squad: the heralded 1958 Army team.
1958 was a Cinderella year for Army football. It would turn out to be not only the final season for Army’s venerable Coach, Red Blaik – whose legacy included coaching the historic “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis teams of 1944, 1945 and 1946 – but would also install the “Lonely End” offensive formation that was, arguably, the birth of the modern, pro-set game that remains popular today.
The season began with a stunning victory over a highly favored South Carolina team, 45-8, with Pete scoring four touchdowns. National attention grew as the team racked up a string of victories: Penn State (26-0), Notre Dame (14-2), Virginia (35-6), Rice (14-7), Villanova (26-0), Colgate (68-6), before ending with a decisive 22-6 win over archrival Navy in the final game of the season. The only flaw in an otherwise perfect season was a 14-14 tie in a rain-drenched skirmish against Pittsburgh.
The 1958 Army team – chock full of standouts like Bob Anderson, Bill Carpenter, Bill Rowe, Harry Walters and Bob Novogratz – finished as the 3rd ranked team in the nation with 8 wins, no losses and one tie, making it, to date, the last undefeated Army team in West Point’s vaunted football history.
In three years on Army’s varsity roster, Pete rushed for 1,123 yards, threw 16 passes (seven for touchdowns), caught 27 passes for 716 yards and scored a total of 158 points.
In his book, “You Have to Pay the Price”, Coach Blaik described the last game before Navy of that 1958 season:
“In our last pre-Navy test, the 26-0 victory over Villanova, Dawkins brewed more magic. The Wildcats were making a strong game of it into the second period. It was 0-0. Then Pete returned a punt 80 yards to a touchdown, a classic of swift, intelligent running behind violent open-field blocking. Soon after, he scored on a 46-yard pass from Caldwell, and on this one he faked and reversed Villanova’s deep defenders right out of their shoelaces. He set up the third touchdown on a 48-yard pass play to their six, and on the next play rammed through center for the score.”
Pete was not formally selected in the 1959 NFL draft due to his acceptance of a Rhodes Scholarship. Despite offers from the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in the hope that he would leave the Army early and play professionally, Pete’s football career ended in January 1959, at the North-South All-Star game, where he received the Most Valuable Player award.
Growing up in Michigan, Pete skated and played neighborhood pick-up hockey games during the winter. With Army’s hockey program growing in prominence during the late 1950s under Coach Jack Riley (who would go on to coach the USA’s 1960 Olympic hockey team), Pete was drawn to the ice rink at West Point.
In his sophomore year, Pete became a starting defenseman on Army’s varsity squad. Despite joining the team with the season already underway (due to hockey’s overlap with the football season), Pete’s solid defense and ability to score earned him the Eastern Coaches’ Association’s “Finest Sophomore in the East” recognition, and selection to the All East Hockey Team.
Pete’s senior year on the ice was equally successful. He was elected Assistant Captain, and once again earned All East Hockey team honors as well as “Highest Scoring Collegiate Defenseman in the East”.
While coaching the 1960 United States Olympic Ice Hockey Team, Jack Riley was asked about Pete’s prospects as a possible member of the Olympic team. Riley replied, “Ability-wise, he definitely has the potential to make the squad. Unfortunately, he must be disregarded in view of his Rhodes Scholarship, which will keep him in England for the next three years.”
Pete arrived at Brasenose College in Oxford having never seen a rugby match. Within a day, however, he was invited to try out for the College side.
Pete’s knack for the game led to an invitation to tryout for the Oxford University Greyhounds -- the University’s “second” side. After only two performances, Pete was elevated again, this time to the University side.
Playing on a squad that included a half dozen International players, against top competition, Pete’s aggressive style attracted attention. In an unprecedented move, the Oxford captain, Malcolm Phillips, selected Pete to play in the annual Oxford-Cambridge match at Twickenham that year, just three months after playing in his first rugby match.
This ascendancy to the upper reaches of the sport was accompanied by a fascination of the local press, referring to Pete as “the Yank at Oxford”.
In the fall of 1960, Pete traveled to Ireland as a member of a “touring” side comprised of players from Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Irish Wolfhounds – the Irish national side. This combined side then played against all-star teams from each of the counties of southern Ireland, as part of an initiative to popularize rugby in those areas.
While at Oxford, Pete also had the opportunity to play against two of the great rugby teams of the world: the Springboks of South Africa and New Zealand’s All Blacks.
However, Pete is best remembered in international rugby circles for introducing a rare - at the time shocking - innovation in the game. During that era, the “line-out” (where play is re-started after an out-of-bounds) was initiated by a selected player throwing the ball underhand, between two lines of opposing forwards. One side would gain control, and play would resume. Pete, in cahoots with his Oxford teammates, concocted a variation where Pete would throw the ball – not the customary 5 yards underhanded - but with an overhand pass, 30 or 40 yards directly to his backs in the middle of the field (in the same style as a forward pass in American football).
Having practiced the play for months in secret, it was unveiled during the 1960 Oxford-Cambridge match where it created a furor in the sporting press. They reveled at this unheard-of move, especially as it had been invented by an American, writing exuberantly about the “Yank’s Torpedo Pass!”
Pete’s innovation would leave a lasting imprint on the game. His overhand line-out pass from “touch” (the sidelines, in American terms) led to an evolution where – over 40 years later – wherever rugby is played around the world, the line-out is universally thrown as an overhand, “torpedo” pass.