The outpouring of love was easy to find, even during a time of dire sadness.
To many who knew former Tulane and NFL wide receiver JaJuan Dawson, that’s the type of legacy he leaves.
Dawson’s body was found in Lavon Lake in Collin County, Texas, at 11:35 p.m. Monday by the sheriff’s office after he fell off of a boat Sunday. Dawson was with his three children and two other family members at the time.
Reports say Dawson was not wearing a life vest and that alcohol was not a contributing factor in his disappearance.
It’s a tragic end for the 37-year old, who was universally appreciated by teammates, friends and coaches while starring at Tulane from 1995 through 1999 before playing three seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans.
“He had a smile that could absolutely light up the room and he was always smiling,” said Tommy Bowden, who coached Dawson for two seasons at Tulane. “My kids were younger then, and they absolutely loved him and still remember JaJuan Dawson because of that smile and personality. He was one of my wife’s favorites, and there was no doubt he is a guy who will always stand out to me.
“In 32 years of coaching, you work with a lot of people and he is one you just don’t forget. The memory of him just jumps out at you because they were always so pleasant.”
Dawson played a vital role in one of the most celebrated teams in program history, as a starting receiver on the 1998 squad that went 12-0 and won Liberty Bowl. He snagged 74 catches that season, accounting for 1,030 yards and 12 TDs.
It was the second of three times he would earn a spot on the All-Conference USA team.
“JaJuan was one of the best people that I’ve ever met,” said teammate Jimmy Ordeneaux, who played alongside of Dawson for three years at Tulane. “He was consistent. He was tough. Unless he was on crutches, you knew JaJuan would deliver.
“But he was also humble and kind. He inspired me to be a better version of myself and that has helped me in my professional years after football was over. When I think about the way that my life was influenced by my teammates during that historic run in 1998, he was always one of the first guys that came to mind.”
As affection poured following the pronouncement of Dawson’s death, the stories of his character outweighed that of his playing abilities.
Bowden called him one of the most reliable players he’s ever had, in both the locker room and practice field, saying he always led teammates with a positive attitude and was there to help anyone in a time of need.
“When you work on the administrative side, you really can’t play favorites, but I’m not sure there was a nicer young man that came through the Tulane football program in my time there,” said former Tulane sports information director Lenny Vangilder. “He never turned down a request and was always smiling. Even though I was only a few years older than him, he would call me ‘Mr. Lenny.’ ”
Dawson was elected to the Tulane Hall of Fame twice, first as an individual inductee in 2005 and then again with the entire 1998 squad in 2008.
His No. 20 jersey is still seen on the occasional fan at Green Wave football games and teammates say his legacy will carry on for years to come.
“I will always remember JaJuan as a guy who was smart, kind and generous,” Ordeneaux said. “His integrity was above reproach. I’ll put it this way, if my 6-year-old son grew up to be the man that JaJuan was, regardless of the athletic fanfare, I would rest at night knowing that my wife and I did a wonderful job raising our son and that our efforts pleased God.”