Andre Dawson embraces death in new life running funeral home: ‘It’s not for the weak’



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USA TODAY Sports sat down with the former MLB outfielder to discuss his current line of work.
USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – The call was urgent, and the emotions raw, when three businessmen pulled into the Little Havana neighborhood in the early afternoon, rang the doorbell, and solemnly walked into the home to get the dead body.

A man directed them to the bedroom where his father had just passed away. He looked up twice and stared intently through his glassy, reddened eyes, as his face contorted in an odd mixture of grief, confusion and thrill.

“The Hawk?’’ he blurted out.

“Yes,’’ Andre Dawson said, “that’s me.’’

The man couldn’t believe it. Andre Dawson, the Hall of Famer who was only the second player in baseball history to hit 400 homers and steal 300 bases, was about to carry out his dead father?

The man tells Dawson that he got a picture taken of him when he was 7 years old. He scurries to the back of his home, looks through his bookshelves, and finds the scrapbook. He proudly shows Dawson, who was wearing a Florida Marlins uniform, to let him know he wasn’t making it up.

“Well,’’ he said, “I guess this is what it took for me to finally get a chance to meet you.’’

Dawson, who for 21 years was one of the most dynamic players in baseball, winning one MVP in Chicago and finishing runner-up twice in Montreal, has gone from the ranks of the enshrined in Cooperstown to the ranks of the embalmers in a land where many go to die.

Dawson and his wife of 40 years, Vanessa, own and operate the Paradise Memorial Funeral Home in Richmond Heights, Fla.

“I always thought that Andre was a renaissance man,’’ Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said, “but this is taking it to a different level.

“You see Hall of Famers go into all kinds of businesses when they retire, but the funeral home business?’’

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Dawson is believed to be the second Hall of Famer to enter the business, joining Waite “Schoolboy’’ Hoyt, who was a funeral director and vaudeville performer on the side during a playing career that ended in 1938. He was called the “Merry Mortician.’’

Dawson, 63, who has owned the funeral home for 10 years, doesn’t have any catchy moniker, probably for the simple fact that everyone who learns his line of work in his post-baseball career, simply is too stunned to even talk.

“Rickey Henderson just looked at me,’’ Dawson says, “with his eyes wide open.

“Jim Rice said, “You do what? WHAT? And then all of the questions began to flow.

“Rice thinks it’s comical because he always thought I was grumpy and moody when I played.’’

Well, 14 knee surgeries, including two knee replacement surgeries that left Dawson wondering whether he’d even be able to walk again in 2006, has a way of putting a damper on life.

Yet, when you’re dealing with grief each day, with 130 funeral services last year at the Paradise Memorial Funeral Home – a quaint building with a 99-seat chapel, two offices, three reposing rooms and a holding room – it can change your perspective in a hurry.

“You never know where God is going to lead you,’’ Dawson says, “but wherever it leads you, you have to be prepared. When this first fell into my lap, I prayed on it. I thought, “How am I really going to pull this off without having the background, or knowing anything really about the industry?’ But I wanted to make this as good a facility as I possibly could, and I’m proud of it.

“It’s important to me because this is a product the community needs.’’

This isn’t some business to which a famous athlete merely attaches his name, hoping to attract customers. Why, 75% of the families that have used their services, Vanessa says, have no idea that South Florida’s famous Hall of Famer is even involved in the funeral home until they open the double doors on Carver Drive.

On a given day, you’ll see Dawson driving one of the five black hearses or limos, carrying a casket, consoling families to even mopping floors on nearly an everyday basis. He does everything but embalm the bodies in the holding room.

Funeral director Van Brown, business manager Curtis Taylor and staffer Anthony Truesell say they still can’t believe that a man who earned nearly $30 million in his playing career is scrubbing the toilet and washing out the sinks most days.

“I’m a perfectionist, I want to see everything done right, professionally,’’ Dawson says. “I could have called it the Andre Dawson Funeral Home, and not really been a part of it, but that’s not me. I want something this community can turn to. I want them to be proud.’’

Still, you can just imagine the surprise when a grieving family happens to look up, and there’s Dawson in a black suit, leading families to their seats. He’s never been asked for an autograph during a service, but afterward, he’s taken plenty of pictures, with folks never believing it would take a funeral to finally meet one of Miami’s favorite sons.

