Wisconsin Badger, Rose Bowl champion, football coach, husband, father, mentor, friend — and heart attack survivor. J.C. Dawkins has held many titles throughout his football career and life, but the one he least expected — heart attack survivor — is helping him find purpose and passion in a new pursuit off the football field.
You may remember Dawkins, a former Badgers wide receiver, as part of storied 1994 Rose Bowl championship team. Now Dawkins, 47, just a year post-heart attack and a few months into his new job, is bringing the passion he brought to his football career to a new challenge — improving the health of African American men in Dane County.
Dawkins was recently hired as outreach coordinator for the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, a men’s health and wellness center run out of a Madison barbershop by Aaron Perry, an Ironman competitor and athlete in his own right.
The health center provides health education, screenings and other programs targeting African American males. Both men are passionate about sports and health, and are keenly aware of the health disparities facing black men in their community, where, in Dane County, the life expectancy of a black man is just 52 years. Perry is currently using a grant from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Wisconsin Partnership Program to expand his efforts.
Dawkins is hoping he can connect with the men in his community, through the barbershop and other outreach activities – not only about football – but about the health risks they face. Says Dawkins, “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
At the time of his heart attack, Dawkins was in Washington D.C. on vacation with his wife and two sons. He was on medication for high blood pressure, a condition he took seriously, as his own mother suffered a heart attack when she was just 40 years old. But Dawkins thought he was successfully managing it through medication as well as diet and exercise.
Says Dawkins, “My heart attack woke me up to a lot of things. I was already active in the community through mentorship and coaching, but this experience sparked an interest in the work Aaron was doing at the barbershop.”
Dawkins was coaching the son of Jeff Patterson, owner of JP Hair Design, where the Men’s Health and Wellness Center is located. He asked Patterson to connect him with Perry. Dawkins reached out to Perry to offer to help in any way he could. That call ultimately led to a job offer.
With the heart attack behind him, and the job opportunity in front of him, Dawkins is optimistic about the difference he and Perry can make.
"In many ways, the barbershop is the mecca of the sports-talk world. It brings me back to the football world and I love talking with the clients," Dawkins says. "But my story also serves as a cautionary tale for these men and one we hope will inspire them to get the necessary health screenings they need to prevent or manage their health risks."
Perry explains how the barbershop and the relationships Dawkins is building will impact health. He says, "Many health challenges facing Black men are preventable or treatable but the men aren’t always quick to see a doctor — and they don’t always trust the healthcare community, or know where to go. J.C. is helping to build that trust and is sharing a message that really resonates."
Dawkins knows how lucky he is. "I coded on the table but I woke up." He adds, “Now I want to help other Black men improve and protect their health — and many of these men are fathers, too. We hope to have a generational impact."
Aaron Perry of the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association is using a $300,000 grant from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Wisconsin Partnership Program to develop the Black Men’s Wellness Sustainable Initiative, a four-year strategy that aims to reduce health disparities that adversely affect Black men and boys in Dane County. The initiative builds upon the success of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association’s Men’s Health and Education Center. The center, located inside JP Hair Design, Madison’s largest black barbershop, is an innovative model that strives to improve health and reduce barriers to health care for black men. The program provides health education, screenings and other health programs and events including a running club and yoga classes.