Every time Dawson Deaton walks to his locker at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus, a small painting on the top shelf reminds him why he's playing in the NFL.
The small painting was created by his 2-year-old daughter, Parker, and reads "I love you Daddy." The "a" in "Daddy" is formed from a small brown handprint from Parker, and the rest of the letters in the word are orange to match the Browns' colors.
Deaton, a rookie center who was drafted by the Browns in the seventh round in April, became her father when he was 20 and a sophomore at Texas Tech. She created the painting their last weekend together in May before Deaton reported to the Browns' offseason program in Cleveland, and it gives him a pump of motivation before he puts his jersey on and takes the field each day.
"Having something here at the facility to remember her by is something that's really cool to me," Deaton said. "She's far away, all the way in Texas, and I'm up here, so it's just something to keep with me while I'm away."
The birth of Parker changed Deaton's life. Football had always been important to him, but becoming a father gave him a new appreciation for what the sport could mean for him — it was a way to provide Parker all the resources she would need to be a happy, healthy child. Parker drove Deaton to finish his marketing degree and become one of the top centers in the Big 12 at Texas Tech, where he was a Second Team All-Big 12 selection and team captain his last two years when Parker was a part of his life.
"My whole perspective on life changed," Deaton said. "I've always been super dedicated and motivated, but once I knew that I had Parker's future to provide and support, that's when it really set in. It really made me grow up a lot and mature a lot."
It also made Deaton want to spend as much time with her as he could. Whenever he wasn't indulging in football, Deaton was watching her laugh and run aimlessly around the living room, reading a book with her, watching a movie or taking her to the aquarium or petting zoo, her two favorite destinations.
She's also already a football fan. Deaton will never forget the memories at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock when he'd look into the crowd, spot Parker and give her a wave as she smiled back. Whenever Deaton put football on the TV, an energized Parker shot up, pointed at the TV and shouted "Dada! Dada!"
"I think it's so cool that, even from a young age, she's able to associate football with me," Deaton said. "I'm glad that as she keeps growing up and understands things better, she'll be able to have that."
Parker has also taught Deaton the virtue of patience. It's a requirement to become a good father, but the importance of the trait has also applied to other aspects of Deaton's life.
One of the biggest examples was when he was drafted. Deaton waited until the end of Day 3 to hear his name called, but there was no fear or panic from Deaton as he waited — he was with Parker and the rest of his family, and he was comforted knowing he'd have all the motivation necessary to make the most of wherever his first NFL opportunity would be.
The motivation came from Parker, who was the first family member Deaton hugged after the call from the Browns arrived at pick No. 246.
"It was just awesome to be there in that moment with Parker, knowing all the hard work, dedication and sacrifices I had to make," he said. "Knowing that I was able to get the opportunity I was looking for by staying in college football and playing in school and having to be away from her, just seeing that pay off and celebrating that moment with her was awesome."
Deaton has been mostly limited to FaceTime calls with Parker while he's been in Cleveland preparing for his first NFL season. He's looking forward to the six-week break players will receive between the end of mandatory minicamp and training camp, and he plans to spend some of that time on a vacation with Parker in Florida — her first trip to the beach.
"We're going to make a bunch of memories," he said.
And when Deaton returns to Cleveland, one of the first things he'll see is the painting of the handprint of Parker, reminding him of what he's working for each day.
"I'm always making sure she's the main priority in my life," Deaton said. "It's Parker, and then football. That's really what it is. She's my little baby and she means everything to me, and I'm going to do everything I can to take care of her."