“People are so awestruck when they see him,’’ says Pastor Alphonso Jackson of the Second Baptist Church of Richmond Heights. “In this community, everybody knows who he is. We’ve had a lot of special athletes that have come out of here, but no one has had a single business in our community. Not one.

“His name is not on the marquee, but everybody in this community knows, trust me. Everyone has so much respect for him and Vanessa around here.’’

That connection no longer includes employment with the Marlins, who let him go in a controversial off-season shakeup following the sale of the franchise. Dawson, flipping to an all-sports radio station in his grey Bentley, says he better things to do now than worry about them. Besides, he’s been swamped with work. They had four telephone calls alone one night requesting funeral services. There are death certificates to be signed, bodies to be picked up, families to console, and loved ones to be buried.

“You have to be strong in this business. It’s not for the weak,’’ Dawson says. “The hardest thing is that you’ve experienced to some degree what they’re feeling, but you don’t know how they feel because everyone mourns and grieves differently.

“You’ve got to know when the appropriate time is to sit and listen, and when you have to interject and be a counselor. It’s an emotional time. It can divide families.’’

Dawson says he has little trouble keeping his emotions in check during services, but there are times it can be heartbreaking. He sees young kids who were killed on the streets in senseless murders, or involved in accidents. He nearly lost it a few years ago when a kid that he coached in Little League was killed in a motorcycle accident, with an explosion that dismembered his body.

“This kid was almost like family,’’ Dawson says, “and to see him in that condition, knowing how much work would be required to the body, that one really hurt.’’

And there was the sickening news the morning of Sept. 25, 2016, when Vanessa awoke Dawson, telling him that 24-year-old Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident, leaving Dawson dazed.

“I remember that night so vividly,’’ Dawson said. “He came into the (clubhouse) kitchen that night, and he was in a hurry. He got a little salsa. He didn’t even get a plate. He just got something real small, ate it, and was gone.

“A few nights later, I had (28-year-old son) Darius with me watching the Marlins, and his friend’s girlfriend told me, “Mr. Dawson, you know I was with Jose Fernandez that night. I took a picture with him and posted it on Facebook.’

“”The next morning, my Facebook was blowing up with everyone saying, “Sorry for you loss.’ I immediately took it down, because I didn’t want him remembered like that.’ ’’

Dawson flips through his cell phone, and finds the picture that he will save forever, perhaps the last one of Fernandez’s life. There is Fernandez smiling, as usual, but his eyes are bloodshot. The photo was taken at 2:24 in the morning.

He was dead a half-hour later, with two friends also killed in the boating accident. The toxicology report revealed that he was legally drunk with a blood alcohol content of 0.147, and he had cocaine in his system.

An investigation determined that Fernandez was driving the boat, and the families of the two men killed sued Fernandez’s estate, each seeking $2 million.

 “I said to the (Marlins) psychologist that as an organization,’’ Dawson said, “we failed this kid. They had a chance to nip a lot of things in the bud with him, but they didn’t want to mess with him because he was Jose Fernandez. They didn’t put the clamps on him. They let him do what he wanted to do. They were afraid of him.

“They didn’t want to say anything to upset him because they thought they could keep him when he became a free agent.

“Now, it’s too late.’’

Dawson puts his phone back in his lap, and keeps driving. Minutes pass before speaking. He hates death, especially those who should still have their lives ahead of them, but is now surrounded by it.

It would have been easier, of course, if he followed Hall of Famer Tom Seaver’s footsteps and become a wine-maker in Napa, except he doesn’t drink. Hall of Famer Zack Wheat became a police officer. Eddie Plank ran a car dealership and gave tours of the Gettysburg battlefield. Rube Marquard worked as a pari-mutuel clerk at the racetracks in four states.

But no, the funeral home was Dawson’s calling, a business that he plans to keep in the family, and for generations after he’s gone, already purchasing cemetery plots for him and Vanessa, right next to his mother.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and if someone had told me I’d be doing this when I played,’’ Dawson says, “I would have looked at them like they were crazy. Nobody would have believed it. It takes a minute to grow on you.

“People make look at me funny when I tell them what I do, but truly, I believe I’m right where I belong.’’

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