A few weeks before David Dawson was scheduled to participate in the Columbus Nike Football Training Camp, he and his father, David Sr., were sitting together in a car.
Dawson vividly remembers this moment. He remembers when his dad looked over at him and smiled and told his son how proud he was of him. He remembers the conversation his dad had with him about doing the right thing, doing what he feels is right and staying focused.
Dawson remembers this because it's the last memory he has of his father before David Sr. was killed. A Courtesy Patrol worker with the Michigan Department of Transportation, David Dawson Sr. was struck by a vehicle while assisting a motorist on a stretch of I-96 on April 11.
Dawson buried his father just a few days before he was scheduled to participate in the NFTC. Rated the No. 1 offensive guard in the country and the No. 89 recruit in the ESPN 150, Dawson was expected to be one of the headliners at the event.
Nobody would have blamed the Cass Tech (Detroit) junior and Michigan commit for skipping the camp. But Dawson went anyway, the pain from the funeral still fresh in his mind.
"It played a big role in Columbus," Dawson said. "That was all I was thinking about. I knew I had to get that Opening invite."
Not only did Dawson land the invite to The Opening, he also earned offensive lineman MVP honors, and he'll be one of the headliners for the Elite Lineman Challenge at the event in Beaverton, Ore., from July 5-8.
Dawson has his father in his mind as the event kicks off this week.
"I will just be thinking about the last time he told me he was really proud of me," Dawson says. "That's what really fires me up."
Dawson's year has been full of ups and downs. He grew up in Michigan and played his sophomore season at Cass Tech, but he transferred to Cypress Ridge (Houston) for one year when his mother took on a new job, playing his junior season in what is arguably one of the nation's biggest football hotbeds.
Dawson noted two significant differences between football in Michigan versus Texas.
"Well No. 1 is the heat," he said. "It was crazy hot all the time. But the other thing is the caliber of football players. There's a lot of good guys in Michigan, but there's a lot of no-name guys, too. But week in and week out [in Texas], you're going up against potential D-I prospects at any position on the field and especially on the line. That was a big change for me. It was so different."
Dawson held his own, and now he's back with Cass Tech, a team that won a Division 1 state title in his absence.
"He makes us better," said Cass Tech head coach Thomas Wilcher. "There's no question about that. David is an aggressive, hard-nosed guy. He's the type of offensive guy who should really be on the defensive line. That's the kind of temperament he has."
Dawson knows he missed out on the hardware. This season he wants to make up for it.
"We're ready," he said. "We're already counting down the days until we kick off the season."
In the meantime, Dawson is working on a little bit of everything. He's been working with position coaches and running, keeping up his strength with punishing workouts in the weight room.
He also knows the target that comes from being the No. 1 player at his position nationally.
"That's what I work for," he said. "I was expecting to be the No. 1 guy. You're not supposed to expect less. I wanted to be the No. 1 guy, and I was excited when the list came out. Then the second list was released and I was still No. 1. That was a good feeling."
He also made his college decision back in February, committing to Michigan. It was another decision that his father played a big role in. Dawson says his father gave him the freedom to make his decision on his own but encouraged him to do what was best for him.
"He let me do my thing," Dawson says. "He congratulated me when I got my offers, and he was proud of me when I made my decision."
Dawson is also part of a close-knit group of Wolverines recruits that call themselves "Team 134." Led by De La Salle (Warren, Mich.) quarterback Shane Morris, the nation's No. 32 recruit in the ESPN 150, the Michigan pledges are counting down the days until they are all suiting up at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
"I like how we all keep in touch now," Dawson said. "We're on Twitter, Facebook, the guys who have iPhones have started group messaging and texting a lot. It's great. The players they're bringing in have all started forming some tight relationships."
Dawson is also looking forward to forging some close relationships at The Opening in July. He says he's thought quite a bit about how to honor his dad while he's in Oregon, but he hasn't decided yet what he's going to do. But one thing's for sure -- he'll be ready to compete.
"I'm looking forward to the competition," he said. "I love competition. I'm No. 1 at my position, and I'm going to look for the No. 1 defensive tackle and I'm going to take him on."
Regardless what happens, Dawson knows one thing for sure. Somewhere, his dad will be especially proud.