ORCHARD PARK, NY -- Dion Dawkins can't wait to get back to Buffalo. Even as he enjoys his offseason in Florida, the Buffalo Bills' left tackle has his mind on the city that gave him his first NFL home in 2017.
He knows how that sounds, but doesn't mind; people from Buffalo are built a little differently in terms of pride in their city, and after three years in western New York, Dawkins might as well be from Buffalo.
"The average person in the world would never understand," he laughed. "Because who wants to leave Florida and go back to the shnow [more on this below] tundra of Buffalo? Only a true Buffalonian understands why. ... But I miss my teammates and my coaches.
"And of course, you already shnow I miss the [Bills] Mafia."
Dawkins, 25, fits into the Buffalo community because he's built differently, as well. He stands out -- and not only because of his 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame. The Rahway, New Jersey, native has built a persona centered on his unique personality -- through a series of catchphrases ("shnow" wasn't a typo), merchandise, and even his own signature macaroni and cheese dish.
His magnetic demeanor has captured the attention of the teammates he can't wait to see again.
"He's so energetic, the way he talks to people. I envy that," Bills right guard Jon Feliciano laughed. "I don't have the energy for that, how does he do it? Kids love Dion ... everyone's kids I see on the team just run to Dion. He is so good at talking."
Dawkins, a second-round pick in 2017 after being a four-year starter for Temple, has another reason to look forward to returning to Buffalo; he likely has a large payday waiting for him for the value he brings on and off the field.
The New York Jets dominated the Bills for two-and-a-half quarters on Sept. 8 -- Week 1 of the 2019 season -- but despite a 16-0 deficit in the third quarter, Buffalo never felt as if it was out of the game. Seventeen unanswered points later, the Bills were 1-0.
In the excitement of describing how his team was able to finish the game strong after starting slow, Dawkins' first postgame media scrum included a quote-of-the-year candidate.
"If you think about it, it's like a train. You've got to oil that train up and then start that engine," he said. "If it's a diesel truck, you've got to start off slow and then that thing opens up, and you gone. That's exactly what happened. Just keep churning.
"If you're making mac and cheese, you stir that mac and cheese up, you stir that mac and cheese up -- and eventually, the mac and cheese is gonna be nice, wet and juicy, know what I'm saying?"
The analogy took off.
The next day, Kraft's official Twitter account posted a photo of a box of its macaroni and cheese with Dawkins' cooking "instructions" Photoshopped onto it. That Tuesday (Sept. 10), Mooney's Sports Bar & Grill in Buffalo introduced the "Shnow Mac" -- a signature dish named after Dawkins' catchphrase, "you already shnow."
His words were not predetermined; Dawkins just spoke from the heart.
"People have asked me multiple times about where I come up with this stuff -- it's just me," he said. "It just came out the way that it did and that was that."
Of course, Dawkins has capitalized on the spotlight, but he has done so selflessly, using it to help those in need.
Last October, he hosted the Shnow Gala, which raised money for Rooted in Love, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that provides food and clothing to locals in need. Among the donated items were boxes and boxes of macaroni and cheese.
"The biggest thing that people sometimes miss is that it's not, and never was, about me," Dawkins said. "I work hard for the Buffalo Bills, but I also work hard for my family ... and all the people I plan to help in the next chapter of my life, which is the Shnow Foundation.
"You've got to stand out to draw attention to the things I'll be involved with."
As the football world was introduced to the boisterous lineman, Dawkins' hometown of Rahway sat back proudly, like a fan whose favorite artist finally blew up after years of obscurity.
One of Dawkins' coaches at Rahway High School, Bill Picone, couldn't help but laugh in near-astonishment at his former pupil.
"Man, that is him; he has not changed," Picone said. "He's still Dion."
A 'pure act of kindness'
Rahway High School isn't particularly large, but then again, neither is the city itself. With roughly 1,000 students, the student body offers a diverse mix of people to hang out with, but it is large enough to fly under the radar there.
Dawkins chose the former.
"He hung with various groups of guys, and he still keeps his close buddies with him to this day," said Daniel Garay, one of Dawkins' high school coaches. "His personality was contagious, a jokester but definitely a people person. He was drawn to numerous people, but I also think they were drawn to him."
The teenager nicknamed "Big Country" for his size and blue-collar attitude was an expert at lightening the mood of whatever room he entered. He was the prankster, the kid who would hop on top of a bench in the weight room and burst out in song and dance.
He was also the kid who never missed a workout and would take the time to play with his coaches' children if they were around. The kid who brought his coaches a gift after graduating from high school.
When he returns to Rahway, Dawkins will visit his former coaches and his teachers. For one, in particular, his presence is a reminder of one of the most powerful moments of her life.
Patricia Volino-Reinoso is Rahway's vice principal, but she was Dawkins' seventh-grade homeroom and science teacher in 2007. A self-described "loud person," not unlike Dion, Volino-Reinoso said she made a habit of grabbing a snack-sized box of Froot Loops every time they were available in the school cafeteria.
Every time; it was more of a ritual than a habit.
"I'd make a big deal and say, 'Any day that starts with Froot Loops is a great day,'" she said.
During that 2007 school year, she gave birth prematurely; the baby did not survive. She had to have surgery and then took medical leave. She remembers the low points of being bedridden for weeks. Volino-Reinoso also remembers the day she and her husband had a visitor.
"It's a strong part of my memory," she said. "Laying in my bed in a dark room, very sad -- hearing the doorbell ring."
Her husband answered the door before walking upstairs and entering that dark bedroom to give her what had just been hand-delivered to their front door: a box of Froot Loops.
The then-12-year-old Dawkins had walked in the opposite direction of school to drop it off, unannounced.
"Tell her it's from Dion," he said at the door, "and that he was thinking of you."
Dawkins' small gesture made that dark room brighter.
"It was a very low point for me and my husband," she said. "It was just one of those acts of kindness that always sticks with you. It's just a beautiful, beautiful thing for a little kid to do.
"I don't know if the kids in class understood the full capacity of what was going on. But he knew enough."
Seven years after that box of Froot Loops, Volino-Reinoso and Garay started a program called Rahway's Own, which selects four or five Rahway natives to showcase each year. Dawkins was nominated in 2018, and he was immortalized with a photo on a sprawling poster inside the school.
"It's not because he made it to the NFL," Picone said. "It's because of how he did it and what he continues to do."
When he can, Dawkins makes frequent trips to Rahway High. He speaks to students, never turns down a selfie or an autograph, and if you didn't know better, you would think he were still enrolled.
"That's been him since day one," Picone said. "Dion was the type of kid, when he was here, not only did you know who he was but he knew who you were. And he made it a point to know who you were.
"He sits and eats in the cafeteria like he's 16 years old with the kids. It's really good to see. ... He's what you expect; it's what these kids get to look up to. If you had to choose somebody for them to look up to right now, they have a good role model in Dion."
Volino-Reinoso said she and Dawkins keep in touch; she even calls whenever she has a student who needs an extra push from someone who has been in his shoes.
Not every Rahway alumnus picks up the phone, but the 12-year-old boy who went out of his way on a January morning to give his teacher a box of cereal always does.
"I have three specific moments in my life where I think I have experienced that pure act of kindness, when the other person is only thinking of you," Volino-Reinoso said. "And that's one of those times, because he didn't bring his boys, he didn't bring other kids. It wasn't a joke. ... It always struck me."
Dawkins' first NFL contract doesn't come with the same fifth-year option that first-round picks get. He is entering the final year of that contract in 2020, and he's a candidate to sign an extension with the Bills before the season begins.
It would be one of the first major extensions for Buffalo under general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott, who publicly insist that the team wants to take care of its own.
"Generally speaking, you want to obviously reward the people that you hit on from a draft standpoint," said ESPN's Mike Tannenbaum, a former New York Jets general manager. "Especially when it's at a premium position like tackle. So from that standpoint, Dion checks a lot of those boxes. I always feel like you want to reward people in your own locker room -- spend there first."
Dawkins won't be cheap to keep around. Arizona Cardinals tackle D.J. Humphries signed a contract worth an average of $15 million per season last month. Tannenbaum believes Dawkins' extension could reach that ballpark.
Dawkins said the thought of an extension "always lingers," but he's not as focused on it as he is improving himself.
"My main priority is to get better, and I know if I continue to grow and learn and get better, then all of the chips will eventually fall," he said. "As far as a new contract, I'm not worried about it. Whatever is supposed to happen is going to happen.
"I'm trying to be in Buffalo forever, so I've just got to do my part, and when the time comes, I'll be happy to sign on that dotted line."
A starter since his rookie season, Dawkins was named a team captain in 2019. In a way, it coincides with the example he wants to set for the kids he speaks to over the phone who are sitting in Volino-Reinoso's office.
After taking a step back in his second season, his captaincy in 2019 represented his self-realization last offseason.
"At some point, it really all just clicked. I gained a deeper understanding of the game of football, the role I had to play and the way I had to play it," Dawkins said. "So many people look up to football players, and for the people who look up to me, I want to give them the best example of a full athlete that I can possibly give.
"It's OK to be the glue and the bridge to make people smile and to keep the energy during the down days as much as the good days."
Dawkins' personality might play a big factor in his next payday. Tannenbaum says teams pay attention to players who can be "problem solvers" in the locker room and will be the same whether the team is 3-0 or 0-3.
There's a reason Dawkins was part of McDermott's inaugural draft class, one that was meant to reset the culture in Buffalo. If he, indeed, plays the rest of his career in Buffalo, the community -- including the Bills Mafia -- will be better for it.
"They're going to get a staple in that community, a guy who is gonna want to be around for a long time, a guy who is constantly gonna want to give back," Garay said.
"A full team player, a leader ... he's really turning into a student of the game. There's a reason he was named a captain last year."